The third game of our Euro trip took us to Lyon for Northern Ireland’s fixture with Ukraine. Our train wasn’t until mid-morning and so I took the opportunity to have a wander around Paris before breakfast. It’s amazing what you can stumble across when you least expect it.
Paul and I had upstairs seats on the train for the two-hour journey to Lyon. The train was busier than the one we’d taken the previous day, with plenty of Northern Ireland fans enjoying their first tournament since the days when Pat Jennings was between the sticks.
Our hotel in Lyon was only five minutes from the station, but our plan to head into the town centre was scuppered by an alcohol ban. It all seemed a bit over the top, particularly as neither of the teams involved have any reputation for mischief.
We headed away from the station in search of a quiet area of town that might have bars that were either unaffected by the ban or had chosen to ignore it. We eventually found one showing the England game and we were the only customers. If Carlsberg did bars…
We hung about long enough to see England sneak a spawny injury time win over Wales and then managed to flag down a taxi to take us to the Stade de Lyon. We arrived with a few minutes to spare and by entering via a side entrance we were quickly inside.
We made our way to our seats just as the National Anthem struck up. I know how the Queen feels now. We had seats on the edge of the Irish section and fortunately we were high enough up to be under cover. It started to rain early on and it wasn’t long before it was heavy enough to have people in the lower tiers scurrying upwards in search of somewhere drier.
The Irish fans were fantastic, singing throughout the game and pausing only when offering up a minutes applause for a fan who had died earlier in the week. Sadly, another of their number passed away during the second half.
Both teams had lost their first games in the group and so a defeat for either side in this game would make qualifying difficult, even in a competition where only eight of the twenty-four teams taking part go home after the first-phase.
With the heavy rain making good football difficult, Northern Ireland took the lead just after half time when Gareth McAuley ghosted into the Ukranian box for an unmarked header. As you can imagine, the Irish fans were quite pleased.
The rain got heavier over the next ten minutes or so and when the hailstones starting arriving the ref called a temporary halt. From what I saw later on the telly, some of them were the size of chocolate brazils and so it was probably the right decision.
The weather didn’t seem to affect the Ukrainian fans behind the far goal, who just removed most of their clothes. I’m not sure that’s necessarily the best approach in hailstorms.
The Irish didn’t sit back on their lead and there always looked to be another goal in the game. We had to wait until the ninety-sixth minute for it to come, with Niall McGinn knocking in a rebound to secure a two goal victory.
The rain had stopped by the final whistle and we were able to join the queue for the tram into town. It was all very well organised and we were soon whisked away and deposited near to the station that we’d arrived at that morning.
The alcohol ban in the centre posed the same problems as earlier in the day and so we decided to head back to the bar where we’d watched the England game. For some reason it was closed. Perhaps having two customers at a time that afternoon had worn them out.
We walked around for a while, mainly through a Muslim area that was unaffected by the temporary alcohol ban due to none of the establishments selling the stuff in the first place. We eventually found a pizza place that not only had food and drink, but also had that evening’s other Group C game between Germany and Poland on the telly.
Three games down, one to go.