Belfast Telegraph

Euro 2016: Northern Ireland fans pay respects to tragic Darren Rodgers in Nice

By Adrian Rutherford

Two football jerseys, one green and the other white, have been left along the promenade that hugs the quaint seafront in Nice.

They are the treasured shirts that Darren Rodgers brought with him when he arrived here last week.

Friends say the 24-year-old was fulfilling a lifetime's ambition by travelling to France to see Northern Ireland at Euro 2016.

The trip of his dreams ended in desperate tragedy when he fell to his death, hours after watching his country play Poland.

The young man was on his own at the time and died in hospital overnight.

Stewart McDonald, from Ahoghill just outside Ballymena, spent several hours with him ahead of Sunday's game.

He said: "I have spoken with Darren's uncle this morning and they are just devastated. They cannot believe Darren won't be coming home."

Darren was a former pupil of Cambridge House Grammar School in Ballymena and played for Braid United Football Club. Paying tribute they called him a man who "would have done anything for you".

His family, including parents Paul and Jackie, are expected to travel out to France today.

It is understood Darren contacted friends on Sunday night to say he was making his way back to the campsite where they are staying. His friends woke yesterday morning to discover he was not there.

Hundreds of tributes have flooded his Facebook page with many calling him a "gentleman".

One said: "Such a down to earth guy and would never walk pass without a chat. Terrible news to wake up to.

"All you wanted was to go to France and support your country like everyone else, rest easy".

It has been reported he fell from the promenade onto a rocky beach at Castle Plage on the Promenade des Anglais.

Republic of Ireland fans held a 24th minute applause during yesterday's game against Sweden. Thousands of fans got to their feet and clapped in a show of solidarity for the Co Antrim man.

Paul Frew, A DUP MLA, who is in Nice with his son, Jake (18), said he was speaking to Darren only hours before his death.

"We met Darren near the fan zone in the Old Town and had a chat with him and he was in good form and was with all the other Northern Ireland fans.

"There was a good crowd with him. My son is in shock, none of us can believe it."

Yesterday the spot where the accident happened was covered with flowers, flags and scarves.

Darren's beloved home and away Northern Ireland jerseys were also placed there.

"His friends left them earlier - it is so very sad," explained Ian Thompson, who travelled with him on the bus to the game on Sunday.

On one of the shirts was written: "RIP Dar Dar, you will be sadly missed".

Throughout the day fans made the short walk from the centre of town to pay their respects.

They included a Polish fan who had been at the match on Sunday.

Kneeling to read the messages and glance at the flowers, he said: "I am so very sad."

Patriotism runs deep among the fans who have travelled to France for the Euros. Occasions like this remind everyone that they are part of a family, a band of brothers who stick by each other in times of need.

One tribute summed it up: "One of our own, RIP. GAWA family".

Most who came to express their sorrow didn't know Darren, but felt as though they did.

Paul Roulston, who lives outside Dromore, said: "Everybody on these trips away looks after each other. So to hear of a guy being left on his own, dying out here, is so sad.

"We've done a lot of these trips together. It is a big family and it is just like losing someone close."

Mark MacAuley from Newtownabbey said the celebratory mood among supporters had been silenced since news of the tragedy broke.

"Fans came out here to have a good time and it's heartbreaking to hear that someone has lost their life," he said.

"I didn't know Darren but we're all here together. We all came out here to wear the green shirt and we're all so sad."

Supporters from other countries also came to offer sympathy and solidarity.

Frenchman Philip Bensimon arrived wearing his France football jersey. He said: "This could happen to anybody, so it's not about him being Northern Irish or French or whatever."

Also there was Jamie Desuiza, an Englishman living in Nice. He said the Northern Ireland supporters were a credit to their country. "It was all smiles and fun and as an Englishman it shows how you should be as a fan. So to hear that this guy has passed away makes me so sad."

The tragedy gave stark perspective to Northern Ireland's disappointing result against Poland the previous evening.

Players took to Twitter to offer condolences to Darren's family.

Team captain Steven Davis posted: "So sad to wake up to the tragic news that a Northern Ireland fan has died in Nice, thoughts with his family and friends".

Gareth McAuley wrote: "You think things are bad then learn one of your own loses his life last night. Thoughts with family and friends".

Colin Bell from the Kevin Bell Repatriation Trust said they were ready and willing to help the family if they contact them.

The Foreign and Commonwealth office is liaising with his family.

A spokeswoman said: "We are supporting the family of a British man who has died in Nice, France. Our thoughts are with them at this difficult time. We are in close contact with local authorities in Nice to find out further details of his death."

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