Northern Ireland's 'kings of Lyon' create stir
Friday, 17 June 2016
Northern Ireland's fans partied like it was 1982 in Lyon last night, and Graham Little was on hand to sample the mood with some famous faces in the aftermath of a historic win.
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"Kings of Lyon" was the headline-writers' choice in Northern Ireland this morning, and last night it truly did feel like some small corner of this foreign field would be forever Green and White.
After 30 years of passionate support without a major tournament outing as a valve, this month was always going to be a tempestuous, emotional journey for Northern Ireland fans. Add in a first finals win in 34 years, and a spirit of togetherness between supporters and team, and you still only have the parts that do not do justice to the whole.
The scenes in Lyon after Thursday's 2-0 Group C triumph against Ukraine were off the footballing Richter scale. It was incredible in the stadium, where the largest, noisiest collection of Northern Ireland fans ever assembled surpassed all previous endeavour, but it was equally astounding in the streets of Lyon later.
A large group of French teenagers danced away on the Place Bellecour chanting "Will Grigg's on fire" despite, one assumes, never having seen a single minute of the forward's League One efforts with Wigan.
I also saw former international Keith Gillespie being carried aloft through the Rue des Marroniers, crowd-surfing like a rock star. He was followed by broadcaster Colin Murray as the Green and White Army created a Rue de Revelry in one of the great French cities.
For 34 years, Gerry Armstrong has been feted in Northern Ireland for scoring the goal that brought victory against hosts Spain at the 1982 FIFA World Cup. That was their last win at a major championship and Armstrong was in Lyon last night to witness a new generation finally break his spell.
"It was the best performance I've seen away from home from a Northern Ireland team in over 30 years," he said. "They played as a proper team and set the pattern in the first ten seconds by closing and working and putting on pressure. The attitude was just totally different; they never allowed the Ukrainians to settle."
Between Billy Bingham's World Cup heroes of the 1980s and Michael O'Neill's heroes of UEFA EURO 2016, there have been several generations of quality players that never made it. With 86 caps and iconic status, winger Gillespie is one of them. Just before his crowd surf, he was quick to applaud a former team-mate, Aaron Hughes, who only just squeezed these finals in at the end of an illustrious career.
"You know what you're going to get with Aaron Hughes. You could count on the fingers of one hand how many bad appearances he's had out of his 101 caps, and he was excellent. Considering he hasn't exactly played a lot of football in the last year, for him to go out and put in a performance like that was incredible."
Gareth McAuley and Niall McGinn were the scorers, yet the highest praise must be reserved for the manager. O'Neill put his managerial career on the line with a team selection that everyone thought was bold at best, barmy at worst.
Fortune favoured the brave and he restored both the faith of the masses and his own reputation as a forensic and strategic football thinker par excellence.
Last word to the man of the match, McAuley – a colossus, a leader, a scorer. He reflected on how the disappointment of losing to Poland was used as oxygen to reignite the flames of a passion that seemed to have smouldered away, and how the squad came to terms with what this once-in-a-generation finals appearance was all about.
"We didn't want to come here and waste it," the defender said, drained after an epic effort. "That was a performance tonight that we can be proud of and it's absolutely fantastic to be able to say that."
It feels almost as good to be able to write it. Dare to dream.