Belfast Telegraph

Villagers so happy Northern Ireland squad are in Saint Georges de Reneins

By Adrian Rutherford

The banner on the road sweeping into Saint Georges de Reneins is the first sign that something is stirring in this sleepy village.

Further along the main street, flags appear on several shop windows. But they aren't the red, white and blue you might expect from patriotic locals on the eve of a major football tournament.

Indeed, the single French tricolour fluttering in the gentle breeze seems strangely out of place. Instead, the villagers have adopted Northern Ireland as their team for the Euros.

The squad is training here, and the people have got fully behind Michael O'Neill and his players.

Sylvie Epinat is the local mayor and a football fan. Her niece is married to Adil Rami, a defender who is part of the France squad for Euro 2016.

Clutching a Northern Ireland flag, she told the Belfast Telegraph: "I am very pleased to welcome the team here to Saint Georges de Reneins. It is an honour for our commune to have the team here."

Ms Epinat was among the 250 spectators who gathered at the Parc Montchervet complex yesterday to watch the squad's 90-minute training session. Green and white flags were waved as the players emerged into the balmy morning sun.

Northern Ireland are a big draw these days. Their presence in Saint Georges, a village of around 4,000 people, 40 minutes north of Lyon, is big news.

A large banner on the approach roundabout - "Bienvenue Irlande du Nord" - provides an eye-catching welcome.

Strolling along the main street, Northern Ireland flags are painted on the windows.

There are many messages wishing O'Neill and his squad luck. Despite being a fiercely proud French citizen, and her family's ties to the national team, the mayor will be cheering on Northern Ireland. "Yes, I will support Northern Ireland and also the French team," Ms Epinat said.

"I hope it will be possible to have both teams in the final stages of the competition.

"I have been very impressed by the footballers. They are very quick, and I think they will go far. To have this international team is a very important thing for our little village."

Ms Epinat was introduced to O'Neill and some of the Irish FA's backroom staff at yesterday's training.

Last night, she hosted a reception for the squad at the Michelin-star Castle Cafe at Chateau de Bagnols.

As temperatures touched 26C at training, the players were put through sprinting and passing exercises. Afterwards, they signed autographs, posed for photographs and presented training balls to the children.

The spectators included Julie Briessens, who lives in Saint Georges. "I live here in the village and my son plays football, and he wanted to see real football players for the first time," she explained. "It is exciting. We have never had such a team here with professional players. We are not used to such events here."

For all the excitement, however, Julie said: "I will be supporting France, but perhaps when Northern Ireland play against other teams I will support them. But against France? No way!"

Sylvain Michel works in the village and helped organise the training complex ahead of Northern Ireland's arrival.

"The group seems to be very difficult, but I'm sure that all the residents will follow the team and support Northern Ireland," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

"It becomes more interesting when you see the team and the players."

Jerome Blanche said it was a great honour for Saint Georges to host the team: "For sure I will follow Northern Ireland during the tournament. I will try to watch their games, but of course we are French and we will support France first."

The welcome has left a big impression on Northern Ireland's players. Midfielder Conor McLaughlin said: "Even driving through the town with all the Northern Ireland flags in the windows, it gives you a feel for the country and how excited they are for the tournament."

Striker Conor Washington added: "It has been absolutely brilliant - the facilities, the hotel and the training ground.

"It's nice to get the local community down and for them to show their support and for us to show our appreciation afterwards."

The Northern Ireland squad fly to Nice on Saturday ahead of their opening game against Poland the following evening.

Belfast Telegraph