Northern Ireland's Green and White Army will be loud and proud
As the Northern Ireland players assembled at Aldergrove for their chartered flight to Belgrade this morning, there was hope that a positive result against Serbia tomorrow would be the first step this year to dreams coming true.
For a few there would have been the realisation that time is running out to fulfil that ambition of playing in the finals of a major tournament.
Outstanding performers, over the past decade and more, Aaron Hughes, Stephen Craigan and David Healy are all the wrong side of 30 and know that chances are becoming more limited with every passing competition.
Fine servants to the cause such as Chris Baird, Warren Feeney, Grant McCann and Gareth McAuley are others with more years behind them at international level than in front.
It would be wrong to suggest the 2012 European Championships represent a now or never scenario for all of the above, but they are experienced and wise enough to realise that, having made a solid start to the campaign, it offers them a genuine opportunity to play on the stage they crave.
I believe Italy will win Group C and qualify automatically, but second place and a play-off is not beyond Nigel Worthington's side.
To that end a draw in Serbia tomorrow and a win in Belfast against Slovenia next week, would be welcome.
On Tuesday night, Windsor will be packed. Tomorrow the FK Crvena Zvezda stadium will be virtually empty bar friends and family of the Serbian players, officials and ball-boys.
Oh, and 265 Northern Ireland supporters, who are making the trip after the Irish FA persuaded Uefa they did not deserve to be punished because Serbian fans went on the rampage in Italy.
As always the Green and White Army will be loud and proud, which the visiting players will use as inspiration.
Rangers ace Kyle Lafferty said this week: “If the stadium was full I’m sure the Serbian players would get a big lift before kick-off. They won’t have that now and hopefully the Northern Ireland fans can be like a twelfth man for us.”
Northern Ireland supporters are a loyal and hardy bunch who will go to extreme lengths to cheer on their team.
After Uefa imposed the stadium ban, there was talk about trying to get our fans their money back and offers of tickets to the Europa League final.
Not good enough. These guys wanted to go to Belgrade and got their wish.
Russell King from the Londonderry Northern Ireland Supporters Club was one who set off today.
“We booked our flights in August and got a good deal on them. It was around £125 for a return from Dublin to Belgrade. There's over 20 from our club going,” said Russell, whose son Stuart plays for Glenavon.
“When we first heard the game would be behind closed doors we were disappointed but still hoped something could be done. Fair play to the IFA and the Amalgamation of Northern Ireland Supporters Clubs (AONISC) who helped Uefa understand the situation, allowing us to see the match.
“In terms of security, we're not too concerned. We've been advised not to wear colours around Belgrade, but we can show them at the match. We're going to support our team, nothing else.”
Given the tarnished reputation of the Serbian fans and possible resentment about the Uefa ban, security of the travelling supporters has been high on the agenda of the IFA.
“We had a security meeting this week with the Irish FA for a final look at arrangements,” said Gary McAllister, spokesman for the AONISC.
“We wanted to ascertain the whereabouts of all our fans when they are away in case we need to contact them.
”The Amalgamation will also have a mobile phone network in place.
“People can go to our website, email@example.com, for more information.”
In recent years the vast majority of Northern Ireland fans have done their country proud. They, like our players, will dream that the Serbian adventure is a stop on the road to the Euro 2012 finals.
Five Serbs to watch in Belgrade
Dejan Stankovic (Inter Milan): A top player who makes Serbia tick and was a key figure last season when Inter won the Champions League, Serie A and the Italian Cup. If he is allowed to take control of the game in midfield, our boys will be in trouble. Debutant goalkeeper Lee Camp will have to keep an eye on Stankovic’s long range shooting. It can be deadly. Incidentally, last year in South Africa, he became the first player to represent three different countries in the World Cup finals: Yugoslavia, Serbia and Montenegro, and Serbia.
Milan Jovanovic (Liverpool): Hands up who forgot this guy |(pictured below) was still at Anfield? Has disappeared off the scene quicker than Katie Price at a party without paparazzi. Will leave Merseyside in the summer, so the winger-cum-forward is hoping to use international duty to impress watching clubs. May have to settle for a place in the bench, but footballers with something to prove are dangerous animals.
Branislav Ivanovic (Chelsea): With Manchester United’s Nemanja Vidic injured, Ivanovic will be the biggest name in defence for Serbia. High quality operator |(pictured top left), likely to play right-back tomorrow. Strong in the air and decent on the ground, he will have to be watched carefully when the Serbs have set pieces.
Milos Krasic (Juventus): Expected to play on the right hand side of the attack in a 4-3-3 formation. Krasic (pictured top right), is quick, confident and when he fancies it, he’s a formidable opponent. Doesn’t enjoy a hefty tackle though, so might be worth testing out with a biting challenge early on.
Zoran Tosic (CSKA Moscow): Tricky wide man (pictured below), re-building his career after failing to make the grade at Man Utd. Suddenly big clubs are looking at the 23-year-old again. His agent will have told him the match is on Sky Sports in the UK with many managers watching, so a bit like when he was at Old Trafford, the pressure might just get to him.