The bone white facade of Lyon’s Notre Dame de Fourviére looked down on the shambling rooftops of the old town. I threw open the windows of our tiny apartment, expecting the smell of fresh croissants and gentle hum of French chatter to float up and meet me.
“Green and white army!” a strong Northern Irish accent pierced the air.
In the narrow street below, just outside a puppet shop that had been there for centuries, a huddle of bright green football shirts. Further up the street a couple more green shirts swaggered, singing in the sunshine.
“It’s the Ulster boys, making all the noise…”
Before we boarded the train to Lyon I’d noticed the ruffle of newspapers in the waiting room, pictures of red-faced, men in football shirts, mouths twisted into snarls and headlines that read ‘Football Hooligans Wreak Havoc in Marseille.’ As French businessmen glanced over at us, I wished Mark wasn’t wearing a Northern Ireland shirt.
A flutter of relief had settled in my stomach once we arrived at Lyon. The taxi drove past the Fan Zone, vomiting out brightly coloured football fans through metal barriers. If anything was going to kick off it would be here, behind the temporary metal cage. Hopefully the fans would stay mesmerised by images on the big TV screen and accidentally hydrated by 0.5% pints of Carling. Mark and I would just keep to the Old Town, explore the history and little eateries of Lyon and only venture outside the cobbled streets for the Northern Ireland – Ukraine match in the evening. We could still be proper travellers.
Green shirts had gathered outside pubs called ‘O’Brien’s’ and ‘Molly Malone’s’ like iron filings to a magnet. Mark nodded at each of them as we walked past. Disgruntled locals tutted at the loud songs and cheers and I wanted to catch their eye and say “I’m not part of this – I’m a librarian!”
With each flash of blue shirt on the crowded Rue Saint Jean my heart fluttered. I expected jeering, racist slurs, maybe a punch or two thrown. At the very least riot police would seal off the street and I would definitely be caught in tear gas. My mum would see my tear-stained face on the news back in the UK as I wailed to the cameras “I don’t even like football, and I’m not even from Northern Ireland!”
A couple of blue shirts stopped outside ‘Molly Malone’s’. I waited for shouting, swearing, punching.
“Excuse me, do you know how to get to Fourviere Hill?”
“Aye, just round the corner, stunning views. Just stunning.”
The bus out to the stadium was packed with green and white. The largest men spread across the back seat, belting out songs and waving their arms like choir conductors. It smelled like sweat and beer. Legs jigged nervously in seats. If Northern Ireland didn’t win this game then the green and white army would be going home.
Two blue-shirted Ukrainian fans squeezed into the already cramped bus. A small man with round glasses like a doctor’s led his nervous-looking wife through the forest of Northern Irish fans. I was scared for them.
“Hey, yous,” one of the green shirts said.
The wife pretended not to hear and started picking at a loose thread at the hem of her Ukraine shirt. The doctor-looking man plastered a smile across his face. They were the only blue shirts on the bus.
“Yous can come and sit by me,” the green shirt said. “I’ll look after yeh.”
He opened up his arms and enveloped the small man in a bear hug.
Inside the stadium the crown pulsed with a nervous energy. The man next to me fussed over the flags he’d tied to the balcony railings. Mark squeezed my hand before kick-off. It was the kind of squeeze he used when we were going through rough turbulence, the kind that said “just in case we don’t make it”.
As thousands of voices swelled and screamed through well used football chants I caught snippets of conversation.
“I’ve paid 80 euro for a ticket and I can’t even watch it, just tell me if we get close to scoring,” from a man with his hands over his eyes.
Just before half time the net nearest us rippled with impact. 1 – 0 Northern Ireland. The noise around me was deafening. The concrete platform shook like an earthquake. Mark threw himself at me in a hug designed for a man double my weight.
By the second half my knuckles were as white as anyone’s. I’d picked up some words to belt out along with the crowd. After the fifth or sixth round of “Will Grigg’s on fire” I turned to Mark.
“Which one’s Will Grigg?” I asked.
“Oh, he’s not playing. Hasn’t set foot on the pitch all season,”
“But all the songs are about him,” I said.
“Northern Ireland fans,” Mark shrugged, as if that explained everything. A felt a little swell of pride for the odd group I was becoming part of.
At full time it was still 1 – 0 and an announcement echoed around the walls in French. Nine minutes of added time. The red numbers stayed frozen at 90 minutes. The crowd counted time in heartbeats. “Come on, come on, allé, allé,” I whispered to myself as the minutes trickled past. Ukraine had the ball dangerously close to the goal. I didn’t want to look as the hollow kick sounded around the stadium. The net shivered with impact of the ball. A draw was not enough. Mark had his head in his hands, unable to look at the pitch. The keeper fetched the ball from behind the net.
A groan of relief. We just had to hold on for one more minute. Sixty seconds has never felt so long. A green shirt broke free from the scramble and ran down the pitch.
“That’s it! Just get it down our end and keep it there,” Mark was on his feet.
2 – 0 Northern Ireland.
The green side of the stadium erupted, cheering so loud that nobody heard the final whistle. As the players ran around the pitch celebrating I joined in on my favourite song.
“We’re not Brazil we’re Northern Ireland…”
And I really felt the we.