EURO 2016: Northern Ireland’s journey starting to gather pace

Niall McGinn celebrates his goal against Ukraine
Niall McGinn celebrates his goal against Ukraine

Move over Gerry & Co, there’s a new entry in the Northern Ireland history books!

And take a bow Gareth McAuley and Niall McGinn, the newly-crowned kings of Lyon.

For far too long Norn Iron fans had been made to wait for their moment of glory at a major championships.

Not since Gerry Armstrong’s famous winner against World Cup hosts Spain in 1982 had they celebrated a win at a finals stage.

Meanwhile, Colin Clarke’s effort against the Spanish in Mexico in 1986 was the last time the travelling Green and White Army had celebrated a goal at a major tournament.

But all that changed in the Stade de Lyon on Thursday night, with another result that will live long in the memory for years to come.

The historians can finally remove the well-worn, dog-eared, 30-year-old-plus bookmakers from the archives and start penning a new chapter in Northern Ireland’s footballing fortunes.

Not that many of the fans out here in France will remember the exact date of a now famous Northern Ireland 2 Ukraine 0 result!

For the majority, Euro 2016 has been one giant party.

Kick-started in Nice last weekend, the celebrations were in full flow on the French Riviera.

They stepped up a gear in Lyon, with the Ulstermen warming themselves to the locals with their jovial antics, cheeky charm and vast array of songs in the Place Antonin-Poncet area of the city.

Not even the locals could compete with the atmosphere generated, despite flocking to the nearby fan zone to take in France’s late victory over Albania.

And just when you thought the supporters could do no more to celebrate their participation at these championships, McAuley and McGinn go and put Ukraine to the sword.

Like Michael O’Neill’s side, they showed they had plenty more left in the tank – and oh how Lyon knew it!

Good-natured celebrations – including former player Keith Gillespie crowd suffering with the help of fans – continued well into the early hours, with the latest city to play host to the men from Ulster no doubt waking up with a sore head, but with good memories to boot!

Of course, there has been tragedy along the way.

Twenty-four-year-old Darren Rodgers’ life was tragically cut short when he fell from the promenade in Nice, while Robert Rainey died in the Stade de Lyon on Thursday night after reports said he suffered a heart attack.

Both men, however, remain in the thoughts of the fans despite the celebratory scenes, with a minute’s applause held for the former in the 24th minute of the games against Ukraine.

The next stop is now Paris, with supporters once again hitting the road as their incredible adventure continues.

That means more petrol for the camper vans, new sites for the pitched tents, another dose of Anadin to get over the hangovers, and another wary check of the bank balance!

The French capital won’t know what’s hit it when the men in green arrive!

Paris, you have been warned!

Oh, and for those who will need reminding, it was June 16, 2016 – the day Northern Ireland rewrote the history books.