Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 2 August 2014

Last stand: Looking back at the history of Windsor Park

The South Stand at Windsor has witnessed some momentous days in Linfield and Northern Ireland's footballing history. As it goes under the wrecking ball as part of a £36 million redevelopment, lifelong Blueman Ivan Little recalls some of the highs as well as the lows.

Demolition begins of the 100-year-old South Stand at Windsor Park in south Belfast ahead of major redevelopment of the stadium. Jonathan Porter/Presseye.
Demolition begins of the 100-year-old South Stand at Windsor Park in south Belfast ahead of major redevelopment of the stadium. Jonathan Porter/Presseye.
A mural of George Best and David Healy on the wall of the Times Bar, York Road. Brian Little/ Presseye
A mural of George Best and David Healy on the wall of the Times Bar, York Road. Brian Little/ Presseye
Northern Ireland's David Healy celebrates scoring a hat-trick against Spain during Wednesdays  Euro 2008 match against Iceland at Belfast's Windsor Park.
Northern Ireland's David Healy celebrates scoring a hat-trick against Spain during Wednesdays Euro 2008 match against Iceland at Belfast's Windsor Park.

The ghosts of the greats like George Best, Danny Blanchflower and Peter Doherty stared back from the flaking mural on the bridge just outside Windsor Park as inside the demolition men tore down part of Northern Ireland's football heritage and ripped apart a lifetime of sporting memories in the process.

The flattening of the stadium's perimeter wall and the Linfield social club, where triumphs were toasted and sorrows were drowned, had opened up a clear sightline from inside Windsor of the fading images which the elements are removing almost as quickly as the wrecking crew who are knocking down the old South Stand and its dressing rooms and administration offices.

For thousands of football diehards like me, the 80-year-old, 4,000-seater grandstand was a window into a world of dreams, where some of the legends in the painting paraded their skills for real on the Windsor Park pitch.

Surveying the scene all alone amid the eerie silence of a lunchtime break for the hulking demolition excavators, the action replays ran through my mind as the spectres of heroes including Bertie Peacock, Wilbur Cush and Derek Dougan came to life again.

But, for me, it wasn't just the players in the green shirts who fuelled my youthful football fantasies.

I grew up watching Linfield – at first from the terraces where the wit was sharper than the wisdom, before graduating to the allegedly more commodious surroundings of the South Stand, which could be even more of a bear-pit of a place.

It was little wonder that it earned itself the nickname Whinger Park, because some of the fans in the South Stand were among the hardest-to-please in the world, supporters who could find fault in perfection and still give their players and manager a rollicking after a runaway win.

The belittlers and the begrudgers had plenty to smile about – even if they didn't want to.

Trophy wins were two a penny and maybe that was the problem. The South Stand didn't just expect success. It demanded it.

As I visited Windsor for this grandstand finish, I tried to re-imagine the characters who were so plentiful that a thread on a Linfield fans' forum called Legendary Lunatics had more than 550 suggestions and 26,415 views.

The nicknames ranged from Loco, Mad Geordie, the Rocker, Mincer, Forty Coats, the Beast and the Badger, whose ability to find new words with which to bait referees was boundless.

One that got away, however, was the Shankill MP Johnny McQuade, who once used unparliamentary language in a failed attempt to persuade supporters to join him in a pitch invasion after a Linfield player was sent off.

Another regular in the South Stand whose command of English was somewhat more refined was Alan Green, who has gone on to become one of the BBC's top football commentators on Radio 5 Live.

In an interview, his ebullient father, Bill, told me about the trinity of passions in his life. His voice breaking with emotion, he put them in order – God, his family and Linfield.

For me, football was also a family affair. My brothers brought me to Northern Ireland games where 59,000 supporters packed the terraces while another 4,000 of what we dubbed the 'fur coat brigade' got the elusive and expensive tickets for the South Stand.

The capacity of the stadium was drastically reduced down the years, but the emergence of the Green and White Army has brought a new wave of enthusiasm to international matches.

In the 1950s and '60s, Linfield could attract crowds of more than 15,000, sometimes higher, though nowadays they're lucky if they'll get two or three thousand fans through the turnstiles.

My first visit to the South Stand was undoubtedly my most unforgettable, as I accompanied my brother into an office to enquire about tickets for a game.

There, in front of my wide-eyed boyish innocence, sat all seven trophies which Linfield had won in the 1961-62 season. Fifty years on, the golden memory of the silverware automatically conjured up thoughts of the captain who led Linfield to their all-conquering feat, Tommy Dickson, aka the Duke of Windsor, arguably the finest player ever to pull on a blue jersey.

By coincidence, I had been in contact with Tommy's son, Gary, only days earlier. He told me that the demolition of the South Stand was breaking his heart.

In the solitude of an unrecognisable Windsor Park, however, the indisputable fact was that the South Stand was out-of-date 30 years ago, never mind in the 21st century.

It should have been razed in the wake of the Bradford City fire tragedy in 1985, when 56 supporters died after flames swept through a wooden grandstand not unlike the one at Windsor Park.

As the years went by, health and safety officials ordered the construction of new fire escapes at Windsor and closed down sections of the South Stand, but it was still a hazard-riddled, down-at-heel mess.

However, it held a special place in the hearts of Linfield supporters who weren't exactly renowned for their enthusiasm for embracing change. Indeed, even the policy of playing only Protestants at Linfield vanished long before the South Stand.

Not that Linfield supporters reserved their enmity for football clubs who kicked with the other foot so to speak. First Minister Peter Robinson discovered that years ago.

His reputation as a Glentoran fan preceded him and, as the newly-elected MP walked into the directors' box in the South Stand as a guest of the Oval club shortly after his election victory, his smile quickly vanished after he was greeted with a cacophony of boos and jeers from the Linfield fans, many of whom had probably voted for him.

For other visiting club officials, the directors' box couldn't have been a walk in the park, either, as they sometimes came under verbal attack for doing nothing more sinister than cheering a goal for their teams.

Rod Stewart got a friendlier welcome at a Scotland international, but that might have had something to do with the fact that when he went into a social club under the South Stand for a pint after the game, he ordered drinks all round.

As a joint editor of Linfield and Northern Ireland publications in the 1970s and '80s, I had the sort of access to the Windsor Park boardroom and players' lounges after games that I could only have dreamt about as a youngster.

And celebrating World Cup finals glories in 1982 and 1986 alongside Pat Jennings, Martin O'Neill and Gerry Armstrong was pure Boy's Own stuff.

But one international I was happy to miss was the tension-charged 1-1 draw between Northern Ireland and the Republic in 1994, when the sectarian hatred unleashed on the visiting players by the home fans was unmistakable even as I watched the match on television – in Lanzarote.

There were other bad days – when Linfield and Glentoran fans fought each other on and off the field; when the police fired plastic bullets during clashes with Donegal Celtic supporters, and when bombs exploded close to Windsor on the days of Cliftonville and England matches.

The South Stand also witnessed the infamous riot in 1948 when Belfast Celtic's centre forward, Jimmy Jones, had his leg broken by Linfield supporters – an assault which was eventually blamed for Belfast Celtic quitting Irish League football.

That was well before my time, but I was at Windsor several years ago when a group of former Celtic players, including Jimmy Jones, returned with fans of the old club for a social evening, the first visit since the '48 match.

Back in the South Stand, however, I couldn't resist one last look at the antiquated Press box from where I'd covered Irish League matches in the '70s for several newspapers, including Ireland's Saturday Night.

How the glass survived is a mystery. Furious Linfield fans had a habit of hammering on it as they lambasted reporters for referees' decisions which didn't please them.

Inevitably, my eyes were drawn to the seat from where the doyen of local football writers, the late Malcolm Brodie of the Belfast Telegraph, crafted thousands of reports during his astonishingly long and brilliant career.

He may have travelled around the globe to write about World Cup finals, but he was rarely happier than at Windsor Park which he called 'The Shrine' and though he denied he was a Blueman, some of us knew better.

One night he spoke on camera for two hours and 10 minutes when I interviewed him for a video production about the history of Linfield. If he didn't know something about the club, it didn't happen.

The only pity was that he didn't live long enough to see the start of the transformation of his beloved Windsor Park from the dark ages to an ultra-modern stadium.

The work is costing £36m and Nick Oldfield, a former rugby player from Yorkshire, is overseeing the job for the award-winning Newry construction firm of O'Hare and McGovern.

He told me it will take six weeks to demolish the South Stand and dig out the old foundations. He also said that the Windsor Park pitch which now has undersoil heating had been seeded and would be ready by August.

But with the IFA now having a stake in the stadium as well as Linfield, it's not clear if the first game on the new surface will be a domestic match in September or a Northern Ireland international in October.

Earlier this month, the cameras recorded the removal of the first cladding from the South Stand, but that was essentially all about the optics. It wasn't until a week later that officials from Linfield were moved to temporary accommodation on the other side of the ground and the demolition began in earnest.

The new South Stand will be finished in May next year and that will be followed by the refurbishment of existing grandstands before the overall project is completed five months later with a stadium which will have a capacity for 18,000 supporters.

Cathal O'Hare, a contracts manager with construction firm O'Hare and McGovern, said it would be a world-class, state-of-the-art stadium. "We have a tight schedule, but the redevelopment is going according to plan. It is going to look amazing."

At the peak of the re-development, it's thought up to 300 people will be employed on the job at Windsor. Hundreds of seats from the South Stand have been bought by Linfield and Northern Ireland fans for a fiver a time, with the money going to the Northern Ireland Children's Hospice.

It's said that a number of other seats have been acquired by a GAA club – a sign that it's not just the Windsor Park ground which has been undergoing a makeover.

Five golden moments at Windsor Park

September 2005, Northern Ireland v England

Having failed to beat England in the preceding 33 years, it would be fair to say that confidence of victory was never very high for the Northern Ireland team when playing against England. That was until star player David Healy latched onto a clever pass from team mate Steven Davis, before blasting the ball past the helpless English keeper. Cue endless YouTube reruns and extra loud chants of "We're not Brazil, we're Northern Ireland ..."

September 2006, Northern Ireland v Spain

Almost exactly a year on from that goal, Healy scored a stunning hat-trick for Northern Ireland during Northern Ireland's historic 3–2 victory over Spain. Against Liechtenstein, he went on to score another trio of goals, becoming the first player ever to score two hat-tricks for Northern Ireland.

October1967, Northern Ireland v Scotland

While his career at international level never matched the highs of his club appearances for the likes of Manchester United, George Best still managed to bring a touch of his magic to Windsor Park, including this superlative display of skill against the Scots at Windsor Park in 1967.

December 1957, Northern Ireland v Italy

As bad-tempered footballing engagements go, the now legendary 'Battle of Belfast' must surely rank up there with Eric Cantona's kung fu kick or Luis Suarez's toothsome attack on a rival at the recently completed World Cup.

The clash between Northern Ireland and Italy at Windsor Park was described by NI player, later manager, Billy Bingham as "dangerous" and "intimidating" after the World Cup qualifier was re-categorised as a friendly at the last minute due to the match referee being fog-bound in London.

The crowd – made up of passionate Italian fans and burly Belfast shipyard workers – witnessed Fiorentina's Giuseppe Chiappella flooring Danny Blanchflower and AC MIlan great Juan Schiaffino smack NI player Wilbur Cush, who reportedly retaliated with a wince-inducing tackle.

The game finished 2-2, a result which would have taken Italy to the World Cup finals, had it not been a friendly.

"The Italians went crackers, really nasty," recalled Bingham. "At the end the fans came on to the pitch. We took the Italian players off ourselves to keep people away."

November 1981, Northern Ireland v Israel

Gerry Armstrong may be more celebrated for his famous goal against Spain in the 1982 World Cup, but in Windsor Park at least it was his winning strike against Israel the previous year that helped propel Northern Ireland to the tournament in the first place.

His cracking left foot volley was the only goal of the game and sent fans into raptures, although as Armstrong himself said of the match later: "There was a lot of pressure because people expected us to win."

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