NORTHERN Ireland manager Michael O’Neill says he cannot imagine the heartache and the grief that has been visited upon the family of Darren ‘Dardar’ Rodgers.
‘Norn Iron’ fan Darren, 24, died in the early hours of this morning after a fall just a few hours after the opening Group C match in Nice.
Darren was from Ballymena and was passionate about Northern Ireland.
Players have tweeted their condolences to Darren’s friends and family and Irish FA bosses have contacted UEFA to see if they can hold a minute’s silence or wear black armbands in Thursday’s clash with Ukraine.
The news has shocked the manager, the players and the travelling fans who have made the journey to France to follow their country’s fortunes in the Euro 2016 finals.
“We came back in the early hours of Monday morning, everyone was obviously very disappointed to hear the news this morning regarding young Darren Rodgers – the tragedy and nature of his death really does put things in perspective,” said O’Neill.
“Despite the result on Sunday night, it was still a joyous occasion, the atmosphere in the stadium was fantastic – certainly the fans enjoyed themselves and really added to a wonderful atmosphere.
“Ultimately to find out that someone so young had lost their life affects everyone really. The players are very down about it and they pass on their deepest sympathies to both the family and the friends who were out with Darren.
“I got up this morning and one of the staff members alerted me this morning and as the day wore on the situation became a little clearer in terms of the details of the individual, the age and nature of the tragedy. It’s very, very sad.
“I can only imagine what his family are going through – going out here with your friends, to be part of the tournament and then for the parents to find out the nature of the tragedy I’m sure is terrible.
“In truth I can’t imagine what that feeling will be like. I can only pass on my condolences and sympathies to his family and friends who are here and remain back in Ballymena.”
The IFA have been in contact with Darren’s family since the tragedy and O’Neill has urged the thousands of fans in France to take care of each other.
He added: “My message to the supporters is make sure you look after each other while you are out here. Please enjoy yourselves and have a great time but please be careful. Take care of each other.
“Having spoken to the players we certainly want to do something to mark the tragedy and pay our respects. All through the campaign and even more so here, the fans have been a huge part of everything that has gone well for Northern Ireland.
“Going through the airport last night despite the result, they gave us a great reception.
“Hopefully come Thursday the team and supporters show their togetherness for Darren Rodgers and his family and I know it will be a fitting tribute.”
Chief executive Patrick Nelson has also backed a supporter-driven campaign to hold a minute’s applause in the 24th minute in Lyon on Thursday.
He said: “We’ll ask UEFA whether it’s appropriate to have a minute’s silence before the [Ukraine] game and/or to wear black armbands.
“We’re also aware that there’s a supporters’ move already to have a minute’s applause in the 24th minute and we’re fully supportive of that.
“I heard about this around eight this morning and everybody in the IFA is devastated by this.
“The young lads came out to watch some games of football, part of a huge movement from Northern Ireland, a very joyous movement, and it’s a tragedy for his family and his friends.
“The IFA President [Jim Shaw] has been with me all day, focused on this, and he has spoken to Darren’s dad and his uncle and he has expressed the sympathy of everybody at the IFA.
“We’re going to take our cue from Darren’s family as to what else we do. An IFA staff member is ready to go down to Nice if the family want that. We don’t know yet whether the family are going to come to Nice, but if they do, and if they want somebody there, then we’ll have somebody there to help look after them.
“It is a terrible tragedy and our message is that we’d like everybody to remember Darren, everyone to respect and celebrate his memory while we’re out in France.
“We have a game coming up in three days’ time and we’re very supportive of the 24th minute’s applause.
“We will talk to UEFA about a more formal tribute and we’ll see how that goes.
“I let board members know this morning, a few staff know. Everyone is just devastated. People don’t come out here to pick up news like this.
“From an Association perspective we just want to respect Darren’s memory and celebrate the life of Darren and do what his family thinks is appropriate.”