By Kevin Regan
Leonard Ravenhill once said “The opportunity of a lifetime must be seized within the lifetime of the opportunity.”
Well last week after a number of failed attempts to secure tickets throughout this year, one finally became available for the final Euro 2016 group game against Italy in Lille last Wednesday.
I didn’t waste any time in snapping up the ticket and in booking the flights to France and in the space of a few hours everything was in place to head over to support the Boys In Green.
It was an early start last Wednesday, with a 5.45am flight to catch at Dublin Airport and despite not being able to sleep all that well due to the excitement, myself and indeed everyone else on the flight were absolutely buzzing.
After a quick spin through the sky, we landed in Lille and I took a taxi to meet Sean Wogan (for whom I am forever thankful after sourcing me a ticket), Barry “The Bowser” Doyle, Neil Dermody and Emmet Blanchfield who are all from Carlow and Kilkenny.
The boys were sound enough to let me stay in their accomadation, although the lads weren’t far off the mark when they described the place as Anne Frank’s attic which was as every bit as confined as you might expect!
After a brief spell sussing out our chances, we took the Metro in Lille Flanders Train Station and parked up outside it by the fountain in the Square which before long transformed into a sea of green with the odd dollop of blue.
As was the case with most fans, we headed to the Supermarket for a few bottles rather than opting to pay €7.50 for a pint, and started sipping away with a crew from Armagh who kindly allowed us to throw our bottles into a large shopping bag full of ice which they cleverly thought of bringing.
The next few hours flew past and it was filled with songs and chants in which opposing fans proceeded to join in, which also resulted in the local police belting out a tune or two as well!
It was now time to head to the stadium on the metro and it was here that I seen the best ever rendition of a Paul McGrath chant ever, despite being tangled up like spaghetti for the entire journey with the large crowds of Irish support!
It turned out that we had forgotten about the one hour time difference and actually arrived over an hour early, but we went into Lille stadium anyway and there was already a large number of Irish supporters present.
One of the proudest moments I have of being Irish from the trip was before a ball was even kicked. This happened during the national anthems.
Obviously the rendition of Amhran na bhFiann was spine tingling, but what had me bursting with pride was the fact that Ireland clapped along to the Italian anthem, and this degree of respect towards the opposition players and supports made me proud as punch.
We have seen other countries boo and disrespect opposing anthems, and this to me was a breath of fresh air and spoke volumes about our nation as a whole and the idolisation we gained from other nations.
The game itself was 90 minutes of pure tension, excitement, despair and eventually elation.
Having gone 84 minutes without a breakthrough, I thought it was lights out for Ireland when Wes Hoolahan missed a sitter from close range.
My head was in my hands like most supporters, but amazingly less than 90 seconds later Robbie Brady nodded home the winner and the whole stadium absolutely erupted like a volcano.
The next few minutes were not for the faint hearted, but when the referee finally blew the game up, the feeling was like nothing I have ever felt before, as men, women and children were flooded with tears of emotion at what they had just witnessed.
The fact that the players and supporters remained in the stadium for so long after the game spoke volumes of what had just happened, with Ireland qualifying for the knockout stages for the very first time in European competition.
The 2 hour wait to get back on the Metro after the game actually felt like two minutes, but instead of staying out on the razz, we opted to go back to Anne Frank’s house and try to comprehend what exactly we had just witnessed with out very eyes, although ‘Bowser’ arrived a little later having not got off the Metro on time and ending up a mile down the road!
The following morning and indeed the afternoon had us all debating whether or not to travel to Lyon for the French game on the Sunday!
And after hours of discussion it was time for myself and ‘Bowser’ to head for Paris an overnight stop before travelling South to Roscoff for the boat to Rosslare Friday evening.
It broke my heart to have to go home and still wish I was there to be honest and had a couple of things gone our way on Sunday against France then we could easily have been flying back over for a quarter final this Sunday.
However, it was a trip that I and every other Irish fan will never ever forget for all the right reasons, and although I initially thought it would be a once in a lifetime experience, I now fully believe that Ireland can qualify for the World Cup in 2018 and hopefully we can go on to create more fantastic memories that we will tell our children and grandchildren for many years to come.