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Euro 2016: I'm enjoying these happy days for Ireland, north and south

By Henry McDonald

Published 10/10/2015

Northern Ireland fans in the stands prior to the UEFA European Championship Qualifying match at Windsor Park, Belfast. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday October 8, 2015. See PA story SOCCER N Ireland. Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire.
Northern Ireland fans in the stands prior to the UEFA European Championship Qualifying match at Windsor Park, Belfast. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday October 8, 2015. See PA story SOCCER N Ireland. Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire.
A Northern Ireland fan in the stands during the UEFA European Championship Qualifying match at Windsor Park, Belfast. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday October 8, 2015. See PA story SOCCER N Ireland. Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire.
A Northern Ireland fan in the stands prior to the UEFA European Championship Qualifying match at Windsor Park, Belfast. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday October 8, 2015. See PA story SOCCER N Ireland. Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire.
A Northern Ireland fan in the stands prior to the UEFA European Championship Qualifying match at Windsor Park, Belfast. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday October 8, 2015. See PA story SOCCER N Ireland. Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire.
Northern Ireland's Josh Magennis in action during the UEFA European Championship Qualifying match at Windsor Park, Belfast. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday October 8, 2015. See PA story SOCCER N Ireland. Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire.
A Northern Ireland fan in the stands during the UEFA European Championship Qualifying match at Windsor Park, Belfast. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday October 8, 2015. See PA story SOCCER N Ireland. Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire.
Greece fans during the UEFA European Championship Qualifying match at Windsor Park, Belfast. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday October 8, 2015. See PA story SOCCER N Ireland. Photo credit should read: Liam McBurney/PA Wire.
A Northern Ireland fan waves the French flag during the UEFA European Championship Qualifying match at Windsor Park, Belfast. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday October 8, 2015. See PA story SOCCER N Ireland. Photo credit should read: Liam McBurney/PA Wire.
Boxer Carl Frampton before the UEFA European Championship Qualifying match at Windsor Park, Belfast. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday October 8, 2015. See PA story SOCCER N Ireland. Photo credit should read: Liam McBurney/PA Wire.
Pictured is Northern Ireland fans at Ryans Bar in Belfast ahead of the Euro Qualifier at Windsor Park. Picture - Kevin Scott / Presseye
Excited Northern Ireland fans before this evenings crucial game against Greece at Windsor Park. Carley Strong and Audrey McClements. Picture Matt Bohill.
PACEMAKER BELFAST 08/10/2015 Excited Northern Ireland fans before this evenings crucial game against Greece at Windsor Park. Ian Irwin Annette McCauley and Richie Irwin. Picture Matt Bohill.
PACEMAKER BELFAST 08/10/2015 Excited Northern Ireland fans before this evenings crucial game against Greece at Windsor Park. Jake Quinn and his dad Graham Quinn. Picture Matt Bohill.
PACEMAKER BELFAST 08/10/2015 Excited Northern Ireland fans before this evenings crucial game against Greece at Windsor Park. Warren Beatty, Laura Jane Kernaghan, Lee Finley, Gareth Mcquillan and Johnny McKinstry. Picture Matt Bohill.
PACEMAKER BELFAST 08/10/2015 Excited Northern Ireland fans before this evenings crucial game against Greece at Windsor Park. Northern Ireland fans get behind their team on the Lisburn road before the game. Picture Matt Bohill.
Picture - Kevin Scott / Presseye Thursday 8th October 2015 - Belfast Northern Ireland - Northern Ireland vs Greece FANS Pictured is Northern Ireland fans at Laverys bar in Belfast ahead of the Euro Qualifier at Windsor Park. Picture - Kevin Scott / Presseye
Picture - Kevin Scott / Presseye Thursday 8th October 2015 - Belfast Northern Ireland - Northern Ireland vs Greece FANS Pictured is Northern Ireland fans at Laverys bar in Belfast ahead of the Euro Qualifier at Windsor Park. Picture - Kevin Scott / Presseye
Picture - Kevin Scott / Presseye Thursday 8th October 2015 - Belfast Northern Ireland - Northern Ireland vs Greece FANS Pictured is Northern Ireland fans Lee Leckey and Jonny Wylie at Laverys bar in Belfast ahead of the Euro Qualifier at Windsor Park. Picture - Kevin Scott / Presseye
Picture - Kevin Scott / Presseye Thursday 8th October 2015 - Belfast Northern Ireland - Northern Ireland vs Greece FANS Pictured is Northern Ireland fan Gareth McQuillan at Laverys bar in Belfast ahead of the Euro Qualifier at Windsor Park. Picture - Kevin Scott / Presseye
Picture - Kevin Scott / Presseye Thursday 8th October 2015 - Belfast Northern Ireland - Northern Ireland vs Greece FANS Pictured is Northern Ireland fans Ian Bannatyne, Ryan Armstrong, Stuart Gowey, Gary Herron, Phil Bannatyne, Billy Rankin and Ian Morrow at Laverys bar in Belfast ahead of the Euro Qualifier at Windsor Park. Picture - Kevin Scott / Presseye
Picture - Kevin Scott / Presseye Thursday 8th October 2015 - Belfast Northern Ireland - Northern Ireland vs Greece FANS Pictured is Northern Ireland fans Adam Shilliday, Stuart Mclees, Trevor Henderson and Glen Muir at Laverys bar in Belfast ahead of the Euro Qualifier at Windsor Park. Picture - Kevin Scott / Presseye
Picture - Kevin Scott / Presseye Thursday 8th October 2015 - Belfast Northern Ireland - Northern Ireland vs Greece FANS Pictured is Northern Ireland fans Ryan Weir, James Irwin and Peter Graham from Omagh at Laverys bar in Belfast ahead of the Euro Qualifier at Windsor Park. Picture - Kevin Scott / Presseye
PACEMAKER BELFAST 08/10/2015 Excited Northern Ireland fans before this evenings crucial game against Greece at Windsor Park. Johnathan Irvine and Oliver Norwoods dad (right) before the match. Picture Matt Bohill.
Picture - Kevin Scott / Presseye Thursday 8th October 2015 - Belfast Northern Ireland - Northern Ireland vs Greece FANS Pictured is Northern Ireland fans at Ryans Bar in Belfast ahead of the Euro Qualifier at Windsor Park. Picture - Kevin Scott / Presseye
Picture - Kevin Scott / Presseye Thursday 8th October 2015 - Belfast Northern Ireland - Northern Ireland vs Greece FANS Pictured is Northern Ireland fans at Ryans Bar in Belfast ahead of the Euro Qualifier at Windsor Park. Picture - Kevin Scott / Presseye
Northern Ireland fan Christian king during Thursday nights UEFA Euro 2016 Qualifier against Greece at Windsor Park, Belfast. Photo by William Cherry / PressEye
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 08th October 2015 - Photo by William Cherry Northern Ireland fans Christian king and George king during Thursday nights UEFA Euro 2016 Qualifier against Greece at Windsor Park, Belfast.
Stephen Warke getting in the mood for Northern Ireland v Greece
Colin (@ards1985) via Twitter: watching hopefully later in sunny Orlando with @kirstywoo85
Actor Glenn Speers (@GlennSpeers) via Twitter: I'll be following score in my dressing room in The Commitments at The Palace Theatre London
Euro 2016 Qualifier - Northern Ireland Vs Hungary at Windsor Park, Belfast. Northern Ireland legend David Healy watching the match with fans. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
J McLorn with his son David at Windsor Park. Pic: J McLorn
Northern Ireland fans during this evenings game at Windsor park. Photo Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press
Northern Ireland fans during this evenings game at Windsor park. Photo Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press
Northern Ireland's fans during the game at Windsor Park in Belfast. Photo David Maginnis/Pacemaker Press
Northern Ireland's fans during today's game at Windsor Park in Belfast. Photo David Maginnis/Pacemaker Press
Northern Ireland's fans before the game at Windsor Park in Belfast. Photo David Maginnis/Pacemaker Press
Northern Ireland's fans before the game at Windsor Park in Belfast. Photo David Maginnis/Pacemaker Press
Northern Ireland fans George King with twin son's Mason and Christain before the match against Hungary during Monday night's UEFA EURO 2016 Group F Qualifier at the National Football Stadium, Windsor Park, Belfast. Picture by Brian Little/Presseye
Northern Ireland fans (L-R) Charlotte Cummings with her father Paul and sister Zoe from Antrim. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Mason King (12) with his father George King, twin brother Christian and Daren Leighton from Donegal Pass. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Northern Ireland fans (L-R) Ethan Gibson(14), Lewis Orr-McCauley(16), Mathew Gibson(12), Samantha Orr-McCauley(6) and Grant Orr-McCauley(11). Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Northern Ireland v Hungary at Windsor Park, Belfast. Northern Ireland fans Mark Paul with his son Rhys and Gary from Newtownabbey. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Northern Ireland fan Daniel Gracey (5) Ballymoney during Monday night's UEFA EURO 2016 Group F Qualifier at the National Football Stadium, Windsor Park, Belfast. Picture by Brian Little/Presseye
Buddy and Mylo watching at home. Photo: Kristine Hill
David McLorn before going to Windsor Park. Photo: J McLorn
Rory Beattie (8 months) getting ready to watch the match. Photo: Linda Taylor
Husband and wife Neil and Lorainne Fentie are looking forward to the big match against Hungary at Windsor Park. Picture Matt Bohill.
Northern Ireland fans Matthew Kernaghan, James Abraham, Ryan Blakely and Ben Speers cant wait for the big match at Windsor Park. Photo: Matt Bohill Pacemaker Press.
Little Jake Quinn who is to lead out the Hungarian national team at Windsor Park cheers on Northern Ireland on top of his dad Graham Quinn's shoulders. Picture Matt Bohill Pacemaker Press.
Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill ahead of the match against Hungary during Monday night's UEFA EURO 2016 Group F Qualifier at the National Football Stadium, Windsor Park, Belfast. Picture by Brian Little/Presseye
Northern Ireland Niall McGinn, Stuart Dallas and Josh Magennis ahead of the match against Hungary during Monday night's UEFA EURO 2016 Group F Qualifier at the National Football Stadium, Windsor Park, Belfast. Picture by Brian Little/Presseye
Northern Ireland players during Sundays training session at Windsor Park ahead of Monday nights Euro 2016 Qualifier against Hungary.
Northern Ireland players during Sundays training session at Windsor Park ahead of Monday nights Euro 2016 Qualifier against Hungary.
Hungary manager Bernd Storck during Sundays training session at Windsor Park ahead of Monday nights Euro 2016 Qualifier against Northern Ireland.
Hungary players during Sundays training session at Windsor Park ahead of Monday nights Euro 2016 Qualifier against Northern Ireland.
Hungary players during Sundays training session at Windsor Park ahead of Monday nights Euro 2016 Qualifier against Northern Ireland.
Hungary manager Bernd Storck during Sundays training session at Windsor Park ahead of Monday nights Euro 2016 Qualifier against Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland's Stuart Dallas during Sundays training session at Windsor Park ahead of Monday nights Euro 2016 Qualifier against Hungary.
Hungary manager Bernd Storck during Sundays training session at Windsor Park ahead of Monday nights Euro 2016 Qualifier against Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland's Chris Baird during Sundays training session at Windsor Park ahead of Monday nights Euro 2016 Qualifier against Hungary.
Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill (right) at this morning's training session - Hungary awaits. Picture - David Hunter.
Hungary on the horizon as Northern Ireland train at Windsor Park. Picture - David Hunter.

For a supporter of Cliftonville, Everton and yes, Northern Ireland, these are the days of living in 'You Couldn't Make It Up' land.

This is especially so if you have happened to follow the Green and White international team through the fallow years of the last three decades.

A side without its top striker or an English Premiership-minted centre half sweeping one-time European champions aside; a squad that is almost exclusively drawn from locally-born players; an outfit that reflects all sides of the community and one of whose heroes of October 2015 happens to be black and all-triumphant in a stadium where once Catholics even on the field were booed, which now is free of sectarian or racist chanting and abuse. Not a bad time really to be a follower of the beautiful game, even in the era of serial Fifa corruption, top-flight superstar agent-fuelled greed and hiked-up ticket prices driven by corporate cretinism.

Under the ever-modest Michael O'Neill, the Northern Ireland squad's exploits have at least reminded us that there is still plenty of genuine romance, drama and commitment in football, even at an international level.

Sepp Blatter and (writing this with a heavy heart) Michel Platini's temporary expulsion from the sport represent the stain of shame that has smeared world soccer. Fifa's granting of the next two World Cups to Putin's Russia and the Gulf oil/gas oligarchs of Qatar has been a moral disgrace that only enhances the cynical but understandable viewpoint that football is no longer the People's Game.

Yet the scenes inside Windsor and beyond on Thursday do give some hope that when the under-resourced underdogs do have their day, it can be a glorious one for those who still love football.

O'Neill and his men's campaign to get to France 2016 falls into that Roy of the Rovers storybook narrative. The sides that were minnows are now strutting the world's stage.

The Goliaths (think Germany on Thursday) are felled by Davids (the other O'Neill's Republic of Ireland side), and sporting karma is complete.

In a society still as divided politically and socially as ours, the success of a united side in sport is particularly poignant.

And it would be Pollyanna-esque to suggest that a cross-community squad like the current Northern Ireland one could act as a template for squabbling politicians and sectarian factions to come together and get along better.

The legendary 1982 World Cup squad was as representative of Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter as the present one, yet the former side made soccer history just after the 1981 hunger strikes, one of the darkest and most dangerous periods of the Troubles.

Back when Jennings and McIlroy, Armstrong and Nicholl were our heroes, Windsor was a forbidding place for a Catholic-born fan like myself to attend, although I do recall a couple of glorious afternoons at Home International matches and a World Cup qualifier against the great Dutch side of the '70s, that first got me hooked on the Northern Ireland team.

Even if you were surrounded by fellow fans who sang 'I'd rather be a Muppet than a Taig' and then broke, without irony, into 'Super Pat, Super Pat' whenever Pat Jennings, a Catholic from Newry, pulled off another one of his many world-class saves.

Seven days ago, I sat in my seat at Solitude in the sunshine alongside my son and my sister, enjoying one of the best Irish League games I've seen in a long time.

Shell-shocked and depressed at half-time after being 2-0 down to rivals Linfield. Fearful that Cliftonville were about to endure a hammering at home we haven't experienced for a long time against the Blues. Then euphoric towards the end of the second half, as the Reds turned the match upside down and were leading 3-2. Finally feeling flat after letting Linfield back in for a 3-3 draw - a portent of the following day's Merseyside derby when at Goodison I would see Everton fail to score again and win over Liverpool, yet another draw.

There was another straw in the wind at Solitude last week, but not one with any menace surrounding it. A tiny group of Linfield fans tried to start up a rendition of The Sash in a ground where 'party tunes' from every tradition are no longer welcome, where politics is kept outside the doors. It faded away even more faintly than it came in.

Perhaps a commentary in itself on how our local game, even at somewhere that was once a place of potential peril for fans like me, has become a haven from the toxic tribalism that remains outside.

Martin McGuinness was actually the politician who hit the most positive note this week, when he tweeted congratulations to both Irish teams and both O'Neills that manage them. If only some soccer-loving unionist political figures would do the same and share in the equal joy of RoI fans, north and south, for beating Germany and moving towards the edge of qualification themselves.

And yes, those of my fellow supporters who prefer to follow Martin as opposed to Michael's team are perfectly entitled to do so, even if I will still support the North, even if we happen to draw the south in France next summer.

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