Peter Anderson reflects on his soccer sojourn in France where he was part of the GAWA. Peter Anderson is a unionist who frequently comments on TPQ.
So I’ve just arrived back from France where I saw the mighty Ulstermen beat Ukraine at the new stadium in Lyon. Having supported Northern Ireland since the 70s, me and my mates weren’t going to miss the chance to see them in a major tournament for the first time. We decided to go to the Ukraine game in my mate’s campervan and so an epic road trip was planned. The first leg was from North Down to Rosslare. We rolled into the port and were put in the queue for the ferry with the other campervans. Ours was decked out in Northern Ireland flags and we very quickly realised we were in the queue with dozens of Republic fans. We needn’t have worried as many of them came over immediately and congratulated us on making the finals. Some more campervans full of GAWA (Green and White Army) arrived and soon there was an impromptu kick about going on between north and south. Later on the ferry we all sat together drinking and the craic was 90. During their first game they sang “Stand Up For The Ulstermen” in honour of the Northern Ireland fan that died in Nice, a classy show of friendship from our neighbours.
We decided to split the next leg in two and headed first to Nantes were the campervan owner has some friends. After a couple of nights there we headed onto Lyon. We arrived in a campsite on the edge of the city and it was full of GAWA from all parts. I took the opportunity to walk around the campsite speaking to the supporters and to admire the flags on show hanging from tents and campervans. Many had the France 1916-2016 theme and were works of art. Others displayed the wit of the Irish. Many featured Jim MacDonald from Coronation Street with witticisms like “It’s our turn to dream…so it is” and “We’re not Brazil we’re Norn Iron…so we are” and “Now we’re suckin’ diesel”. Others feature the famous BBC commentator Jackie Fullerton. The best had a picture of him holding a mike with the classic line “Big Jackie bucked yer Ma”.
On our first full day we did the tourist thing and took in the sights and smells of Lyon. If you have never been there it is a beautiful city with a rich history and excellent cuisine. After a 3 course lunch on the terrace of a typical Lyonnais restaurant we went to the fan zone where thousands of GAWA were drinking and enjoying the sunshine. The place was buzzing but we wanted to keep ourselves fresh for the next day.
On match day after brekkie we headed straight to the fan zone. We bought some cold beers and joined the fun. Thousands of GAWA started streaming in and soon the songs were being sung. The Green and White Army mantra and The Ulster boys make all the noise, as always, were the most popular. A new one being sung was The Spirit in the Sky except that the last line of the chorus was changed to “When I die and they lay me to rest I’m going to go on the piss with Geordie Best!”, another new one was Wil Grigg’s on fire. The sun was shining and the beer was flowing, everyone was optimistic that this was going to be good day. At 4 o’clock everyone started making their way to the stadium. There was a heavy security presence but the local police were extremely friendly. The drinking and singing continued on the underground all the way to the stadium. Once again the security was tight but friendly. We mixed freely with the Ukrainians and there were no problems. Inside the stadium the atmosphere was absolutely electric. The noise was cranked up and to see the massed ranks of GAWA on the terraces singing their hearts out brought a lump to my throat.
After an uneventful first half we took the lead early in the second. Gareth McCauley leapt like a salmon to meet a free kick perfectly and put us one up. The place went ballistic. The noise went up a few decibels more. The Ukrainians started to labour and we started to see more of the ball. They were limited to a few half chances and we had some great opportunities to extend our lead which we didn’t take. The last minutes were nail biting until young Niall Maginn stepped up to finish off a move started on the right by Josh Magennis. 2-nil, game over, pure joy.
After the game the slick transport system whooshed thousands of happy Ulstermen back to the fanzone where we partied to the small hours. What a day! Considering the amount of people and drink taken there were no incidents or any sectarianism from the Northern Ireland fans. How times have changed. The next day on the campsite a group of Englishmen approached us and said that we were a credit to our country unlike their own fans. They had been in the stadium and loved the atmosphere and good nature of our fans. Later we were thanked by local French in Lyon and it seems that we made an impression on the tournament both on and off the pitch. Our first win in a tournament since Spain 82 was slightly spoiled by the news that a fan had died of a heart attack in the stadium.
The next day the boys dropped me at the airport to fly home alone (work commitments), and to pick up my replacement before heading onto Paris for the Germany game. Whatever happens in that game Michael O’Neill and the boys deserve great credit for what they have done so far. It was a pity to have to leave the boys, as the trip has been a wonderful experience. Spending time on the road with boys I’ve known for nearly 40 years, watching footy, drinking beer and eating French grub is a great way to spend a summer week.
In years to come I will look back fondly on this trip. Lyon 2016, I was there.