Delight at Euros for the Green and White Army

Northern Ireland fans show their support towards the end of the match in the official fan zone at The Titanic Belfast, Belfast.
Northern Ireland fans show their support towards the end of the match in the official fan zone at The Titanic Belfast, Belfast.

A game which began with funereal remembrance ended in delight for Northern Ireland fans in Lyon last night after a victory which resurrected their European Championship hopes.

The Green and White Army (GAWA) stood and applauded one of their own as they lauded tragic Darren Rodgers during the 2-0 win over Ukraine.

On Monday he fell eight metres from a promenade in Nice on France’s south coast and died soon afterwards.

The massed crowd rose in unison on the 24th minute marking the talented footballer’s tender years.

A banner in the stadium read: “RIP Darren Rodgers. Remembered by the GAWA.”

The tribute began with chants of: “There’s only one Darren Rodgers,” and ended with a burst of “Green And White Army.”

In between there was universal applause, a gesture which will mean so much to his family and fits the spirit of solidarity which has extended across Europe.

As the game entered the closing stages a second tragedy rocked the 18,000-strong support.

Just as Michael O’Neill’s men were on the cusp of making history, news spread that a male fan in his 60s had collapsed and died in the stands.

Supporters had braved strikes by public transport workers which threatened to leave them stranded in Geneva in Switzerland, and slept on the beach in Nice due to a cancelled train.

In the Olympique Lyonnais stadium they sang Will Grigg’s On Fire. But after a thunderous downpour of hailstones and rain which forced a break in play nothing was on fire.

Except perhaps a Northern Ireland team buoyed by a goal and ultimately a 2-0 victory which may resurrect their tournament.

The heavy rain showers made it feel very much like home. The Ukrainian crowd scurried for cover, but Ulster men and women are made of sterner stuff.

If the weather in Lyon was inclement, it was little different at the packed Titanic fan zone in Belfast where the rain poured down.

Ecstatic supporters draped in sodden Ulster flags, dripping green wigs and with paint streaming down their smiling faces jumped, punched the air and cheered as though they had won the entire European Championships, not just one game.

They bellowed out an emphatic rendition of Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline and just like the song says, ‘Good times never seemed so good’.

William Haighton, 43, from east Belfast, said: “I was in Spain in ‘82 but I have to be honest and say this eclipses that experience.

“This is unreal. I thought we did deserve to win, we were the better team. I just hope it is enough to get us through.”

Despite the downpours, the enthusiastic crowd of all ages were vocal in their support throughout but when Gareth McAuley rewarded them with a header they went absolutely wild. And when Niall McGinn’s second goal went in during stoppage time, the place erupted again.

Nichola McKeown, a care worker from the Shankill area of Belfast, who had donned a green wig for the occasion, was kicking off her 30th birthday celebrations, and was desperately hoping for a win.

She said: “The atmosphere is just great. We were here on Sunday and it was fantastic - that’s why I decided to come down for my birthday celebrations.”

Father-of-two Philip Baine from Dundonald, said: “What a brilliant result. It’s just fantastic to see it.”

For one night at least it sounded like we had won the championship.

However, there is the small matter of a showdown with world champions Germany on Monday which will determine whether or not the dream goes on.