They were toasting an unlikely new hero on the Falls Road on Wednesday.
For Niall McGinn didn’t just ruin Cristiano Ronaldo's big party in Portugal the night before by upstaging him in a World Cup qualifier but Northern Ireland’s newest pin-up boy also managed to win over football fans who don’t normally support the men from Windsor Park.
In the confused fusion of politics and sport here, it’s safe to say that the West Belfast Green and White prefer to watch the Republic of Ireland do battle rather than their northern counterparts from just a few miles away in the south of the city.
And while he didn’t single-handedly demolish the border on Tuesday night, Niall McGinn did break down a few barriers by scoring Northern Ireland’s goal in their 1-1 draw with the bookies’ favourites Portugal in front of over 48,000 fans in Porto.
Niall, who’s from Donaghmore in Tyrone, owns an award winning restaurant called Failte on the Falls and yesterday staff and customers were — as the name suggests — welcoming his headline-grabbing wizardry, which put one of the world’s top and richest players, Ronaldo of Real Madrid in the shade.
Niall’s agent Gerry Carlisle — who owns the Evolve football consultancy which once represented Rangers players Kyle Lafferty and Andrew Little as well as Celtic stars including Anthony Stokes and Paddy McCourt — is joint proprietor of Failte.
He said: “This place has been buzzing all day. We don’t have televisions in the restaurant but many of us were watching the game at home.
“The neighbours probably think there’s something wrong with me because I was cheering like a maniac after Niall scored that goal. It was exceptional. Nobody expected that result but the likes of Jonny Evans and Roy Carroll played brilliantly.
“And for Niall it was amazing. The most difficult thing for any footballer is to put the ball in the back of the net and Niall has been doing it for his club Aberdeen recently. Now he’s done it at international level too.
“People here are delighted for him. He is a lovely fella and because he spends so much time here, he’s nearly like a west Belfast native now.”
Gerry was speaking to Niall just after the game. “He was on cloud nine. I just told him to get his feet back on the ground and remember that he has a game for Aberdeen against Dundee United at the weekend.”
Only last year, Niall received bullets in the post. But Northern Ireland’s supporters distanced themselves from the threats against the former Celtic player.
Gerry Carlisle said: “I have a lot of friends who are Northern Ireland supporters and my phone has been red hot since the Portugal game. The real supporters don’t care where Niall is from or that he owns a restaurant on the Falls Road.”
The 80-seater Failte eaterie has been packing the customers in since April 2010 when Niall brought seven of his Celtic colleagues with him for the gala opening night.
Carlisle said: “Niall is very hands on. Any time he’s back here, he will be in meeting people and signing autographs and posing for photographs. He also mentions the restaurant all the time on his Twitter account which has 37,000 followers.”
The walls of Failte are adorned with photographs and football tops which Niall has swapped with Scottish and international players but only a fool would ignore the reality in west Belfast that Northern Ireland aren’t the number one choice for most fans.
One football insider who didn’t want to be named said: “It is a sensitive issue. “It is fairly evident that very few people here support Northern Ireland but from a human perspective everyone will share in Niall’s delight.
“Even if they don’t go to Windsor Park to actively support Northern Ireland or wear IFA shirts, most decent fans want to see someone like Niall doing well.
By coincidence, one of three young men who were having lunch at Failte was a former colleague of McGinn’s at Celtic. “I thought he took his goal superbly,” said Declan Brunty, who played for Northern Ireland’s youth teams.
Stephen Tully said: “I’m more of a Republic fan but it was great to see Niall and the rest of the team doing so well.”
GAA footballer Declan Lynch said: “It was a good result and a good performance by Niall.”
Ecstatic fans return home after a great night for Northern Irish football
By John Mulgrew
The jubilant Green and White Army returned home to a damp Belfast after seeing what they said was one of their side’s best performances out on the pitch.
Northern Ireland fought their way to a stunning 1 -1 draw against Portugal on Tuesday night during the World Cup qualifier — fending off a team with one of the world’s best players, Cristiano Ronaldo.
Fans arriving back said the mood was “electric” with a “euphoric atmosphere” reverberating around the stadium in Porto.
Gary McAllister (right) of the Amalgamation of Northern Ireland Supporters' Clubs said fans saw “one of the best games ever”.
He said: “It was excellent and one of the best atmospheres I’ve experienced. It was fantastic and the fans really enjoyed themselves — it was green all round and the fans were euphoric.
“We went into a very difficult game but we went on to produce a great performance.”
Heavy rain during the side’s clash appeared to have helped Northern Ireland feel right at home — as some 1,300 fans cheered their boys on.
Those returning last night heaped praise on their team’s efforts.
Robert McCartney (54) from Belfast said his team had contained Portugal’s star player Ronaldo “very well”.
“The team did so well against a team of Portugal’s talent. I thought we outplayed them,” he said.
“It’s one of the best games I’ve ever seen.”
Despite travelling from the early hours, supporters returning back to their home turf last night remained full of enthusiasm.
David Thompson (34) from Mallusk said there had been a “feeling of ecstasy” among fans.
“It was fantastic — I couldn’t believe it when we scored. Everyone was singing and dancing — trying to cheer the team on,” he said.
“The atmosphere was fantastic — the Portuguese fans were very friendly. I think they took it very well.”