Belfast Telegraph

Thumbs-up for Northern Ireland supporters’ trip to Belgrade

By Gary McCallister, NI Supporters Amalgamation

In the end it all went pretty smoothly and without incident, but a lot of preparation went into the operation which saw 240 Northern Ireland fans admitted to the ‘behind closed doors’ game in Belgrade on Friday night.

The week of the match began with a drive to Cookstown on Monday evening for our scheduled bi-monthly Amalgamation meeting.

Representatives of our 73 Clubs come along to hear updates on various supporters’ issues that we’ve been working on and they also have an opportunity to raise issues of their own.

We provide some information to those Clubs with members travelling to Serbia, and they deserve a lot of credit for their patience as news and information has at times been slow.

On Tuesday, two colleagues and I attend a meeting with the IFA Security Officer Stephen Grange and William Campbell, Head of Operations, as we discuss some of the finer details including how fans will be transported to the stadium.

A final list is also provided containing a list of hotels where Northern Ireland fans will be staying along with a list of contact telephone numbers, allowing us to contact a group or individual should the need arise.

On Thursday I’m fortunate enough to make the journey to Serbia on the IFA’s official charter with players, officials and media. I must admit that I feel a little out of place, especially with the players on board the flight.

After arriving at the team hotel and sitting in on the media conference given by manager Nigel Worthington, I make my way to my own hotel across the river. During the short taxi ride, I’m taken by the obvious Eastern European surroundings, the beautiful view of the river and the bright sunshine.

I enjoyed a meal with three fans from Glengormley and met others from Bangor and Belfast. The order of the day seemed to be casual dress and low-key.

On Friday, I carried out an interview for one of our radio stations back home and fielded several calls and texts from fans eager to know where the Northern Ireland support would be asked to gather in the hours before the game.

After speaking to the IFA head of security again, the arrangements for the security operation are finalised.

The key information of where the buses will leave from and at what time is given to fans along with a map and their match tickets, upon production of their passport a voucher they’d been given in Belfast.

More than 200 Northern Ireland fans then depart from Studentski Square at 7.08pm on a convoy of six coaches under police escort. They’re met by hundreds of riot police at the stadium and a very slow and deliberate security cordon, which meant that it took 40 minutes to get everyone into the ground.

Happily, the entire weekend passed without incident and it was pleasing that the Amalgamation could play a role in helping our fans at a time of need. Sadly, our team lost and we now look to the Slovenia game on Tuesday for a quick pick-me-up.

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