Beaten but not broken - Green Army begin 860km march to Lille
Beaten but unbowed the Green Army began the exhausting 860km trek to Lille from Bordeaux praying for a Euro '16 repeat of the Italian miracle of USA '94.
Belgium's emphatic 3-0 win over Ireland on Saturday afternoon left Irish hopes of making the last 16 of the French tournament entirely dependent on a win over already-qualified Italy.
One positive omen is that Saturday was the 22nd anniversary of Ireland's famous World Cup win over Italy at Giants Stadium in New Jersey, thanks to a Ray Houghton goal.
Last night, Ray paid tribute to Irish fans for their incredible support in France, and said: "Hopefully they will get at least two more games."
The Irish star and pundit said the Green Army has been "every bit as good in France as they were at Euro '88 and Italia '90."
"The fans have been terrific, absolutely brilliant," Houghton said. "They have made great noise at the games and they have been so well-behaved, so hopefully they will get at least two more games now."
Speaking about that legendary goal, Houghton said; "It's a great memory. It was a great day and a great occasion."
An estimated 80,000 Irish fans are in the Bordeaux, La Rochelle, Royan and Arcachon areas and they remained upbeat despite Saturday's bitterly disappointing result.
Thousands are now preparing to travel by car, camper van, train and plane to Lille.
Thousands of Irish fans who returned home after the Paris match are also planning to return for Ireland's critical final group game.
The eight-strong Garda team in France, led by Supt Gerry Delmar, urged Irish fans to travel with care on the longest leg of their Euro 16 odyssey.
"We would urge people to drive carefully, allow plenty of time for their travel and to take proper rest stops if they are tired," he said.
"They should also obey all French speed limits and traffic directions."
Supt Delmar also urged Irish fans to stick together when travelling. The drive from Bordeaux to Lille is almost twice the distance from Killarney to Belfast.
But Green Army fans are adamant that Ireland can deliver against Italy on Wednesday night.
"It all boils down to the draw in Paris against Sweden. If they'd won that, a draw with Italy would see us through," Conor Grubb from Letterkenny, in Donegal, said. But Damien McCaul, from Cavan, said Ireland, having already beaten world champions Germany, can clinch a win over the Italians, who are expected to rest a number of key players for the knock-out stages.
"It's all still to play for. But the Belgian result was a disappointment, there's no hiding that."
Eoghan Cunnane from Corbally, in Limerick, was travelling to Lille with seven friends.
"We are going to keep on going and make sure we have the craic," he said. "The group is upside down and that is going to change on Wednesday."
Irish fans won yet more plaudits for their good behaviour in Bordeaux, with their rapport with Belgium's 'Red Devils' supporters winning Bordeaux hearts. The fans danced, drank and sang together before exchanging jerseys, scarves and hats.
Pubs, including The Connemara, The Blarney Stone and Casey's reported a roaring trade from both Irish and Belgian fans.
Bordeaux Prefect Pierre Dartout said the friendly fan exchanges lived up to pre-match expectations.
"The Belgian-Irish match was never classed as a (fan) risk," he said.
However, security was tightened still further given the terror arrests in Belgium on Saturday. Belgian police foiled an attempt by a terror network to attack fanzones in Brussels and other Belgian towns.
Police have stressed that there was no direct connection to Euro '16 venues in France.
Ireland's next match will be played against Italy in Lille on Wednesday - with the northern French city located directly on the Belgian border.
Security in Lille is expected to be the tightest to face Green Army members over the past fortnight.
However, the good news is that fans desperate for a ticket may have fresh hope of picking up match passes.
A significant number of Italian fans are now starting to sell tickets for the Lille match to prepare for the Azzurri's knock-out stages.
"I've already seen dozens of tickets on reputable fan sites being offered for sale by Italian supporters for face value," admitted Dave Power, from Clondalkin in Dublin.
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