Sunday, 26 June 2016

Northern Ireland 2-0 Ukraine

Parc Olympique Lyonnais, Lyon

16th June 2016

Almost 34 years to the day since I last watched Northern Ireland win a match at a major tournament (albeit on that occasion in a semi-drunken haze in a West Lothian pub), I was privileged this afternoon to witness the Ulster Chaps doing it again.  Although it has to be said, the first half of this encounter would not live long in the memory of many attendees - not even those wearing green – such was the paucity of goalmouth action.  But, whilst NI had looked woeful and at times out of their depth in the tame defeat to Poland in their opening match, here their game plan worked perfectly: To dig in and bide their time, and hope for a goal from either a set piece or a counter attack.  In the event they achieved both. 

Ukraine perhaps just shaded the first half, without troubling the Irish unduly.  But once they went behind to Gareth McAULEY’s headed goal on 51 minutes they just appeared to push the panic button.  Aware that a second defeat would in all likelihood condemn them to a very early exit, they lost all composure to both their build-up and, more importantly, in front of goal.  Everything became just that important bit rushed.  Even star-turn Andriy Yarmolenko turned into The Invisible Man.

That the players had to be taken from the field by the ref during a particularly vicious hailstorm would hardly have helped the Ukrainians build up the required head of steam to do the NI damage.  Niall McGINN’s injury-time second was just rewards for a refusal by the Irish to do the tedious taking-the-ball-to-the-corner-flag thing so loathed by neutrals like myself. 

Some supporters took a shortcut across this waterlogged wasteland before, rather like wildebeest crossing the Mara River, having to wait their turn to scramble up then down a muddy embankment.  When leaving the ground I saw one elderly fan who had come a cropper on the embankment, lying on the ground with his foot sitting at a very unusual angle to his leg.  

Parc Olympique Lyonnais, Lyon

A Lyon lion.

Panorama of Parc Olympique Lyonnais, Lyon

When the torrential rains came, many of the folks in the front dozen or so rows decamped to watch the match from the shelter of the food outlets concourse,  One has to question the design of a brand new €415 million stadium, which cannot perform the basic function of keeping people out of the rain. 

Whenever the Ukraine fans set up a chant......

...... the Northern Irish effortlessly drowned them out.

Craig Cathcart meets a corner-kick, but heads wide.

Yaroslav Rakitskiy - Ukraine

Gareth McAuley this time.

Early second half, and its the turn of Ukraine's Yevhen Seleznyov to head wide.

Gareth McAuley's opening goal - 1

Gareth McAuley's opening goal - 2

Gareth McAuley's opening goal - 3
Happy, happy Ulstermen.

Not all of the fans in the front rows headed for cover when the hail began.

A hailstorm arrived midway through the second-half.........

....leading the referee to call a to a brief halt to proceedings.

Linesman & Hail

Yevhen Khacheridi & Gareth McAuley enjoy a tussle, watched closely by Vyacheslav Shevchuk.

Northern Ireland v Ukraine - Euro 2016

Aaron Hughes - plying his trade in Australia these days, I believe.

Five man cuddle.

The Northern Irish fans helped make the atmosphere (certainly during the second-half) really rather special.

Panorama of Parc Olympique Lyonnais, Lyon

I was saddened to learn afterwards that a supporter called Archie Rainey had died at the ground, the second NI fan to have passed away in France during the tournament, after one Darren Rodgers lost his life following a fall from a beachside wall in Nice.   And through one of those odd quirks of coincidence, the night after this match found me on the same Nice promenade paying my respects at the makeshift memorial at the site.

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