Belfast Telegraph

Euro 2016: They're from Northern Ireland, living in London and, as their hit football anthem declares, on their way to Paris - the amazing story of our most diehard fans

Our national team now has an astonishing 57 affiliated supporters' clubs throughout the world

By Ivan Little

In a corner of Covent Garden that is forever Norn Iron, the unofficial headquarters of the Green and White Army's London battalion is preparing itself for Euro euphoria. Scores of expat Paddys who can't make it to France will be gathering at the Ulster-owned Philomena's sports bar to watch their green-shirted heroes on TV and sing themselves hoarse with Northern Ireland's new repertoire of songs - including an anthem they've recorded themselves.

And the healthy sales of their version of the old Smokie hit Living Next Door to Alice have shown the London Northern Ireland Supporters Club that it's not only Will Grigg who's on fire and demonstrated that their team have like-minded fans all over of globe.

The man behind the record, Richard Cathcart, says: "I've been surprised at where we have sent copies of Making Our Way to Paris. We've had orders from Australia, America, France, New Zealand, Canada and from Scotland and from across England.

"Of course, we knew the fan base was well spread out, but not on the scale that we have discovered in recent times."

The Irish Football Association's communications manager, Neil Brittain, confirmed that the international team's network of fans is now truly global. "We know that supporters are going to France from right across the world and their loyalty and dedication is fantastic."

Northern Ireland have supporters clubs in Melbourne, Sydney, Toronto, America, the Far East and Hong Kong, with dozens more nearer home.

Gary McAllister, the chairman of the Amalgamation of Northern Ireland Supporters Clubs, says their organisation now have an astonishing 57 clubs affiliated to them. The one-way traffic of Northern Irish men and women leaving the province in the wake of the Troubles is one explanation for why such large numbers of people from such a small province are to be found in so many different places worldwide.

But the worldwide web has also made it easier for fans to keep in touch with what's happening with the team thousands of miles away from home.

In the old days before the internet came along, supporters living abroad had to follow Northern Ireland at arm's length - often through newspapers sent to them by relatives back home.

But now social media has meant the "foreign" legions can keep abreast of Northern Ireland news in an instant.

And Twitter and Facebook have also allowed supporters clubs to flourish in places where Northern Ireland exiles might not otherwise have been aware of each other's existence.

"Social media has certainly been a godsend for us in London," says Richard Cathcart, who is originally from Florencecourt in Co Fermanagh.

The internet has ensured that the club's membership has developed into an eclectic mix of Ulster people living in the capital and in the south-east of England.

The club's CD has been a DIY effort, which has been made possible by utilising the individual talents of their members and calling in favours from friends.

Richard, a Spurs fan who used to play junior football for Lisnarick and Enniskillen Rangers, was the man who wrote the lyrics for the Euros song. The idea came to 57-year-old Richard - unsurprisingly - in a pub during an away trip with Northern Ireland in Bucharest.

"I tend to do my best work in bars," laughs Richard. "But, in October 2014, a group of us were having a drink before our game against Hungary, and Living Next Door to Alice came on over the sound system.

"Everyone joined in, but when they came to the chorus, I sang new words: 'In 2016, we'll be making our way to Paris'.

"It was a bit of a joke and I think that the only people who could even hear what I was singing were right beside me.

"I didn't think anything more about it until we fast-forwarded a year to the win over Greece in Belfast to ensure our qualification for the Euros in France."

The final whistle had barely been blown before the talk at Windsor Park turned to flights, tickets and hotels, and someone in Richard's company said that a Northern Ireland song was needed.

He adds: "I put together a rough draft of the lyrics and then tried to figure out if we could bring out a record."

That's when the London NISC started to tap into the strengths of their members and pals in the know.

The first man who was approached was a friend of Richard Cathcart - a professional musician called Steve Wegrzynski, who is one half of a recording duo called Jinski.

"I asked him how I would go about making a record and he told me it wasn't as difficult as people thought."

The next move was for Steve to lay down the vocals and music for the song in a studio in Newcastle-on-Tyne owned by Dave Maughan.

Around 30 members of the London club then gathered in a studio in London to add the rousing backing vocals and the cheering before the CD was pressed by a company in Newtownabbey.

Richard's hope at the outset was that the record would sell in sufficient quantities for him to break even on the money that he had spent to produce the CD.

But the reaction was so positive that the fans decided to nominate a charity to benefit not so much from any profits, but more from the profile and publicity that the record was attracting.

They contacted the Northern Ireland Cancer Fund for Children and were delighted with the offer of support, and last month the Northern Ireland football team themselves designated the NICFC - which Rory McIlroy has also helped - as their chosen charity.

Chief executive Gillian Greevy says: "The Northern Ireland team have shown that, with self-belief and passion, you can achieve so much and we hope to pass that positivity on to our families through therapeutic and emotional support at a time when they most need it."

The London NISC have included a donation link to the charity on their website, Beezer Records, but it won't be clear until after the Euros just how well the NICFC have benefited from the footballing tie-up.

While sales have exceeded everyone's expectations, post-production issues came as a surprise to the supporters club.

"We had to sort out a website, a video, publicity, pay the copyright, organise marketing and set up distribution and find out about all the things that went from me having a load of CDs to letting people know about it and getting it into their hands," says Richard. "All of it was new to me."

But Richard quickly got more than just a little help from his friends inside the London NISC.

One member - Chris Hanvey, from Portadown - runs, which produces award-winning films for the music and fashion industries and he was able to shoot a slick video for Making Our Way to Paris.

The snazzy cover for the CD was produced by another two members - Nathan Thompson and Ian Angel, who are graphic designers.

But the picture on the sleeve - of Steven Davis celebrating one of his crucial goals in the Greece game with Josh Magennis - had to be purchased from the photographic agency which took it.

"I wanted that photograph, because it was so iconic, but the negotiations to acquire it were another complication I hadn't anticipated," says Richard, who didn't have to look too far to find a solution to his marketing problems.

That's because the chairman of the London NISC is Coleraine man Neal Anderson, whose day job is as a PR man in London.

"He was tremendous in preparing the Press releases and getting contacts on all the different media and newspapers," adds Richard.

The icing on the PR cake came last month when the London fans sang their song in front of millions of TV viewers on The One Show.

Mind you, competition for sales is stiff.

It's reckoned that there are currently six Northern Ireland football songs on the market, including the DJ Kenno version of the fans' favourite ditty, Will Grigg's On Fire, which has reached the iTunes download top 10.

It's not, of course, the first time that Northern Ireland's exploits have seen players and fans bursting into song.

Belfast Telegraph