Australia to France (via the Birches)

Lee Leckey (second left) back home and ready for France.
Lee Leckey (second left) back home and ready for France.

Lee Leckey’s path to France in support of Northern Ireland is a tale of long hours, long shots and long miles.

The Birches-born football fan has spent the past few years living in Australia but returned home last week in preparation for the European Championships.

Hours spent clocking up the air miles to journey from the other side of the world as part of the Green And White Army provided Leckey with plenty of time to dream.

“It is amazing to think we will be watching Northern Ireland play for the first time ever in the European Championships,” said Leckey, who will join high numbers of fellow fans from the area in cheering on Northern Ireland. “There is such a buzz about everything and, to be honest, you cannot put a price on what this means to people.

“I can remember the grim days of watching Northern Ireland struggle but now we can go into a major tournament as group winners and with the longest unbeaten stretch of any other nation.

“I booked my flights before we officially qualified and have a return ticket to Australia on July 1.

“I am due to head back from France on June 23 but, of course, will be happy to change my travel arrangements if we progress.

“Fans have been waiting 30 years to get back to another tournament.

“It is going to be surreal to watch us play live in the European Championships.

“Everyone is starting to dream about what could happen but I really believe we can get out of the group stages, despite the tag of underdogs.”

Leckey’s last flight home was for the historic Windsor Park game with Greece that secured EURO 2016 passage.

He will experience the landmark memories in France alongside friends from home and away.

“I would never miss out on something as big as this without going with my mates from back home but also plan to meet up with the Australians,” said Leckey. “We have about 80 fans from Australia coming over and the idea is to meet in Nice on Saturday.

“We have had to get up early and spend time on the computer making the travel arrangements from Australia over the past few months.

“But it has been great, with a whole community of Northern Ireland fans in Australia working together to help everyone out.

“It is also brilliant to have Luke McCullough from Portadown in the squad and that can only help the image of the town, with Northern Ireland now seen by so many around the world as more than just The Troubles or the problems of the past.

“People in Australia have been talking now about Northern Ireland for football more than anything else.

“The vibe is so positive building up to France and social media has helped increase the buzz, with the players also really buying into that connection with the fanbase.

“You can tell it means so much to the players as well and they are every bit as excited.”