Twenty years ago Northern Ireland games were marred by sectarianism. All that has changed, thanks largely to one dedicated football fan, as Chris McCann reports
Self-confessed football nut Jim Rainey isn’t one for blowing his own trumpet. Give him a megaphone, however, and he’s a man on a mission. It’s on the Spion Kop of Windsor Park on any given Northern Ireland home game where you will find the north Belfast native — armed with his very own piece of terrace paraphernalia — cajoling the Green and White Army into a rendition of ‘We’re Not Brazil.’
On the face of it, you would be forgiven for thinking you had stumbled upon the country’s very own all-singing, all-dancing mascot.
What you would never know, however, is that the man behind the megaphone is perhaps — and he won’t thank anyone for saying this — the person who has almost single handedly hit the ‘mute button’ on sectarianism at home internationals.
Jim agreed to meet for a chat and before long, the Community Telegraph is introduced to his £80 megaphone which has fast made a name for itself among the Windsor faithful.
“I first got the idea from Real Madrid,” he smiles.
“There was one fan who was directing the singing and I thought to myself ‘I’ll get myself one of those’. I’m on my fifth one now.”
Jim credits the megaphone — more Police Academy than the football terrace — with drowning out an ugly element of sectarian chanting which had crept into the old south Belfast stadium during the 90s as the country was coming out the other side of the long and bloody conflict.
Back then, Jim Rainey was just another member of the Laganside Northern Ireland Supporters Club, which he had been invited to join after years of attending games with his father.
He quickly rose to club treasurer and by 1999 he was playing a pivotal role as fans of the national side throughout the province merged to form the Amalgamation of Official Northern Ireland Supporters Clubs. “We were trying to get a better deal for the fans from the IFA basically,” he said. Typical Jim.
As the Nineties gave way to the Noughties, however, local football was rocked to its foundations when Northern Ireland star Neil Lennon was forced to quit the international scene after receiving a death threat from loyalist paramilitaries.
To a minority of thugs inside Windsor, Lennon was guilty of two cardinal sins: he joined Glasgow Celtic from Leicester City and he was reported to have said that he would be willing to play for a hypothetical all-Ireland team.
Local football had hit rock bottom, and with the sounds of sectarian jeers directed towards Republic of Ireland players in the infamous encounter in November 1993 still ringing in the ears of many, Northern Ireland was in danger of losing not only fans, but its own players who hailed from one side of the community here.
But luckily, there were people like Jim Rainey around who had had enough.
Jim had been at the ill-fated ‘Lennon game’ and remembers “feeling powerless” as he watched on from the North Stand.
“There was nothing we could do,” he says frankly.
“The Amalgamation’s members were spread throughout the stadium and had to just sit there. What else could they do?”.
For Jim and the many decent fans in the stadium who were appalled by what they had witnessed, it was now all about one thing — regaining control.
So with the IFA — who were busy pushing the ‘Football For All’ initiative led by Michael Boyd — Jim and like-minded supporters agreed that 800 seats in Windsor’s Spion Kop would be set aside for supporters’ clubs, which had rocketed in numbers from 11 to 35 under the Amalgamation of Official Northern Ireland Supporters Clubs umbrella.
With Jim at the helm with his megaphone, they would bring new songs to the once hate-filled terrace — effectively drowning out the bigots. Songs, now as commonplace at Windsor as Jackie Fullerton, like ‘We’re Not Brazil We’re Northern Ireland’ and the much-celebrated Healy song to the tune of the Christmas carol Away in a Manger were born.
For Jim, though, it didn’t stop at the singing.
“In the 80s and 90s the colour green was viewed as a Catholic colour if you like,” he said.
“People were coming to Windsor Park in red, white and blue and did so to express their Britishness during the Troubles. People would wear Rangers shirts too. We didn’t say to anyone what to wear and what not to wear but what we did do was encourage people to wear green — the colour the team played in.
“We came up with the ‘Sea of Green’ initiative to get people to the games in green and white, and worked closely with the IFA to get more Northern Ireland merchandise into the shops.
“At the time the IFA didn’t even have a marketing officer and we said that we needed a young marketing graduate who could get out there and get the merchandise into the shops throughout the country. Geoff Wilson eventually took that position and we worked alongside him. Now Northern Ireland tops are commonplace throughout the country.”
The transformation off the pitch, it seemed, rubbed off on the players as the fortunes of the team started to improve too — most notably against England in 2005 when a David Healy
wonder goal sparked hysteria among the Green and White Army in the Kop.
For Jim, though, the turnaround had been complete even long before those memorable nights against the English — and Spain.
“Even during [Sammy] McIlroy’s reign, at one stage we went over 1000 minutes without scoring a goal, but yet the number of supporters clubs were increasing, as were the attendances,” laughs Jim, who himself had written his own song taking a wry look at the life of a ‘Norn Iron’ fan starved of a goal.
“We have waited 1000 minutes, and we would wait 1000 more, just to see a goal from our wee team, just to see our Northern Ireland score,” he obligingly sings to the sound of the Proclaimers classic 500 Miles.
The catchy song, which quickly swept the terraces, ended with a snipe at the country's closest neighbours, “and we’re still the British champions”, referring to the old Home Championships tournament between Northern Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales which Northern Ireland won back in the 80s before it was ended by Scotland and England.
It wasn’t forgotten by Jim, who personally tracked down the whereabouts of the trophy — at the Scottish FA museum at Hampden Park — and managed to convince the IFA to bring it back to Belfast. It now sits proudly in the IFA headquarters.
It’s the small things like this that have brought Jim Rainey such respect among fans. He is used to looking after the finer details.
Jim has travelled to countries Northern Ireland are due to play in to meet with foreign police forces to discuss what to expect from the travelling fans when they arrive in their country. How to get them to and from the ground safely. How to find out the best meeting point for the fans.
His work for Northern Ireland is endless. When asked what he enjoys outside of Northern Ireland games and football, he pauses; “football,” he says simply.
“Used to play a bit of golf, but only football now.”
The goodwill of the Northern Ireland fans became recognised throughout Europe and in September 2006, Jim was presented with the Brussels International Supporters Award by the Mayor of Brussels in front of packed stands at Windsor Park before the win against Spain.
The €5000 (£4,200) prize which came with the award was donated to the Amalgamation’s charity fund.
And as unassuming as Jim is, further personal recognition deservedly came his way last December when he was awarded an MBE at Buckingham Palace for his ‘services in the Northern Ireland Civil Service and his work in the community’.
“It was a very humbling experience,” admits Jim. “There were guys there who had been rescuing people from the sea or boys just back from Afghanistan, so there was an element of ‘what am I doing here’? But it was nice to be in the company of these sorts of people — real heroes.”
To many in Northern Irish football, however, it is Jim Rainey who is a hero. The man who fought sectarianism and won.
And as the European campaign looms large, Jim will be back on the Kop with his megaphone.
Plans are afoot also for a fresh ‘Sea of Green’ campaign in the near future. As for the long-term future though?
“Well, I think I’m getting a bit old for the megaphone,” he laughs.
“Maybe it’s time to pass it down to someone else. I’m 58, but still think I’m 19 at times.”
Football fans here will hope he feels 19 forever.