Northern Ireland news

Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland fans flock to Paris for Euro 2016 last 16 games

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill speaks to his players during a training session at the Parc de Princes, Paris. Picture by Jonathan Brady, PA Wire

IF Carlsberg did weekends... Euro 2016 qualifiers, two teams from Ireland, tens of thousands of fans, who wouldn't want to be in France to witness this?

I joined the exodus to Paris ahead of Northern Ireland v Wales and Republic of Ireland v France and boy do I have sympathy for travelling fans after a flight delay, missed Eurostar connection and broken down train were sent to try my patience.

A Welsh family who were travelling via Eurostar to today's game were proud Remain voters and far more interested in the EU referendum than Will Grigg's inflammability.

"That muppet Osborne" and "that muppet Cameron" were name checked. Gareth Bale didn't get a look in.

The only comfort they took from Brexit was that Denmark voted to leave the EU in 1992 and went on to win the Euros.

When the train emerged from the Channel Tunnel into the French countryside one English fan got animated.

"We're in! We're in!" he chanted.

"We're in the EU! Doesn't matter how we voted, we're officially in now!"

The Eurostar delivers passengers into the heart of Paris, a city that is thronged with people hailing from the length and breadth of Ireland. From Ballybeen to Ballinasloe they're here, roaming the streets of the French capital, roaring with laughter, full of high jinks and on a charm offensive.

Nuns, babies, the poor souls living in apartments above Irish bars... no-one has escaped their attention.

There are so many of them it feels a little like Parisians have fled their city in the face of an invading, benevolent army and left them to it.

The Green and White Army are on tenterhooks as Michael O'Neill's men prepare to take on Wales today.

John Fell from Dunmurry is a life long Northern Ireland fan and had travelled over for the first three games, gone home, and come straight back out again.

He's been to Nice, Lyon and Paris with the team and is daring to dream that they'll slay the Welsh dragon with not-so-secret weapon Will Grigg.

Better yet, he's still not sick of Will Grigg's On Fire.

"In Nice taxi drivers on the promenade would put their window down as they drove past and shout 'Will Grigg's on fire'."

He's got the utmost respect for manager Michael O'Neill who he believes brings a calmness to the squad.

"He seems to get the best out of the players."

John is philosophical about today's game. "Whatever happens we'll take home the memories."

Iona Hueston from Dublin works in the Frog Hophouse in the second arrondisement and says the French have been impressed by the Irish fans and their angelic voices.

"When there was the match in Paris the bar was completely full, it was a sea of green.

"Everyone was singing and chanting. There was a sing off between the French football fans and the Irish fans. It was really good natured, really lively."

Iona said her French friends have fallen for their Gallic cousins.

"I'm really proud of the Irish... Our French customers are impressed and their opinion of the Irish has changed for the better.

"French people seem to have been touched by how friendly and helpful the fans have been."

The Republic of Ireland play the host nation in Lille at 2pm tomorrow and the memory of Thierry Henry and his 2009 hand ball looms large.

Naturally Iona's thoughts and those of millions of other people are on the game.

She intends watching it with French friends and cheering herself hoarse.

So, both teams are in the knockout stages of a major tournament, playing one day apart. It's unexpected but oh so welcome.

Who knows when fans will experience the giddy excitement of a weekend like this again. For their part they're determined to wring every last drop out of this. And no-one could begrudge them that.

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