Away from hooliganism, football helps bring Europe together

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As England prepare for their crunch tie with Iceland tonight, JENNY SIMPSON tells us what it’s been like following the team through France at Euro 2016

Towering over his fellow football fans on the train, the 6ft 5in Icelander raised a traffic cone to his lips and began to sing, using the cone as a megaphone.

Jenny Simpson in Lyon for Euro 2016

Jenny Simpson in Lyon for Euro 2016

“Will Grigg’s on fire – your defence is terrified!” he bellowed with a cheeky grin to a carriage full of bemused England fans on their way to a game in St Etienne. Where he got the traffic cone from is anyone’s guess, but it’s easy to see where he picked up the song.

The Wigan forward may not have yet set foot on the pitch for his country, Northern Ireland, but the chirpy chant in Grigg’s honour has been latched onto by fun-loving fans from many nations at the Euro 2016 tournament – I heard folk from as far apart as Brazil and Slovakia breaking into spontaneous renditions on the streets of France during my two weeks there.

The surprise hit certainly symbolises what the Euros should be about – nations being brought together by a love of football and a spirit of fun.

Sadly, that’s not the impression you might have received if you saw the TV footage of violence from Marseille ahead of England’s opening game against Russia. I was in the city for the fixture at the start of a fortnight spent following England and my birthplace, Northern Ireland, through the group stages.

Jenny Simpson and partner Ben Robinson at the Stade Velodrome in Marseille for England v Russia at Euro 2016

Jenny Simpson and partner Ben Robinson at the Stade Velodrome in Marseille for England v Russia at Euro 2016

That night, my phone chorused with a dozen beeps when I turned the wi-fi on and a raft of Whatsapp messages from family and friends flooded in. “Are you OK?”; “Did you see any trouble?” and “Hope you are taking care over there”, they all said.

Having spent the afternoon near the beach in an official Fan Zone, we had completely missed the ugly scenes a few miles away in Marseille’s Old Port area, when Russian hooligans clashed with a number of English supporters ahead of their game that evening. The first we knew of it was when we arrived at the Stade Velodrome to find a ring of police, in full-on ‘Robocop’ style, padded riot gear, encircling all the routes in and out.

Any tension outside melted away for us when we got inside this stunning stadium, with its striking undulating roof and long history of hosting major competitions.

The result, a 1-1 draw, was not one the England fans were happy with, but the atmosphere among the sea of red and white was full on, with fans in vocal form getting behind ‘Roy Hodgson’s barmy army’ in a continual swirl of chants and clapping. After weeks of build up, the real fans realised how great it was to actually be there and be part of this amazing event.

Jenny Simpson (left) and partner Ben Robinson with German fans at the Northern Ireland v Germany game in Paris, Euro 2016

Jenny Simpson (left) and partner Ben Robinson with German fans at the Northern Ireland v Germany game in Paris, Euro 2016

Security was super tight throughout our trip, which is understandable in the wake of all France has gone through in recent times. It made getting into the stadia a somewhat slow experience, with bag and body searches at each, but we learned to turn up earlier and be patient – a small price to pay for keeping safe.

We were lucky enough to have tickets for four group games and spent the next 10 days following England to St Etienne for the Slovakia fixture, and Northern Ireland to Lyon and Paris for the ties against Ukraine and Germany. Each venue and city brought a different feel to the tournament, and mixed results on the pitch – two draws, a win and a loss being our final tally of the games we attended, but both teams managed to qualify for the next round.

It seems odd to say it but my favourite match was Northern Ireland’s 1-0 defeat to Germany at the Parc de Princes in Paris. The reason? The most positive atmosphere I’ve ever experienced at a football match and a real camaraderie between the Irish and German fans.

The ‘Green and White Army’ never ceased singing (or dancing) for a second as they got behind their minnows – and 15 minutes after we’d left the stadium after the game, we could still hear thousands behind us still in there singing … to Will Grigg’s On Fire, of course.

Supporters of both nationalities who had posed for colourful photos together on the way in were high-fiving each other on the way out – half were pleased their team had finished top of the group, and the other half elated they had sneaked through in third place.

That’s the real face of football as it should be.