Belfast Telegraph

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Out of Euros, but a place in our hearts

Editor's Viewpoint

Published 27/06/2016

Hibernian manager Neil Lennon
Hibernian manager Neil Lennon

One of the most noteworthy sights during Northern Ireland's remarkable run in France was the presence of Neil Lennon on the BBC's panel of experts analysing the games.

Lennon, a Catholic from Lurgan, was our local representative, chosen by the BBC to give a Northern Ireland perspective to a national audience, and he came across as a sincere and dedicated supporter.

It was not always so pleasant for Neil Lennon. When Northern Ireland met Norway in Windsor Park in March 2001, a section of the crowd disgracefully abused Lennon, who was then a Celtic player.

It was so bad that he considered his playing future. The next year he received a death threat when he was due to captain Northern Ireland against Cyprus. As a result, he decided to quit international football.

During that period, Northern Ireland supporters had earned a bad reputation, and Windsor Park was viewed by many people as 'a cold house' for Catholics.

Things have changed greatly for the better. The IFA deserves credit for eradicating sectarian chanting at games, and the atmosphere has been transformed. With delightful symmetry the new stadium is matched by a very successful team, and a new ethos of accommodation.

In recent weeks, people far and wide have been unanimous in their praise for the Northern Ireland supporters, who have been great ambassadors.

It has been notable how many young men, and women, have gone to France. Sections in our society who have been immune to the charms of 'the beautiful game' have been swept along by the adventure and success of our team's progress.

The Republic's team have also done extremely well, and their achievement is also noteworthy. There is an added bonus, because the supporters of both teams mixed so well.

It is, therefore, right that a proper homecoming welcome for Michael O'Neill and all his team is being held in Belfast tonight. The manager and players will take to the fanzone stage in Titanic Quarter to thank their fans and relive some of their best moments.

Undoubtedly the supporters will turn out in force to honour their heroes. They will certainly deserve it.

Northern Ireland have gone out of the competition, but they have stayed in the hearts of all of us.

Belfast Telegraph

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