Fans play full part as Ireland's do-or-die battle ends in glory
Published 23/06/2016 | 02:30
Ireland delivered more of a 'Great Escape' than an 'Italian Job' as they booked their berth in the knock-out stages of Euro 2016.
Stade Pierre-Mauroy in Lille witnessed one of the greatest performances in Irish football history as the Green Army defied the bookmakers, the pundits and even some of their own fans to shock group winners Italy.
Robbie Brady's 85th minute goal delivered a 1-0 victory that the cauldron-like atmosphere in the Stade Pierre-Mauroy looked like being denied.
Irish fans screamed themselves hoarse as the Green Army outnumbered the Forza Azzurri by almost four to one in Lille's new stadium, making their final group game in northern France more akin to a home game in the Aviva.
"I can't believe it - I just can't bloody believe it," croaked a hoarse Willie Power from Tallaght.
"I wasn't planning on being here. I was planning to go home after the Bordeaux game but a friend picked up a handy ticket and I decided to head to Lille," he said.
There was a huge explosion of noise inside Stade Pierre-Mauroy when Robbie Brady stuck the goal in the Italian net.
Ireland fans roared, screamed and cried their eyes out when the unbelievable happened.
The atmosphere was simmering and tense within the clammy conditions inside the closed roof stadium.
There had been many agonisingly close moments throughout the match, and some Irish fans had been slowly losing hope.
But deep down, we had known there was a goal in the Boys in Green, and Robbie Brady secured national hero status with a cracking goal.
The steamy conditions inside the stadium were instantly forgotten when, as one, 35,000 Irish fans rose to roar their thanks to the footballing gods.
Lille's stadium was, for those incredible few minutes, a green tsunami.
Fans ripped off their jerseys, exchanged high-fives, and hugged anyone sitting beside them.
As the shrieks and roars abated, the crowd launched into another rendition of 'Come On You Boys in Green'.
Fans vowed that Robbie will now be the most popular boy's name in Ireland over the next 12 months.
French locals also celebrated the Green Army's progression as Irish fans won respect throughout the country for their good humour and trouble-free partying at Euro 16.
Lille's Mayor Martine Aubry joined with her counterparts in Paris, Mayor Anne Hidalgo, and Bordeaux, Mayor Alain Juppe, in paying tribute to the well-behaved Irish fans in the northern French city.
But the plaudits of the French police and media meant very little as the Green Army threatened to shake Stade Pierre-Mauroy, built just four years ago, to its very foundations with the force of their celebration.
"This ranks alongside Italia 90", Jim Ryan from Cork said.
Lille's home ground has been transformed into a sea of chanting green hordes from 7pm. By 11pm, the roars of the celebrating Irish fans could have been heard across the border in Belgium some 20km away.
But for so many fans, the great memories of Euro 16 will never fade.
David Walsh from Sligo attended the French tournament with his friends Luke McDonnell and Stephen Martin from Sligo and Shane McCarthy and Eoin Forde from Waterford.
"The atmosphere on the streets has been incredible. People in Lille have been treating this like a festival," he said. "There's been live music on the streets every night and locals joining with the Irish fans in singing."
Others were simply proud that the Green Army once again stayed true to the sterling reputation earned at Euro '88 in Germany, Italia '90 and USA 1994, and that they played their part in writing a new chapter in its proud history.
"You can see that people know all about the reputation of the Irish for not causing any trouble," Ciaran Meleady from Glasnevin in Dublin said.
"Everywhere we've gone, people have been really kind." "When they hear you're Irish, the first thing that you get is a smile.
"They go out of their way to try and help you."
Ciaran was in Lille with his friends David Connolly from Dundalk, Carl Downes from East Wall, Martin Forry from Kells and Brian Ivers from East Wall.
"I think Lille has been fantastic. It's a lot better than a lot of people were expecting because a lot were all talk about Paris," David said.
The roads and tram lines back into Lille city centre from Stade Pierre-Mauroy became a solid phalanx of green as Irish fans ran through their full celebratory repertoire.
"I was almost getting sick of hearing 'Shane Long is on Fire' and 'Team of Gary Breens', but tonight I've never heard anything better," Jim Sullivan from Finglas laughed.
Irish fans also noted the good wishes of their Italian rivals.
"The Italians have been good fun. There's great old history between Ireland and the Italians," Mark Holohan from Wexford said.
At the final whistle, the players ran to acknowledge fans who were as drained and exhausted as they were.
For the fans and the players, the march goes on to Lyon next Sunday at 2pm against the host nation.
"I don't think I could go through that again," Richard Donohue commented. "But what a powerful night to be Irish."