After trauma of the terror attacks, France will welcome our happy fans
Published 06/06/2016 | 02:30
"We've never been as proud of our city as we are tonight. You Irish dance on the streets, you sing, you make friends with the people here. Thank you, you put smiles on all our faces," - the Poznan resident had tears in his eyes as he shook my hand.
It was approaching midnight on the eve of the Republic of Ireland's parting game at Euro 2012 and a city had fallen in love with the army of smiling and good-humoured Irish.
Four years on, as supporters prepare to head for France on board trains, planes and automobiles, the arrival of the army of ambassadors in green will be more eagerly anticipated than ever before.
"Honestly, I can't wait for the Irish to come to Paris," says Alain Durand, who runs a restaurant near Saint Denis - where Martin O'Neill's men will kick off their Euro 2016 odyssey against Sweden next Monday in the Stade de France.
He adds: "After the attacks on the city we need something to make us happy again. Of course, Euro 2016 is a wonderful event for everyone in France but without the Irish we know it would not be so much fun. I know from when the Ireland supporters come for the rugby, you bring joy and laughter, that's what we need now more than anything, laughter."
It's estimated that upwards of 50,000 Republic of Ireland supporters will descend on France this summer - roughly half will travel without match tickets.
"I was at the play-off match when Thierry Henry used his hand to set up the goal that helped us qualify for the 2010 World Cup," recalls Romain Petit, a member of the French Football Supporter's club.
"Of course we were delighted to qualify but felt bad that Ireland were knocked out in this way.
"But I remember the Irish fans, though angry with Henry, were so polite to the French fans afterwards. We drank together into the night and were like brothers. After what happened I couldn't imagine doing that with fans from any other country."
The Irish fans received the UEFA best fans award after Euro 2012 for their great behaviour during the competition. The award was dedicated to the memory of James Nolan, who lost his life in a tragic accident in the city of Bydgoszcz during the tournament.
And when the team booked their place at Euro 2016 one German publication celebrated, stating: "It is a stroke of good fortune that Ireland have qualified."
Journalist Alex Raack wrote in the German football magazine '11Freunde' that: "Celebrations, dancing, singing - who can do these better than the Irish? The qualification of the Irish is a godsend. The Boys in Green can celebrate like no other nation, always peaceful, always sympathetic and emphatic, with an infectious, childlike joy."
Tony Franklin from Portrane in Dublin has been following the Boys in Green across the Globe for 40-odd years and he believes our supporters are the perfect ambassadors for the country.
"Money can't buy the kind of marketing the Irish supporters do for the country by their exemplary behaviour.
"There's never any agro, never any violence and never any abusive behaviour - if there was, I can tell you it would be nipped in the bud immediately. It's all good-humoured craic," explains Tony.
He continues: "We're out there representing ourselves, our families and our country and while we'll have a good time we'll always be respectful and make friends."
Indeed some of those 'friends' have followed Tony home over the years.
"Yeah, I'd often say to lads, 'Sure pop in and see me if you're ever in Ireland.' And to my amazement some have. Sure that's what it's all about," says Tony.
And Tourism Ireland plans to capitalise on the popularity of our supporters in France this summer.
The all-island tourism body will be unveiling a Euro 2016 promotion inviting Europeans to visit the country - where the craic they see on the streets of France can be replicated in the Emerald Isle itself.
Niall Gibbons, CEO of Tourism Ireland, told the Irish Independent: "Ireland's football fans always generate immense goodwill when they travel abroad to support their team - even going back as far as Italia '90 when we saw how the fans became ambassadors for Ireland through their good humour, wit and friendliness. Euro 2016 is another excellent platform for us to remind fans across Europe about what Ireland has to offer."
Peace envoys, tourism ambassadors and fun merchants - the latest incarnation of Jack's Army plans to enjoy France and roar on its team like many a time before.
And though Roy Keane may not approve, they'll sing their hearts out in Paris, Bordeaux and Lille whether we win, lose or draw. Because when it comes to enjoying major international football tournaments and making friends along the way, you'll never beat the Irish.