Belfast Telegraph

Sports Awards

How our passionate football fans are displaying true spirit of Euros and setting standard for other supporters to follow

By Henry McDonald

When we crossed the Pont Bonaparte, the bridge that connects two banks of the river Rhone in Lyon the morning after the triumphant night before, there was a sight this writer thought he would never see at a Northern Ireland away match.

As Paul Burgess of Ruefrex fame (one of the greatest Punk bands to emerge anywhere on these islands in the 70s) and I made our way towards the Place de Cathedral for lunch, two supporters, one wearing a Celtic shirt, the other a Rangers top, dodged the traffic and made off in the direction of the fanzone near Bellecourt Metro station.

Burgess, a life-long Rangers fan, shook his head and cracked a wry smile as we passed them by. Only at this tournament, he remarked, could this happen, such is the tone set by Northern Irish and Republic fans here in France.

There have been two hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck-raising moments at the European Championships this week, and they were special Irish tributes to the young man who lost his life in Nice last weekend.

On the stroke of 24 minutes both at the Stade de France on Monday night and then on Thursday evening at the Lyon ground, Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland supporters burst into applause that thundered around the stadia in honour of Darren Rodgers, who lost his life in an accident on the Nice seafront.

The clapping was accompanied by bursts of "Stand up for the Ulsterman", sang not only by the Northern Ireland faithful in the Ukraine game, but also by the Republic supporters in their match against Sweden.

It was one of those times when your faith in humanity, in an otherwise darkening, ever-reactionary world, returns temporarily and gives you some hope.

The two acts of one-minute remembrance for Darren Rodgers and his grieving family reminded me of the solidarity Evertonians demonstrated with their rivals Liverpool shortly after the Hillsborough disaster and which has remained in place right up to the recent inquest verdicts.

The applause on 24 minutes for Darren and his family provoked memories of the 9 and the 6, the numbers on Everton and Liverpool shirts worn by two children in a moving tribute on the Goodison Park pitch a few years ago.

Overall at this tournament, the behaviour of both sets of Irish fans in the grounds, on the streets, on the trains, buses and trains has been superb. Republic supporters actually cleaned up a Parisian street they had messed up during overnight festivities following the Sweden match. I saw Northern Ireland fans embracing deeply disheartened Ukrainians on Thursday night, buying them beer and taking selfies with them outside the stadium and later in central Lyon. I heard few taunts or goading. The Northern Irish were generally magnanimous in their victory.

Although there will always be mean spirits out there whose job it is to sow discord and division between followers of the two sides, this tournament has, so far at least, created an atmosphere of mutual respect between the two sets of supporters.

I even came across a couple of Dubliners on the way down from Paris on the train who were coming to Lyon to cheer on Northern Ireland during their own team's rest time before tonight's make or break match against Belgium.

Of course, the vast majority of Northern nationalists will still follow the Republic, although I feel only a tiny minority are now truculently hostile to what their Southern counterparts affectionately call "the Nordie team".

I support Northern Ireland but will be cheering on Martin O'Neill's men tonight in Bordeaux. I hope the rest of the Northern Ireland support base do the same. That would reflect the true spirit of Euro 2016 for two teams in green and their fantastic supporters.

Meantime, ahead of the German game next week, please do what Noel Coward once urged us all. In keeping with the Irish character shining through in his tournament - please don't be beastly to the Germans.

Belfast Telegraph