To be honest there was only real reason why we were in Lille..
It was for the football.
Arriving early that morning in the north French town the keen sense of anticipation started to build even before we left the airport terminal as we surveyed the Republic of Ireland’s green clad fans making their way downstairs to catch a bus into the city centre.
We were here for the team’s crucial group game against Italy in the 2016 Euro championships and as it would turn out it would become one of the most famous nights in Irish soccer history but until then we had time on our hands to check out the city whose name will live long in the memory of Irish soccer fans.
I saw a Tweet or read somewhere a comment by an Irish fan after the game that the Lille tourism authorities really should sell the place more as it is a surprisingly charming place to spend at least a day or two.
Ok, as a northern French industrial town it doesn’t have the best sales pitch but its real charm lies in its quant cobbled streets within the old city and impressive green belt to the west around the Citadelle.
It was here that a forgotten chapter of the Second World War was written as the French army held off the advancing Germans for a crucial four days to enable the beleaguered British Expeditionary Force time to evacuate from the port of Dunkirk further north in the opening stages of the war.
The green, grassy entrance to the Citadelle…
Today, the Citadelle is a peaceful place to wander around for few hours and a quiet and tranquil stroll will bring you past bubbling streams and green grassy areas where families laid out picnic blankets in the sun. There were several boats tied up alongside the surrounding moats that, had we the time, we would have checked out to see if there was the possibly of going for a quick paddle but the town beckoned and we retreated back to the old town square.
By this stage in the afternoon the fans of both sides were starting to flood into the city centre with the green and white of Ireland clearly outnumbering the blues of the Italians.
We just had time to grab a couple of quick sandwiches and a beer on one of the many outdoor terraces of a lovely coffee shop before the streets were overwhelmed by hordes of soccer fans pouring in looking for some food before the big game.
The place du Général-de-Gaulle fills up with fans..
We then contacted our lovely host of the Airbnb accommodation just off the main square which was ideally located and a real bargain, considering most of the hotels were all booked out well ahead of the match
After being shown around the apartment and stocking the fridge up with beer it was time to re-join the ‘ole, ole, ole’ chanting masses that had by that time completely taken over the place du Général-de-Gaulle.
We have the best fans in the world!
Much to the amusement of the locals they kicked footballs high into the air and sang songs about their heroes while splashing about in the fountain.
By late afternoon the pre-game excitement was reaching fever pitch and it was time to cram onto a sweaty but efficient Metro for the journey out to the Stade Pierre-Mauroy located a few kilometres away.
The atmosphere in the stadium was electric…
The Irish fans had already earned a worthy reputation for fun and frolics during the Euro 2016 campaign but the patience of local commuters and families going about their business while tens of thousands of young men and some women took over their town was impressive.
The atmosphere at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy was electric. I’ve been to a few sporting fixtures both at home abroad before but I’ve never experienced anything like the thrill of that night.
By the time we had entered this amazing stadium past the rows of grinning and clearly amused French police the noise of the fans inside nearly took the roof off..
And then, we scored..