The new generation of Irish fans get their ‘I was there’ moments

The chant echoed around the concession stands in the bowels of the Parc Olympique Lyonnais (also nicknamed Stade des Lumières) at half time.

The new generation of Irish fans get their ‘I was there’ moments

“You’re hardly gonna believe us, you’re hardly gonna believe us, you’re hardly gonna believe us — we’re going to beat the French.”

The visitors may not have been used to the heat of a sunny Lyon afternoon, but for an hour yesterday it was the hosts who were sweating as the Irish gleefully enjoyed the lead that would have upset the odds if seen through to the final whistle.

For one glorious hour or so, it looked like a team who had produced magic for their supporters against Italy were about to pull off the same trick just days later against tournament favourites in front of a partisan crowd.

Alas it was not to be, but unlike four years ago, Irish fans now depart the Euros content that their team has acquitted themselves well on the big stage.

After the game, relieved French mingled with disappointed Irish, but the bonhomie of the past fortnight continued.

Irish supporters applauded as the French adapted one of their repertoire, chanting “Stand up for the Irish fans” along the queues for the Metro back to the city centre.

The consensus after an afternoon of disappointment was that a team that performed above expectations had done their nation proud.

Eddie O’Shaughnassy and his son Colin from Charleville, Co Cork, were reflecting on the tournament with their friend Ciaran Kelly after the game.

“It was a great tournament,” Eddie, a Cork City supporter, said. Ciaran described Eddie as a “veteran” Irish fan.

“Lille was the highlight, we’re a bit disappointed now, but we’ll be back. Next stop Turner’s Cross,” he said.

It was Colin’s first tournament following the Boys in Green.

“I would have obviously heard about Italia 90, and a bit about 94, but it was brilliant to go through the buzz and the craic of it myself. Especially Lille, the highlight of it.

“They put in a great effort today, you coudn’t fault any of it. They gave it everything they had but we just came up short today. France have a great team, they’ll have a crack off winning the tournament. No shame being beaten by them,” he said.

Colin’s thoughts were shared by Wicklow men Billy Kavanagh from Bray and Oran Cronin from Enniskerry who made their way down the pedestrianised Rue de la République in Lyon’s city centre.

“It was great overall, we’ve done well to get as far as we have, but disappointing to lose it the way we did. Especially since we played well, and probably should have beaten them. They weren’t as good as we thought,” Billy said.

Oran said the tournament had its ups and downs, citing the Belgium match as a low point, but beating Italy as the highlight.

“That’s a once in a lifetime experience, isn’t it?” Billy said.

“It’s nice to have your own actual experience, to be able to tell people about it, instead of listening to everyone else go on about Italia 90 or whatever. We have our own one of them now,” he said.

The Irish team has rewarded a younger set of supporters who began to fear that the glory days of Irish football had been played out before their eyes on the television screens of their childhood homes.

Bonner saving Timofte’s penalty in Genoa. Houghtan humbling England and Italy in Stuttgart and New York. Even Robbie Keane’s late equaliser against Germany in Ibaraki was 14 years ago, and will be remembered by thousands as the game that took place as they sat Junior and Leaving Cert exams.

All those wonderful moments preceded a decade in the international wilderness, a period that worryingly coincided with a decline in the number of Irishmen making the squads of the elite clubs overseas.

Humiliation in Poland, and that hammering by Spain, was confounded by a subsequent 6-1 trouncing by Germany in Dublin during another unsuccessful World Cup qualifying campaign.

Now a new generation can tell of the scenes in the closed Stade Pierre-Mauroy when we beat Italy, or how time seemed to come to a standstill as we tried in vein to hold onto that lead against France.

Problems within Irish football remain, and no supporter would claim that the past few weeks herald the start of a new golden age, however, we now look ahead to the campaign to qualify for Russia with renewed optimism.

What this campaign has done is given a whole new set of supporters their “I was there” moments, and that most crucial commodity in sport: Hope.

The ghosts of Gdansk and Germany have been exorcised and the melancholic acceptance of our lot in footballing life has been replaced with a giddy belief that on our day we can beat anyone.

Outside the stadium at full time a French fan carried a sign that read: “We’ve got Griezmann, You’ve got best fans”.

He passed a group of Irish in full voice, this time telling the doubters how “We nearly beat the French.”

We’re out, but we’re not down.

More in this section