Belfast Telegraph

Euro 2016: Loyal son Lee Harkness flying flag in France to keep promise made to late dad

As French locals catch a glimpse of Northern Ireland's aces, one member of the Green and White Army reveals a touching tribute to his 'hero' father

By Adrian Rutherford

A Northern Ireland fan is embarking on an emotional journey to Euro 2016 to honour a pledge he made to his tragic father.

Two years ago, Lee Harkness told his dad Charlie they would travel to France together if the team qualified.

Unfortunately, Charlie passed away before the pair - both lifelong supporters - could realise their dream of seeing Northern Ireland at a major tournament.

But Lee is still determined to make good their vow.

He is heading to the tournament and bringing with him a giant flag with a photograph of his late father and the words "Charlie Harkness, here in spirit".

"The flag is my tribute to my father, my hero, and a lifelong Northern Ireland fan, and to keep a promise that I made to him to take him to France," Lee told the Belfast Telegraph.

The Northern Ireland fan, who now lives in London and has been a supporter of the side for almost 30 years, recalled being taken to his first match when he had just turned six.

"The first game my dad took me to was Northern Ireland versus Malta, a week after my sixth birthday back in 1988," Lee said. "We won 3-0 and I can remember Jimmy Quinn scoring a volley from 25 yards.

"I was mesmerised by the noise and the colour, but I remember being terrified of Windsor Park."

That day, Charlie bought his son a scarf that he still has and continues to wear to Northern Ireland matches.

Lee was born on the Shankill Road in Belfast and lived there until he was six. He said growing up in the area during the Troubles was difficult and the main reason why his family decided to relocate to London.

"There was a lack of work, so my father was considering moving to for some time," Lee explained.

"I used to attend Boys' Brigade in a church hall at the bottom of Lanark Way. One night when the gates to the peaceline were opened, the IRA launched a rocket at a police parade. It missed and instead exploded in the church hall. Although no one was seriously hurt, it was the catalyst for our move to London."

While the family relocated to the city, they remained devoted Northern Ireland fans, even though they struggled to attend the side's games.

"My dad and I would watch all the Northern Ireland games together and always vowed to go and watch them on one of our regular visits home," Lee said. "Unfortunately, it never materialised for one reason or another."

However, the favourable qualifying draw for Euro 2016 led to the pair promising to make the journey to France if their beloved side qualified.

"When my dad saw the draw, he told me that we'd qualify as Greece were on their way out and the rest were rubbish," Lee explained.

"Sadly, he was diagnosed with lung cancer and died less than five weeks later, a week after his 74th birthday.

"When my dad died, I ended up going to the home games with my nephew, my dad's grandson, and it is he and I who are travelling together to France to watch Northern Ireland."

Lee told how he was inspired to make the flag he plans to take along to the tournament.

"Having seen so many great flags designed, I wanted one to remind me of the man that got me into football," he said.

"Dad got me into supporting Northern Ireland at a time when I was a boy living in England since the age of six who was surrounded by English friends and England supporters.

"It was my dad who made me keep my identity and stay loyal to our wee country."

Belfast Telegraph