It wasn’t how Northern Ireland wanted to begin their first major finals for 30 years. Not with a defeat and certainly not with a tragedy.
The death of fan Darren Rodgers after an accident in Nice in the early hours of Monday has cast a discernible pall over Northern Ireland’s camp in Saint Georges de Reneins, where the players returned to training yesterday.
There was no horsing around from Kyle Lafferty, nothing that jarred with the evident sadness following the death of someone who was among those cheering these same players on just two days earlier.
They are clearly hurting, and not just because of Sunday’s 1-0 defeat to Poland. They are hurting because their hugely impressive Green Army is now one fewer. They are hurting because, in a community as small as Northern Ireland, they have friends who were friends with Rodgers, who was from Ballymena.
Michael O’Neill, the manager, gathered the players around him before training. The message seemed to be: we stand together. O’Neill didn’t expect to have to express sadness about the death of a young man the day after the biggest match of his managerial career. But, as ever, he chose the right words on Monday in an interview posted on the Irish Football Association website.
The IFA have asked Uefa for permission to hold a minute’s silence before tomorrow evening’s crucial clash with Ukraine in Lyon. Chief executive Patrick Nelson yesterday confirmed they have also requested to wear black armbands. He added they were not expecting an answer until the match delegates’ organisational meeting on the afternoon of the game.
“I do not know how Uefa will treat the request, we hope they grant it but I cannot second-guess what they might do in this scenario. As for the fans, I expect they will hold their own tribute to Darren,” he said.
It is chilling to recount the almost humdrum details of a life cut short in its prime. According to French police, Rodgers died after a fall from a promenade wall at the end of a day when Nice rejoiced in two sets of rival fans displaying, as the local paper the next morning put it, “the side of football we all like”.
The area where the tragedy happened is now a shrine. Flags and shirts have been left around the scene, including those left by Republic of Ireland fans. In a display that served as the antidote to the mayhem of Marseille on Saturday, fans sang “stand up for the Ulsterman” in the 24th minute of Monday evening’s 1-1 draw between Republic of Ireland and Sweden. Rodgers was just 24, hence the choice of minute. Northern Irish fans are expected to stage a similar tribute tomorrow.
The players, meanwhile, have been doing their best to focus on their second match of the finals, and on which so much hinges in terms of their future Euro 2016 prospects. But they have clearly been shaken. They learned the news regarding Rodgers when they woke up on Monday morning following their opening Group C clash. “We have only really read what has been in the papers,” said centre-half Jonny Evans yesterday. “There’s not much information in terms of what actually happened but people are always asking. I think one of the lads said he knows friends who knew him and that’s when you start to think that it’s a really sad thing that happened.”
“I spoke to my Da last night,” he added. “He’s down in Nice and he was saying where the accident had taken place there was people laying flowers and people crying. As a group of fans, to think what they done that day, the atmosphere that they created for us …. then when you wake up the next day and one of them has passed away it’s a real, real sad thing. As players, it’s hard to take.”
Goalkeeper Michael McGovern offered a similarly heartfelt tribute to Rodgers, and stressed the players are extra committed to make up for their opening defeat. They are helped that tomorrow’s match is what he described as “almost a home game” given that their team base is 30kms north of Lyon, just a 40-minute coach journey from the stadium.
McGovern dismissed the notion that he might have other things on his mind given his Hamilton Accies contract expires at the end of this month. It was suggested he is in the same position as England striker Jamie Vardy, and also Sweden skipper Zlatan Ibrahimovic, in that his club future is uncertain.
“It is slightly different,” he said. “My contract with Hamilton finishes in two weeks. Obviously I am looking to get something sorted then. I have not really done anything about it, I haven’t made any contact with anyone. My main focus is on Northern Ireland. You are at different clubs throughout your career and have ups and downs but this [chance] might never come again. I want to give it my total focus. I have an agent to look at that side of things. Playing well at this level will help as well.”