Optimistic and enthusiastic, Northern Ireland's likeable fans are a throwback to Sopot and Poznan 6 years ago

Optimistic and enthusiastic, Northern Ireland's likeable fans are a throwback to Sopot and Poznan

It took touching down in Paris Orly for the first rendition of 'Will Grigg's on Fire' to emanate from the back of the plane.

Up to that point the sizeable Northern Irish contingent on our Saturday morning flight out of Dublin had busied themselves drinking the plane dry of Heineken, moving on to the scotch and coke and taking pictures of their buddies whenever the pace became too much and they fell asleep.


Basically, behaving like most young football fans heading away for a major football tournament.

Good humoured, excited, mildly intoxicated (regardless of the hour of the day) and determined to enjoy themselves.

Of course the same can be said of fans of the Republic of Ireland, Wales, Sweden, Belgium and even the vast majority of English and Russian supporters, those that are not idiotic troglodytes whose knuckles only stop dragging along the ground when they're punching people in the face.


However, for Northern Ireland fans, this is an epochal experience. For the first time in 30 years they have qualified for a major tournament. Not only that, they have qualified in some style - topping their group ahead of Romania and Hungary.

Not since 1986 have a team representing the Six Counties graced one of football's grand stages and, not only do the fans plan on enjoying themselves, they plan on winning the damn thing.

Speaking to fans as we disembarked the flight it was clear they have not been discouraged by a pig of a draw that has landed them in a group with Germany, Ukraine and Poland.


WARSAW, POLAND - OCTOBER 11: Robert Lewandowski from Poland celebrates after the UEFA EURO 2016 qualifying match between Poland and Republic of Ireland at National Stadium on October 11, 2015 in Warsaw, Poland. (Photo by Adam Nurkiewicz/Getty Images)

They start their campaign on Sunday afternoon in Nice against Robert Lewandowski and his supporting cast, which fans south of the border are very familiar with after taking a single point from a possible six against Poland in qualifying.

None of the supporters we spoke to were underestimating the strength of their opponents, however neither were they willing to dismiss the impressive nature of their own qualification or the fact that, on a run of 12 games unbeaten, they are the most in-form team at these championships, on paper.

"Three 0-0 draws might be enough to get us through," said one fan. "And after that it is four one-off games. Anything can happen."


One too many scotch and cokes before breakfast, would be one diagnosis for that prediction. A prediction that does not put much stock in the goal-scoring prowess of top-scorer Kyle Lafferty or a certain metaphorically flammable Wigan hitman.

But cast your mind back four years to Poland and a roadmap, preferred by Irish fans and no small number of journalists, that stated a win against Croatia and point against Italy would probably see Ireland into the Euro 2012 quarter-finals, regardless of the result against World Champions Spain.

The optimism (often of the blind variety) of football fans is one of the beauties of the sport. And it is the beauty of football that we should be remembering it in the wake of the terrible violence in Marseilles.


Have followers of Martin O'Neill's team lost that foundation-free sense of expectation? Have the 100,000 strong Green Army travelled with hope alone? Is even hope in short supply?

The memories of what occurred four years ago have scarred the Irish support to an extent and, even with only eight teams missing out on the second round, there are very few bold predictions. Indeed, it is a rare Ireland fan you meet who is confident of a quarter-final appearance.

But Northern Ireland, with their all Premier League back four, the excellent Steven Davis in midfield and Norwich cast-off Lafferty (below), they have designs on replicating Greece in 2004.

Kyle Lafferty celebrates scoring 27/5/2016

While the sane among us might disagree, it should be easy to admire the ambition. Yet as the first ever major tournament to feature both Irish teams gets underway there is little evidence of cross-border bonhomie.

There was no mingling among fans in the airport on Saturday morning, with the Irish Times quoting some Northern Irish fans in the Paris fan zone who experienced the cold shoulder from their southern neighbours as they watched France's 2-1 opening win over Romania.

“They walk past us and give us dirty looks,” said 20-year-old Owen Morris from Bangor. “This is the Euros. It doesn't matter if you’re French, Romanian, Northern Ireland, Southern Ireland, Swedish, anything. As long as you love football, we love you.”

My colleague Conan Doherty has written superbly on the issue of Irishness and his own allegiance to the Republic, despite being born and raised in Derry.

It would be a shame if the suspicions and conflicts of past generations would bleed into relations between two sets of fans from the same island. Particularly when you consider the Republic's qualification was masterminded by a former Northern Ireland captain and Derry minor footballer.

O'Neill was an exceptional member of an exceptional generation of Northern Irish footballers a generation ago and there are echoes of that team which are worth listening for again. When O'Neill left Queens University for Nottingham Forest in 1971 his family upped sticks too.

His younger brothers and sisters were enrolled in schools in Nottingham in a gamble that ultimately paid off. The Evans family did something similar when West Brom defender Jonny and his younger brother Corry, now a Blackburn midfielder, were scouted by Manchester United.

In 1986 a Northern Ireland team robbed of O'Neill's experience by injury took a single point against Algeria. Thirty years on, not only do they hope to do better, they expect.

With an attitude like that they are already winning.