Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 3 September 2014

Shame about the result, but at least the fans are world beaters

Over one thousand Northern Ireland fans made the trip to Reykjavik for last week's ill-fated European Championship qualifier against Iceland.

The Belfast Telegraph's Chrissie Russell with mum Hilary on their first Northern Ireland away trip.

Two new members of the travelling Green and White Army were Belfast Telegraph feature writer Chrissie Russell and her mum Hilary. The 2-1 defeat to Iceland was hugely disappointing, but as Chrissie points out the fans were winners off the pitch.

Iceland v Northern Ireland was my first away match. For years I've supported Norn Iron on the terraces at Windsor Park and for an even longer time I've wanted to visit Iceland - a fascinating, mystical place of volcanic eruptions, geysers and Northern Lights.

Obviously the match was a heartbreaking disappointment.

I was one of around one thousand fans standing in the corner of a cold Reykjavik Stadium unable to believe the lack lustre performance in the first-half, the substitutions made in the second or the sickening moment when the ball crossed into our own goal for the second time that week.

But disappointed as I was by the result I could not have come away from my Iceland experience any more impressed by the dedication and conduct of the Northern Ireland fans.

Being a regular of the more sedate North Stand at Windsor Park, I'd long harboured a secret envy of the uproar in the Kop and so was in my element chanting along with the die hard football followers on the terraces in Reykjavik. Undoubtedly Mum and I stood out as atypical away fans. We were the only women we saw unaccompanied by boyfriends, husbands or fathers but nobody could accuse the Green and White Army of being unwelcoming - if anything perhaps a little too welcoming with one fan refusing to accept my Mum's reluctance to 'do the bouncy' with him.

And in an unobtrusive and friendly way, they were everywhere with Northern Ireland scarves and flags draped on hotels and city centre bars. When the temperature was zero degrees and icy rain and wind made walking difficult, Mum and I went to swim in the Blue Lagoon. Bobbing everywhere in the warm milky water were Ulster heads discussing supporters clubs and belting out the odd refrain of 'We're not Brazil, we're Northern Ireland!'

I met supporters in the steam room who I then bumped into outside the match and repeatedly thereafter. Everyone constantly looked out for each other. A supporter staying in the same hotel gave us directions to the stadium, another gave us tips on tours while others pointed us in the way of a nice Christmas shop and a good hot dog stand.

We met two lovely guys on the Golden Circle tour who had been to all the away games, saving up their holiday time to follow the team. Both were still determined to enjoy the remainder of their time in Iceland although the one who had left his coat in Latvia looked like he'd be having more fun if the away schedule had timetabled the Spain game first.

The amount of fans that had done the double, travelling in weird and convoluted routes around Europe to get to Latvia and Iceland was incredible. Everywhere there were tales of chartered planes and cross country journeys. One sure to pass into Green and White folklore is that of the group of Armagh fans intending to get to Latvia via Hamburg but inadvertently flying to Munich instead and still driving the extra several hundred miles to make it for kick off.

Understandable then that, after so much effort on the fans part, they were gutted when their team failed to provide.

Several men in Viking hats from Castlereagh who throughout the game had shouted encouragement left before the final whistle unable to watch any more. Not even the efforts of the over exuberant fan on my Mum's right could get the chants re-started once the ball in our net signalled a 2-1 score line and the end of our European dreams.

Where frustration and disappointment could have resulted in other football fans going on a rampage though the host country's capital the GAWA were impeccably behaved, making their way out of the stadium only pausing to shake hands with Icelandic fans and swap regalia.

Two own goals may have made Northern Ireland's campaign an embarrassment, but the fans that follow the team are something to be proud of.

Best fans in Europe?

Best fans in the world more like, I'd follow them anywhere.

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