Northern Ireland's Slo start will get better
Spokesman for the Amalgamation of Official Northern Ireland Supporters' Clubs, Gary McAllister, gives his thoughts on Saturday's vital clash against Slovenia
Last month's game in Slovakia was definitely not the bright start to the World Cup qualifying campaign that all Northern Ireland fans hoped for.
Losing to a fairly average home side after making such a promising start to the match wasn’t in the script. Despite a late rally when the team went for it in the final 30 minutes or so, like many of the travelling support, I left feeling deeply frustrated that the team came away with nothing to show for their efforts.
Our spirits were lifted a little with a very solid and deserved draw at home to the Czech Republic four days later.
I say a little, when really we should have been delighted to have matched one of Europe's leading sides, a team who will almost certainly be in contention for a place in the World Cup finals when Group Three nears its conclusion in just over a year’s time.
The fact that we weren't 'delighted' despite such an impressive display from the team shows just how much Northern Ireland have improved in recent years.
There is almost an expectation that we win all our home games, moreso against the higher ranked sides. Equally so, in some quarters there is the same expectation that we will lose when we play away.
A lot has been made of this as the team's home form has improved (once upon a time we couldn't buy a win at home yet were unbeaten away!) however I think that whilst Nigel Worthington's side don't win too many away games, there have been some solid performances.
Draws in Sweden and Denmark during the last campaign are not to be sniffed at, and hopefully the players can produce a competent display reminiscent of those performances.
The most forgettable part of the visit to Bratislava was, of course, the mindless attack on Northern Ireland fans enjoying a few drinks the day before the game. Some of our fans sustained injuries, sadly some will have to carry these scars for the rest of their lives.
Whilst my colleagues and I in the Amalgamation of Official NISC liaise closely with the police here at home, and abroad, an incident such as the one which occurred in Bratislava is impossible to pre-empt without the sort of preparation and research carried out by our counterparts in England and Wales.
The Home Office fund the Football Supporters Federation, the official supporters groups of England and Wales, ahead of each away game which allows them to visit the country in which their national team is due to play.
They in turn feed this information back to their members and this type of work has helped to improve relations with the authorities in the various countries they visit and had reduced the number of violent confrontations between police and fans.
As a voluntary organisation, we have been able to take only small steps in working towards the sort of funded, professional operations that the English and Welsh fans have been able to provide for away games.
At the minute, along with our liaison with the IFA, PSNI and Home Office, we attempt to establish a contact for each of our Supporters' Clubs should we need to contact them in an emergency situation, whilst we also provide information for the popular '12th Man' booklet which fans get along with their match ticket.
A funded or sponsored mobile phone network would also allow us to provide a 24/7 point of contact in emergencies.
Let's hope that this time next week we are looking back on our visit to Slovenia with a lot more to smile about — three points in the bag and a trip which is memorable for all the right reasons.