Belfast Telegraph

Euro 2016: Relaxed mood in Northern Ireland camp belies determination to do Green and White Army proud

Family pictures in hotel rooms and footage of road to Euros help NI players to settle in Lyon

By Adrian Rutherford in Lyon

It's late morning in the sleepy commune of Saint Georges de Reneins in the French countryside and the temperature is already pushing the mid-20s.

On a training pitch inside the Parc Montchervet complex, about a dozen players are doing some passing exercises.

The atmosphere is relaxed and good-natured. One misplaced ball draws some gentle teasing.

But there is also a growing focus around the Northern Ireland squad. The opening game against Poland is now days away and the team means business.

Arriving in France on Sunday, manager Michael O'Neill pledged his side would leave their mark on the tournament.

Yesterday, on their first full day here, the squad was quickly down to work. Some of the players went through exercises on the pitch which involved sprints and heading and passing moves.

They included Stuart Dallas, back with the squad after getting married on Friday.

O'Neill watched from the sideline, arms folded, his eyes tracking each move. Half a dozen others looked on from the first floor of the adjoining building where they were doing bike work.

Coping with the heat is going to be an issue - yesterday was a balmy 24 degrees, and it's predicted to hit 27C today - as is trying to escape the growing hype. Journalists from Poland, Germany and beyond have joined the media circus around the Northern Ireland team in recent days.

Saint Georges de Reneins is in the district of Villefranche-sur-Saone, around 40 minutes north of Lyon. With a population of less than 4,000, it has seldom known this level of attention.

Locals seem bemused by all the fuss, but Sylvie Epinat, the town's mayor, will host a reception for the team tonight.

At Parc Montchervet, the training complex and adjoining media centre have been transformed to make everyone feel at home. A Northern Ireland flag flies at the entrance, alongside the French Tricolour and the flag of the local town.

Inside, the walls are covered by images of Northern Ireland footballers past and present. A photograph of the great George Best in action is positioned close to one of captain Steven Davis.

Elsewhere, there are images of Northern Ireland landmarks including the Giant's Causeway.

The team's journey to France features prominently, with photos dotted around the complex and a compilation of clips playing constantly on a TV screen.

Like everywhere else across France approaching the Euros, security is tight. French police are stationed at each entrance.

The players are staying about 15 minutes away at the four-star Chateau de Pizay, which is shut off to the public. It too has taken on a Northern Ireland theme. An interactive display has been installed to relay good luck messages from the fans.

Yesterday, two of the squad revealed how the Irish Football Association surprised the players by including family photographs in their rooms.

Midfielder Oliver Norwood explained: "The IFA have put pictures of our wives and kids in our rooms, just little touches that make the place feel more homely and help us settle. The IFA have done everything they can to make it feel homely.

"We are not going to see our families for a long time. We are not used to that, so it is nice to have their pictures around the place."

Chris Baird, who is preparing for three of the biggest games of his life at the age of 34, was also touched by the IFA's gesture.

"I've got my wife and two kids in a bedside picture," he said. "Seeing the family side of things was really nice because I haven't seen them in a long time. It just makes it seem a bit more homely.."

The journey here has been a long one - in every respect. When Northern Ireland kick off against the Poles, it will be 30 years to the day they played their last game at a major tournament. That was against Brazil on June 12 at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.

Clearly not wanting to waste any more time, they were the second of the 23 visiting nations to arrive in France. England joined them yesterday, while Portugal will be last to arrive. They are not due until Thursday.

After Sunday's game in Nice, Northern Ireland face Ukraine in Lyon on June 16. They finish the group stage against Germany in Paris five days later. O'Neill's side head into the tournament with the longest unbeaten record of all 24 competing nations. Their draw in Slovakia means it stands at 12 games, yet some have been quick to write them off.

Yesterday England striker turned TV pundit Michael Owen irked the Green and White Army after predicting that Northern Ireland would finish bottom of their group.

But back in France, Norwood had a clear message for anyone about to write off the team's chances. He reckons Northern Ireland can shock Europe in the coming days. "We have to try to qualify from the group - simple," he said.

"We're not just here to take part and enjoy this. We're professional athletes just as much as the other teams.

"If people underestimate us, then feel free to do that because they'll get the shock of their lives.

"We're 12 games unbeaten so we've proven that we can compete at international level. We're ready for Sunday."

Belfast Telegraph