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Northern Ireland team uniting fans across divide, says Jimmy Nicholl

By Claire McNeilly

Published 13/04/2016

Northern Ireland fans
Northern Ireland fans
Jimmy Nicholl with NI manager Michael O’Neill
Jimmy Nicholl in action during 1986 World Cup

Northern Ireland football legend Jimmy Nicholl has said the current team is one both Protestants and Catholics will be proud to back this summer.

Nicholl played in two World Cups as part of a hugely-successful Northern Ireland squad drawn from both sides of the divide, but which never gained cross-community support.

Now, however, the 73-times capped Rathcoole man believes the 2016 team - managed by Michael O'Neill, a Catholic - will have unprecedented support for their first tilt at a European Championship.

"Let's say Catholics, for whatever reason, previously didn't want to go to Windsor Park because it's where Linfield play and all the other stuff, and so if more want to come to our games because they now feel part of it, then that's brilliant," said Nicholl, O'Neill's assistant with the current team.

"Both sides of the divide can see what's happening is great. Michael is doing his best to bring everyone with us. If we can fill Windsor when it is redeveloped with 22,000 at every game, and from every community, that would be wonderful. It's what we want to see."

Former Manchester United and Rangers full-back Nicholl said there had never been an issue with sectarianism within the Northern Ireland squad, even during the dark days of the Troubles.

"When I played half the team were Catholics, the other half Protestants," he said.

"It was almost like an unwritten rule that we never spoke about what was going on. All we cared about was playing.

"Pat Jennings, Gerry Armstrong, Martin O'Neill... all those lads were Catholic. We thought nothing about anyone's background. We were all the same and very much together."

Nicholl recalled a survey that asked whether football fans would welcome an all-Ireland team - and his mixed views on that.

"The Republic at that time had Liam Brady, Frank Stapleton and David O'Leary. It would have been a good side but I wouldn't have got a game," he told the Herald newspaper.

Nicholl (60) said that looking at Belfast now it's hard to imagine it was once a place other teams refused to visit.

"I was captain of Northern Ireland Schoolboys in 1971 and Scotland wouldn't come," he explained.

"We offered them a game in Larne, they could have jumped on and off the boat, and still they said no. We had to go to Stranraer."

He added: "We had to play Spain in Hull. You don't see that now. You don't even feel it. Belfast is an incredible city and the way the country has transformed itself makes me proud."

Nicholl also revealed that it was former Manchester United manager Tommy Docherty who "evacuated" his family from Rathcoole during the worst days of the Troubles in the early Seventies.

"Docherty pulled me aside one Friday and said: 'When you get back to Belfast, tell yer ma and da there are flights for them on Wednesday. We are getting you a club house and getting you out of there'.

"I was 16 and hadn't even signed my pro forms yet. So my folks came over, the club picked them up and took them to this big house. There were people already there with wallpaper charts.

"The club organised schools and the whole family, I had two younger brothers and two younger sisters, moved within a few weeks. Our whole lives changed."

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