I was born in 1990, 4 years after our last appearance in an international tournament. In that time I’ve seen Northern Ireland excel, exasperate, inspire, and depress. From the age of five I hardly missed a game. I went with my Dad and younger brother – sitting initially in the South Stand in the second row, and then moving to the North Stand in the mid-2000s. I’ve seen Windsor Park bouncing, with an atmosphere that became known throughout Europe, cheering on the team regardless of the result. And I’ve seen Windsor Park half empty and dead.
I remember the stadium barely a quarter full in the mid-nineties. Red, white, and blue Rangers shirts outnumbered green shirts. I remember the horrible political atmosphere. Thankfully my Dad shielded me enough from those things that I never really understood them, and as such was never put off going back. But I know plenty of other people who haven’t stepped foot inside Windsor Park for decades because of these memories.
Aside from the politics often the football was often dire. I remember my tenth birthday and losing to Hungary 1-0. It was the only time I ever got on the Tele at a Northern Ireland match – slumped in the South Stand beside the celebrating Hungarians. I remember the 1,298 minutes we went without a goal. I was there for every home game in that run. My Dad couldn’t go to the game against Armenia so my poor Mum (with no interest in football) brought my brother and me in case we missed the moment when we finally scored. We didn’t. We lost 1-0.
But then we had Healy and we beat England. We beat Spain. We beat Sweden. We beat Denmark. We beat Russia. We beat Hungary, Greece, and Finland amongst others. For a country of 1.7 million (of which many, as is their right, don’t want to play for us. Players born in Ireland can select to play for either the North or the South) it’s pretty impressive stuff. It’s why we watch football – because it’s capable of such incredible upsets. Stephen Craigan kept Michael Owen quiet. Steve Davis outplayed Xavi in the middle of the park. There’s a romanticism in it. To use the cliché – every dog has its day. We believe. No matters the odds or how ridiculous it seems – We believe. It’s not so analytical or reasoned – but who cares.
When I got older there were away trips. A group of around ten us try to make at least one trip per year. We’ve been to Manchester, Prague, Luxembourg, Tallinn, Porto, Helsinki, and Budapest. Aside from these trips, I make the regular trip home to watch the side in Windsor Park, despite often living away from Belfast. Half of my personal debt is taken up by football, but every bit of it has been worth it. Football helps me to feel connected to home even after I’ve moved away. And most importantly, I have build friendships and relationships through it, and shared and enjoyed a common passion with an incredible group of people. Beating England and Spain was just a bonus.
France 2016 feels like a culmination of all these things – the dream we’d never let ourselves believe in. We missed out so narrowly in Euro 2008 qualifying despite David Healy’s 13 goals in one campaign, including his hat-trick against Spain. That was as close as we’d ever get. That was as good as it would ever be.
And yet this campaign we’ve gone better, topping the group with 6 wins, 3 draws and only 1 defeat. 1,298 minutes of football without a goal seems a distant memory. We qualified for a major tournament.
But those of us who have watched football for long enough (and at only 25 years old – but with over 20 years watching football under my belt I include myself in this category) know that the next campaign may be totally different. We could be the group whipping boys again. This is the reality of being such a small nation in global sport. We can sometimes reach incredible heights, but often hit dreadful lows.
The only response to this is to enjoy the highs and savour them – something older Northern Ireland fans do so well. I have heard so many stories of Spain 82. I think coming from a small country we’re better at enjoying our success than bigger countries. It matters more. I’ve spoken to football fans who have seen their team win the World Cup but their eyes don’t sparkle the same way as some Northern Ireland fans talking about Armstrong in 82.
The politics I mentioned at the start of this article sadly haven’t totally disappeared. I’ve heard sectarian songs, abuse, and seen Northern Irish football used as a (excuse the pun) political football. Recently there has been arguments over the anthem, and divisions over hosting congratulatory ceremonies for both the North and the Republic. Tit-for-tat politics as usual – and we’re still 6 months from the tournament starting. I worry this is just the beginning.
The majority of people don’t care, and are tired of all the political maneuvering. Rigsy got it right in his article for Belfast Live. For once, why can’t we celebrate something in this country? I don’t care if you support the Republic, or Wales, England, Poland, Portugal, or whoever. Football brings so much enjoyment, happiness, and togetherness. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could enjoy it this summer without it being dragged out across our traditional divisions?
This is what I’ll be doing in France – taking a bit of enjoyment at local people doing well at their sport. It doesn’t really need much more analysis than that. I refuse to let our politicians sour this summer – whether we win a few games or totally tank – I refuse to let them ruin it. This is what the vast majority of football fans will be doing. We’re booked and ready. Our logistical nightmares of organizing our groups into caravans, trains, cars and airplanes are underway and we’ll be following Northern Ireland come June. I just hope for once politics can take a step back, and for once, maybe we could just enjoy something good coming out of this country.