Euro 2016: Northern Ireland to play first ever Sunday international at Windsor Park
Northern Ireland will be forced to play an international football match at Windsor Park on a Sunday for the first time ever in a bid to qualify for Euro 2016.
The Euro 2016 qualification fixtures have been decided by computer and revealed just three hours after this morning’s draw.
And our national team has been drawn to face Finland at home on Sunday 29th March 2015.
UEFA used to allow the countries to sort out their own schedule, which led to some fraught discussions and serious fall-outs.
Today, though, everything has been sorted by technology and the IFA could not have avoided the possibility of a Sunday game in Belfast.
The fixtures are:
- Sunday September 7 2014: Hungary v Northern Ireland
- Saturday October 11 2014: Northern Ireland v Faroe Islands
- Tuesday October 14 2014: Greece v Northern Ireland
- Friday November 14 2014: Romania v Northern Ireland
- Sunday March 29 2015: Northern Ireland v Finland
- Saturday June 13 2015: Northern Ireland v Romania
- Friday September 4 2015: Faroe Islands v Northern Ireland
- Monday September 7 2015: Northern Ireland v Hungary
- Thursday October 8 2015: Northern Ireland v Greece
- Sunday October 11 2015: Finland v Northern Ireland
The fixture is likely to cause outrage for some, while others will see it as a sign of progress.
For decades no Sunday football was allowed in Northern Ireland at all for religious and traditional reasons.
Six years ago the IFA decided to change that rule, allowing teams to play on the Sabbath. Certain Irish League sides have done just that, but not the international team.
Northern Ireland have played abroad on a Sunday, such as when David Healy broke the goalscoring record in Trinidad & Tobago in 2004 and during the 1982 World Cup finals in Spain when Glentoran winger Johnny Jameson refused to play against France because he was a born again Christian.
The IFA and Linfield, owners of Windsor Park until the proposed redevelopment of the stadium takes place, have been against home Sunday internationals.
But Uefa have decided that some qualifying games during the 2016 European Championship group stages will be played on a Sunday.
No-one is dancing on the streets of Belfast just yet but the Euro 2016 qualifying draw was kind to Northern Ireland.
Michael O’Neill’s side dropped down a pot after a disappointing World Cup qualifying series but their worst nightmares were not realised as they avoided Europe’s big guns.
Northern Ireland are in Group F with Greece, Romania, Hungary, Finland and Faroe Islands.
Renewed optimism and belief will sweep the nation but let’s not forget we haven’t qualified for a major tournament since 1986 and the squad’s lack of strength in depth will be exposed.
Euro 2016 will be made up of 24 nations — an increase from 16 — and O’Neill’s men begin an adventure they hope will end with a trip to France away to Hungary on Sunday, September 7.
Northern Ireland have traditionally rocked the most powerful teams while struggling to overcome less glamourous opponents.
This time round they must find a different approach and cope with the weight of expectation.
There can be no excuses — O’Neill will be under pressure to keep his side in contention for qualification but as ever with Northern Ireland, expect the unexpected.
The full draw reads:
Group A: Netherlands, Czech Republic, Turkey, Latvia, Iceland, Kazakhstan
Group B: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Belgium, Israel, Wales, Cyprus, Andorra
Group C: Spain, Ukraine, Slovakia, Belarus, Macedonia, Luxembourg
Group D: Germany, Republic of Ireland, Poland, Scotland, Georgia, Gibraltar
Group E: England, Switzerland, Slovenia, Estonia, Lithuania, San Marino
Group F: Greece, Hungary, Romania, Finland, NORTHERN IRELAND, Faroe Islands
Group G: Russia, Sweden, Austria, Montenegro, Moldova, Liechtenstein
Group H: Italy, Croatia, Norway, Bulgaria, Azerbaijan, Malta
Group I: Portugal, Denmark, Serbia, Armenia, Albania