Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 22 July 2014

Serbia v Northern Ireland: A ring of steel and an empty stadium in Belgrade

Serbia 2 Northern Ireland 1

Northern Ireland fans were given a police escort to and from last night's European Championship qualifier in Belgrade.

Security was tight before and after the match with Serbia amid fears that there could be trouble from home fans angry at not being allowed to see the game.

Sadly, the 265 away supporters went home disappointed. Despite a strong first half performance, Serbia won 2-1.

Gareth McAuley scored for Northern Ireland with a looping header into the top corner.

Serbia levelled with a score from Marko Pantelic, with Zoran Tosic clinching the win on 74 minutes.

The Serbia supporters were banned from the game by Uefa after they threw flares and fireworks on to the pitch and into the stands last October before and during a game against Italy in Genoa, which was abandoned after just six minutes.

The authorities had initially declared that last night's game in Belgrade would be played behind closed doors until the IFA intervened on behalf of Northern Ireland supporters who had paid for flights and booked hotels.

Uefa displayed common sense and allowed those fans to travel, offering anyone who didn't want to go tickets for the Europa League final in Dublin as compensation.

There were few takers for that, with the vast majority deciding to come to Belgrade as planned.

There was a jovial atmosphere among the 265-strong Green and White Army. They brought smiles to the faces of locals yesterday afternoon on a hot day in Belgrade.

The supporters started collecting their tickets at the team hotel at lunchtime before being picked up by buses at Student Square, in the centre of the city, 90 minutes before kick-off, accompanied by police every step of the way.

It was the same after the game with Uefa and the IFA working closely together in a bid to ensure there was no trouble.

The police at the stadium were in riot gear but there was no trouble for them to deal with.

“We're here to cheer on the boys and give them as much backing as we can,” said Russell King, from the Londonderry Northern Ireland Supporters Club.

“When Uefa made the announcement about no fans being allowed into the game we were gutted because we were being punished having done nothing wrong. Thankfully, though, it all got sorted and we're here as planned.”

What didn't go to plan was the rehearsal of the national anthems with A Soldier’s Song played instead of God Save The Queen.

That would not have gone down well with Northern Ireland fans high up in the stands, but those in control of the PA system got it right for the real thing.

They may have numbered just 265 — around 70 friends and family members of the Serbia team were also in attendance — but such was the noise coming from the Northern Ireland fans inside the 55,000 capacity Red Star Stadium, you would have thought there was many, many more.

They made fun of the fact that no Serbia supporters were there.

One fan even dressed up as Freddie Mercury. No wonder they were in such good voice.

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