On New Year’s day, when an ex-student of mine, a proud Veronese with a curious west coast drawl, asked if I would be interested in going to France for the Italy v Ireland game, I could hardly say no. Of course, at this stage he didn't actually have the tickets, and the chances of getting them in the ballot seemed remote, so it was more in hope than in expectation that I accepted his kind offer.
I'd long ago promised myself that I would attend the next tournament that Scotland qualified for (regardless of venue), but with the prospects of Scotland qualifying for a tournament about as likely as bumping into a sober Irishman on the streets of France this weekend, I decided to throw my lot in with the Italians. In truth, I was a bit doubtful about supporting a 'foreign' nation and 'going on tour' with anyone other than my close friends and compatriots, but I'd been living in Italy for nearly five years, my wife is half-Italian, my youngest son was born in Verona and I never drink a cappuccino after 11. Maybe it was time to unleash the Italian in me!
Well, match day finally arrived and, like all good away trips, this one started in a motorway tollbooth car park. The Verona North junction of the E45 (a remarkable motorway that somehow connects Karesuando in Sweden with Gela in Sicily) is a fairly surreal place to be at 6.45 am on a Wednesday morning, but it was here I had arranged to be picked up for the first leg of the journey from Verona to Lille. Being British, I arrived early. Being Italian, my lift arrived late. Not to worry, we were soon speeding south, our somewhat circuitous route taking us first to Bologna, then north by plane to Paris before the final leg of the journey by train to French Flanders on the border with Belgium.
My companions for the trip were: 'Gelme', an in-house lawyer for an Italian I.T. service provider, from the famous wine-making region of Valpolicella, he nonetheless has a healthy appetite for the beer and, as a former Erasmus student, a remarkable penchant for cultivating cross-border friendships. On a previous European adventure (Poland 2012), he had befriended some Irish fans who were in a neighbouring campervan and he has successfully nurtured this friendship over the years, offering warm hospitality in his native Verona in exchange for an eye-opening 'cultural exchange' to the Emerald Isle. We had arranged to meet these Irish friends in Lille's Grand Place and, as a small group of Italians, we were warmly embraced as we joined the army of Irish fans who were already in high spirits.
"Il Capo", another native of Verona, lifelong Milan fan and loyal season ticket holder. Short, fit and well presented, an eye for the ladies and a quiet determination that somehow ensured that at 3.00am on Thursday morning, when the chances of navigating through the walls of Irish six deep at every bar in the city seemed all but impossible, he gleefully returned with 4 pints, giving our dwindling spirits a much needed kick in the arse that would see us through until the dawn.
Gian, a cultured and thoughtful businessman from Torino, he bought with him a book about two 19th century Italian prostitutes, which he absorbed in the quieter moments of the trip.
Arriving at Bologna airport at around 10.00am, my thoughts quite obviously turned to beer. My companions, however, were more interested in the motorbike on display in the Ducati shop. A chance encounter with a dapper but surly Andrea Mandorlini, the manager of Hellas Verona who had been dismissed in November 2015 after an incredible run of bad form which would eventually culminate in the club being relegated, added a sense of occasion to proceedings, and before long we were boarding the short Air France flight to Paris. We barely had time to quaff a can of Heineken (or in the case of my Italian companions, a continental fruit juice) before we were descending into Paris GDG).
At Paris we got our first taste of what was to come over the next couple of days. The Irish were immediately obvious with their green jerseys and propensity to congregate at the nearest bar. They were without exception unfailingly quick to strike up a conversation (usually a twinkle-eyed request that we let them win). Nothing, I soon realised, confuses an Irishman like an Italian with a Scottish accent. An explanation of my origins and background added another dimension to our conversations, with some inevitable good natured ribbing at the luckless Scots who, by comment consent, were unlucky not to have qualified for the tournament, having taken four points from their encounters with the Irish.
Italy had already eased into the knock-out phase of the tournament as group leaders with two emphatic victories (against pre-tournament favourites Belgium and Ibrahimović-led Sweden). The ease with which the Italian side has reached the knock-out phase has surprised many. For Ireland, a win was necessary to proceed to the knock-out phase of the tournament. With Antonio Conte taking the opportunity to rotate his squad, resting key players like Buffon, Chiellini and De Rossi, and giving Paris Saint-Germain goalie Salvatore Sirigu and West Ham defender Angelo Ogbonna rare starts, Ireland were in with a chance.
On arrival in Lille, a beautiful old town with classic Flemish architecture and a vibrant city centre, it was immediately clear that the Irish hadn't just occupied a single bar or piazza, but that they had taken over the entire city. Every single bar, every street, every piazza was overflowing with singing, dancing, drunken Irishmen.
As thousands upon thousands of drunk and boisterous Irish boarded the metro trains to the stadium, I found myself in a compartment opposite a north African family, including a baby in arms. A visibly nervous looking woman in a hijab also occupied a discreet corner of the carriage. As the carriage quickly filled to bursting point, there was a moment of anxiety for those who had unwittingly found themselves caught up in this Irish exodus from central Lille to the city's stadium. They need not have worried. The friendly Irish quickly introduced themselves to their fellow passengers, fussing over the child as if he was one of their own and even showing-off mobile phone pictures of their own children to the somewhat bemused African father.
The match itself might not have been a classic (in fact, after one-too-many of the stadium's low-alcohol sleep inducing lagers, one of my companions actually fell asleep during the first half), but the spectacle was unforgettable, particularly in the second half when it reached its incredible climax. I'll never forget the haunting lyrics of the Fields of Athenry echoing around the stadium and the utter hysteria Robert Brady scored the late winner that would take Ireland through to the next round. The far-away stand, a bouncing, delirious sea of green, the five minutes of tension after the goal, as the Irish desperately sought to cling on to their lead. It was almost too much for the row of young Irish in front of me who could barely contain themselves in the minutes before the final whistle.
You would be hard pressed to find a single Italian who would begrudge the Irish their victory. Indeed, in the post-match hysteria, I caught a fleeting glimpse on the stadium's big screen of Gigi Buffon, the classy Italian goalkeeper, embracing Martin O'Neil with a genuine enthusiasm that would epitomise the Italian feelings towards the Irish. In the days, months and years to come, when people ask me what I remember about Euro 2016, it will be enough to say: I was in Lille with the Irish.
From an organisational perspective, getting back to the city centre after the match was a frustrating experience and, in different circumstances, frustration could have spilled over into something uglier. The Irish, however, accepted their plight in the same way as they faced everything else - with good humour and song. When a couple of hours later we eventually boarded the metro that would take us back to the city centre, we were treated to a drunken but spirited rendition of some old Irish folk songs.
And this is the remarkable thing about the Irish travelling army. They come not to conquer or to fight or to display their superiority. They themselves know all about being an oppressed minority, they understand the pain of intolerance and the plight of the migrant. They follow their football team with an unrivalled joy and alcohol-induced passion, but I can honestly say that I didn't hear a single racist, sexist or homophobic remark, which in the context of such a huge group of travelling football fans is quite remarkable and which, by the way, is in stark contrast to the language of the Italian fans, whose conversation is peppered with a casual but virulent racism that would make Nigel Farage blush.
In fact, in my time in Lille I don't think I even heard an Irishman so much as swear! I happened to mention this to an Irish lad I found myself speaking to in the early hours of Thursday morning. "We're no angels" he confessed, "but when we come abroad we just want to make friends and do our country proud". In France this summer they have certainly done that, both on and off the pitch, but while few fancy their chances against the host nation on Sunday afternoon, fewer still would begrudge them another moment of European glory.
Words by Richard Hough: @rick_hough