'Unfair' ticket allocation for crunch game angers O'Neill
Irish fans in Lyon will have to sing up, as French fans grab lion's share of tickets
Martin O'Neill has questioned Ireland's "unfair" ticket allocation for today's match against France in the last 16 of the European Championship.
It rankles strongly with the Irish manager that Irish fans should be so under-represented at the 58,000-seater Parc Olympique Lyonnais.
"The ticket allocation is something that I do have a gripe about. It's totally disproportionate for a stadium of this size," O'Neill said yesterday. "For us - or for any team playing in the round of 16 - to be allocated less than 5,000 tickets is pretty unfair."
"I think there should have been a certain allocation left aside for the side who would make it here," O'Neill said. "France have had that opportunity, having advanced three days before us ... France will have 95pc of the crowd - we will have to fight that."
But O'Neill is confident his players have enough "mental toughness" to do so.
"We spurned a great chance with five minutes left against Italy," he said. "But then Robbie Brady starts a move off and then finishes it. He showed no fear at all and that epitomized the spirit."
O'Neill also hopes to see the "same energy" against France. "We'll go into the game with some confidence on the back of the performance against Italy," he said. "You don't want to go out of the competition meekly; you want to go out blazing if you can. But we want to stay in it."
It is the first meeting between the two sides since Ireland were beaten a two-legged World Cup playoff to France in November, 2009 - following a blatant handball by French striker Thierry Henry in a match where Ireland had dominated - that led to France qualifying.
French manager Didier Deschamps said "it's a new story for both sides, it will have no bearing," - while O'Neill did not even mention it in his news conference.
France has failed to live up to its pre-tournament hype as one of the favourites. But O'Neill said the French were low-key early on when they won the 1998 World Cup on home soil.
"France reminds me in some aspect of 1998. A lot of pressure to do well, but they improved as the competition went on," he said. "This team might feel the same."
But if Martin O'Neill is not speaking of that handball, the Irish fans in Lyon certainly are. In fact that handball is an unspoken undercurrent in the cafes and bars of Lyon.
A who's who of Irish society will be in town as Ireland seek revenge against the French. Irish politicians, musicians and celebrities have been jetting in for the festivities.
President Michael D Higgins was invited to Lyon by the FAI, but is unable to attend because of a prior commitment.
"As a life-long soccer fan the President would dearly love to attend the game. But he is hosting an event at Aras an Uachtarain on Sunday," a spokesperson said. "President Higgins has arranged for the match to be shown on a big screen during the event."
The Ireland-France game will also be on the big screen at Croke Park to keep GAA fans at the Leinster football double-header abreast of the action. (That will be the second half only, as Croke Park is not due to open until 2.45pm.)
Taoiseach Enda Kenny had hoped to attend, but may have to cancel because of the emergency recall of the Dail over the UK's shock Brexit vote.
Former Boyzone singer, Keith Duffy, is expected in Lyon, as is Sports Minister Shane Ross and Independent TD Mick Wallace.
Match tickets are now selling for more than €2,100 on the black market - and French fans have snapped up most of the tickets through official and unofficial outlets to cheer on Les Bleus, with a likely quarter-final place against England on offer to the winners.
Despite this, more than 50,000 Irish fans are still expected in Lyon. Many undertook the 700km trek south from Lille, while an estimated 20,000 are flocking to Lyon from Ireland via a host of airports and train stations - ranging from Paris to Munich and from Madrid to Zurich.
Ricky O Cathain, from Dingle in Kerry, arrived in Lyon via Farranfore, Frankfurt and a 600km drive. "I was in Paris but I had to come back out for the French match," he said.
Lyon Airport yesterday handled more than a dozen charter flights from Ireland - and some fans have a very special reason to be in Lyon.
"I have the match ball from 2009 when Thierry Henry handled and got France the goal that knocked Ireland out," Ben Graham (12) from Blanchardstown in Dublin said. "But Ireland have beaten Italy and Germany already, so why can't we beat France?"
His parents, Geoff and Catherine, are avid fans and spent €2,300 on 'Follow Your Team' Euro 2016 tickets, which got them passes for Ireland's last 16 game and potential quarter-final, semi-final and final berths.
"I don't know what will happen if Ireland win," Geoff joked. "We'll have to go home for a few days and then try to come back out."
Dubliners Niall Keogh and Niall Mallin, who attend matches dressed as leprechauns, felt so strongly about the handball incident in 2009 that, for the past seven years, they've driven to all overseas tournaments in a 1994 Volvo 850 painted in the tricolour and sporting the rear window banner: 'Henry Le Cheat'.
Ironically, while most French cities were dreading hosting matches involving some of the 24 competing nations, mayors publicly admitted they would love to host Irish matches.
The Mayors of Paris (Anne Hidalgo), Bordeaux (Alain Juppe) and Lille (Martine Aubry) publicly praised Irish fans for their good-humoured behaviour at the tournament since June 10.
The eight-strong Garda team at Euro 2016 led by Supt Gerry Delmar stressed there had been no major incidents involving Irish fans.
Just one Irish supporter was arrested so far during the French tournament. The man, in his 20s and from Belfast, was detained in Lille for his own safety after being found heavily intoxicated on the street by gendarmes.
He was held for 36 hours in a police station - and missed one of the most famous victories in Irish sporting history.
French newspapers have been lavish in their praise of the well-behaved Irish fans - both from the Republic and Northern Ireland - with L'Equipe and Le Figaro saying they had massively contributed to the festival atmosphere of the tournament.
The Irish presence at Euro '16 is underlined by the fact the number of Irish citizens in France had soared from a normal figure of 13,000 to more than 130,000 for the tournament.
Irish fans reciprocated, hailing both French citizens and the French police for their kindness and generosity.
"You couldn't say enough about how good the French have been - they've been amazing. It's been brilliant to be here," Dermot Dwyer from Drumcondra in Dublin said.
For others, the tournament switched from a party to a triumph in the 85th minute of the Italian match, when Robbie Brady flicked home the winner for Martin O'Neill's team, who had given their all.
"This is the Italia '90 for a whole new generation of Irish fans," Niall O'Connor from Lucan in Dublin said.