BRENDAN O'BRIEN: Memories from an amazing 20 days that will never be forgotten

The Irish may have been lauded for their knack of sweeping whole cities off their feet with that rum mix of charm and alcohol, but the Euro party to which this country contributed so handsomely hasn’t missed a beat in our absence as all but a few die-hards returned home to life on Civvy Street and a watching brief, writes Brendan O'Brien.

Still, what a ride while it lasted.

A personal debriefing this week revealed something in the region of 5,300 internal miles travelled, necessitating 10 changes of hotel across six different cities and all that to watch eight games featuring 10 teams over the course of 20 days. Other figures, like the number of pounds gained after endless baguettes and one or two beers, are less calculable.

That said, the dieting and detox will be worth it.

The phrase ‘once in a lifetime’ can be bandied about far too easily but there is no denying the fact that what Irish fans experienced this last month was a once in a generational occurrence given the rarity with which the Republic makes it to the big time gigs and the geographic spread of major football tournaments in the decade gone and over the one to come.

Poland and Ukraine four years ago was impossibly spread out with over 5,000km separating Gdansk from Donetsk and, with 2020 littered over 13 cities from Dublin to Baku and the next two World Cups still pencilled in for Russia and Qatar, it will be some time again before we get to drink in the more contained and convivial atmosphere that France offered last month.

The country made for an infuriating, wonderful, bewildering and magical canvas for a European Championships and one that will be remembered with genuine fondness thanks to the happy convergences of the Irish supporters’ constant ability to make friends and the team’s efforts which saw the side reclaim its place in the heart of the nation.

The paucity of live coverage on terrestrial TV over there, combined with the complete lack of anything that is the first cousin of a highlights programme, as well as the many brain cells lost to sleep deprivation, the odd glass of vino and the smidgin of work to be done, means that we can’t vouch for the entire tournament, but here’s what we saw with our own two eyes.

Best player

Memories from an amazing 20 days that will never be forgotten

Mesut Ozil was sensational for Germany against Northern Ireland, and Kevin De Bruyne excellent for Belgium against the Republic, but Antoine Griezmann’s display in Lyon last Sunday outdid both for impact and outcome. It could be that we witnessed the birth of a superstar.

Best team performance

Memories from an amazing 20 days that will never be forgotten

With all due respect to both Irish teams, there wasn’t anything to compare with the pounding Germany gave the North in the first hour of their group game at Parc des Princes.

The songs

Memories from an amazing 20 days that will never be forgotten

A competitive race this, given the tournament’s unofficial soundtrack to Mr Will Grigg and the Don’t Take Me Home tune, sung slowly to the strains of Billy Ray Cyrus’s Achy Breaky Heart, that was adopted by fans of England, Wales and a few others.

Among the more inventive was the tongue-in-cheek pop by Northern Ireland fans at their Ukrainian counterparts in Lyon which, we hope, flew over their heads: Small part of Russia, you’re just a small part of Russia.

Cheeky, we know.

An honourable mention for: Hal Robson-Kanu,

Hal Robson-Kanuuuuuuu, he’s Welsh as a zebra, but he’ll fucking do while the Ten German Bombers, sung to the tune of the Dambusters by the Northern Ireland supporters against the world champions, struck a rare sour note.

And as for The Fields of Athenry? It has its place but the song’s ubiquity is grating.

The fans

Memories from an amazing 20 days that will never be forgotten

Impossible to separate the Northern Ireland fans, for their sheer energy and non-stop vocals against Germany, and their neighbours from the Republic for their irrepressible good humour. Both compliments apply almost equally to the others, of course.

Whether Irish, Swedes, Poles, Ukrainians, Belgians, Germans, Italians, Welsh, and French, this column didn’t witness a single hairy moment in almost three weeks across the entire country.

Reality bites

Memories from an amazing 20 days that will never be forgotten

The death of two Northern Ireland fans in very different circumstances framed everything football related in its proper perspective, as did the hooliganism and vandalism witnessed on the streets of Marseille, Lille and Lens.

Brexit caught the attention too. The shock on the face of those English colleagues following the Republic of Ireland team, and those Irish journalists who live in the UK, on the morning the news broke brought home the enormity of the referendum.

There was, however, scope for some levity in its wake with Northern Ireland fans scolding their Welsh cousins in Paris last weekend with another gem: “We voted remain, we voted remaiiiiiiiin, we’re not stupid, we voted remain.”

The stadiums

Memories from an amazing 20 days that will never be forgotten

The French have an appalling habit of building modern stadia miles from civilisation and in the midst of some dispiriting motorway and/or industrial estate. Getting there was annoying, and not always straightforward with so many strikes. Getting back was sometimes an expedition.

That said, the actual venues were pretty much all excellent. Curved bowls were mostly the rage, which is probably why Bordeaux’s angular, box-shaped effort with its forest of external white supporting poles stood out.

Most touching moment

Memories from an amazing 20 days that will never be forgotten

The tribute paid to Darren Rodgers, the young Northern Ireland fan who fell to his death in Nice the day after his side’s loss to Poland, by Republic of Ireland supporters 24 minutes into the game against Sweden at the Stade de France stands out.

Less solemn but still touching was ‘the moment’ when the Republic of Ireland players, management and staff stood silently and listened to their supporters in Lyon as they serenaded the squad with the Fields of Athenry after the loss to France. See? It does have its place.

Here’s a little extra sport: BallTalk TV look ahead to the Euro 2016 quarter-finals.

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