Northern Ireland v Poland
It’s been 30 years since Northern Ireland has qualify for a major tournament so the excitement has been building for 6 months in anticipation of 50,000 fans heading to France to have a party and hopefully get a result or two on the pitch. We also have the added bonus of the Republic of Ireland getting there to, so I don’t think France will know what hit it.
The Journey – Bangor to Loire Valley
We set off on Thursday afternoon down to Rosslare in Wexford to start the first leg of the journey a 20 hour boat trip across to France, not a sailing we were looking forward to but as we arrived at the terminal we were greeted to the news that Today FM were broadcasting live to the nation and the there was free beer and a bbq waiting up stairs for us. If that’s not the way to start a holiday I don’t know what is.
Today FM had bought in Ray Houghton, Stephen Hunt and Brian Kerr (former Ireland players and manager) to do interviews live on air, I don’t think they were expecting the majority of the fans to be from Northern Ireland and choruses of Green and white army rang out as the show went live.
The next 20 hours was a combination of beer, playing cards and singing as the party had truly started. Some drank sensibly, others not so much (Andy didn’t quite make it to the room, falling asleep in the corridor, but he looked comfy so I just left him, that’s for friends are for.) , but the craic was good. The Northern & Southern fans mingled together discussing the chances of each others teams and the journey their were taking on the other side.
We had a 6 hour drive down to the Loire Valley while others were driving all the way down to Nice, a 14 hour trek, we were very glad not to be in their shoes.
We all departed the boat, wished each other luck and joked we would see them in the final in Paris. You never know!!
Our 6 hour drive was I tough one for our driver Al, as the heavens opened to produce some of the heaviest rain I’ve ever witnessed. I was just glad I wasn’t behind the wheel. French drivers are nuts by the way which added to the stress.
We arrived at approx. 11:30 , had a few beers, watched a movie then to was off the bed for a well earned kip.
Match One – NI v Poland – Nice
Our original plan was to start our trip to Nice on the day of the match at 3am but an executive decision was made to change our arrangements and head up to Paris and spend the night in the Hilton, why not we are on our holidays.
With the Wales and England games to enjoy we settled down in the hotel bar and ordered 4 beers, it was Andy’s round. His face was a picture when the bill came to €36. It’s fair to say we didn’t have too many pints on Saturday night leaving us fresh for match day.
An early 6:30am start and we were off to Nice on a 1 hour flight from Paris Orly airport. A quick taxi to the hotel to drop off the bags and we made our way down to the beach in the glorious sunshine to join the rest of the GAWA who had began to gather at an Irish pub called Ma Nolans, singing and dancing had already began.
We were hearing stories that a group of NI and Polish fans had been attacked the night before by French locals but had look after each other but get rid of them. Obviously not what we wanted to hear but at least it was a good sign that the 2 groups of fans were going to get on with one and other.
Being the sensible boys that we are we decided to leave it a hour or 2 before starting on the beer, not an option that most of the boys took but everyone was in great spirits.
We went for a wee dander around the fanzone on the promenade that had loads of activities to keep the kids amused and plenty of places for adults to relax in the sun with a coffee or beer and watch the world go by.
1 o’clock hit and it was time for the pre-match preparation. Round to the street to join the rest of the GAWA with a carry out to spend a couple of hours singing and dancing and letting the locals and tourists alike see how the Northern Irish travelling fans enjoy themselves.
Polish fans walk freely between the sea of green and white, high fiving and stopping to take pictures. There was not one hint of rivalry apart the usual banter that comes along with the Ulster sense of humor. “You can stick your Lewandowski up you’re a**e” was a particular favorite.
The atmosphere was fantastic and everyone was having a ball including world boxing champion Carl Frampton and the Cool Fm crew with Pate Snodden.
It was highly recommended by officials to get to the ground early for security reasons so at half 3 we made are way. We decided to jump in a taxi rather than join the mass numbers who went on the buses, another great decision in hindsight from the stories we heard. We might have missed the sing along but the buses were crammed in hot sunshine so we were happy enough.
As kick-off was approaching we entered the stadium, the excitement was building and we were all like little kids waiting for santa, the noise slowly but surely built up as more and more fans made it into the stadium, it was electric. I’ve travelled all over Europe with Northern Ireland over the years but have not experience anything like it. It was emotional to say the least.
I’ll not go on too much about the match itself as I’m sure you all watched it and everyone will have their own opinion on how the team performed but from my own perspective it just looked like the team was caught up in the occasion as well and couldn’t perform on the day as they have been over the last 2 years.
Lets all just hope they come out fighting on Thursday in Lyon.
But it’s very clear by the reception the players received at the end of the game that the fans will be there all the way to give them the best support they possibly can. “Will support you evermore” and “Green and White Army” rang around the stadium. Just imagine what it will be like if we win a game.
After a very long walk and a horrendous bus journey it was back to the hotel to put the feet up and have a few beers before bedtime.
On Monday morning we woke up to the terrible news that we had lost one of our own, Gareth Rodgers, who had a tragic accident down on the promenade. Our thoughts go to his friends and family and we hope everyone stays safe the rest of the tournament.
It brings me to mention the fantastic gesture from the Irish supporters in Paris on Monday evening as they sang “Stand up for the Ulstermen” on the 24 minutes in memory of our young NI fan. It shows the true spirit of real football fans who always stick together, it was every much appreciated by the GAWA.
I would also like to mention the Polish fans who were brilliant on match day from start to finish and also on the Monday. It really opens your eyes and I really hope it continues the rest of our stay.
Well we are back in the Loire Valley and relaxing until we make the trip to Lyon on Thursday. So until then –
“ Everywhere we go, everywhere we go, it’s the Ulster boys making all the noise, everywhere we go”