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Our beautiful game

By Jim Gracey

With just over 24 hours to go before Northern Ireland's Euro 2016 opener with Poland, two Belfast Telegraph writers try to explain what it is about 22 men chasing a ball around a pitch that turns normally sane people completely and utterly bonkers.

Football? Bloody hell! Sir Alex Ferguson, the greatest football manager of them all, perfectly summed up the incredible, emotional roller coaster ride of the Beautiful Game, moments after watching his Manchester United team famously snatch victory from the jaws of defeat with two last gasp goals to win the Champions League final against Bayern Munich in Barcelona on May 26, 1999.

I was there and the date, Fergie's incredulous words and the images of those sensational last few seconds of that game 17 years ago are permanently time-stamped on my brain. Yet ask me to remember a birthday or anniversary, important to my nearest and dearest, or even where I left down my house keys five minutes ago, and I am stumped. And I am not unique.

Football people the world over can recite winning cup finalists going back years, goalscorers, goal times and ball by ball accounts of matches, great and small, from the mists of time. We remember other events - weddings, funerals, family and current affairs - by who won the league or the local derby that year. Babies and family pets are named after football heroes, thereby ensuring the kids, if not the cats and dogs, are indoctrinated at the earliest opportunity.

And, as for superstitions, football supporters are afflicted by the maddest of all. We have lucky socks, lucky scarves, bogey teams and grounds and long suffering pals who are either brought to games as their presence was deemed to have ensured a win last time out, or banished for the opposite reason and branded scuds.

I once had a lucky bar stool at the Mechanics Institute Club in Lurgan until my so-called friends, supporters of other clubs, and clearly in equal belief, or fear, of its powers, hid the charmed chair away one day - and Man United subsequently lost, reinforcing the superstition. It is a vicious, illogical circle.

Only last month, I stood sheepishly, hoping no one of my acquaintance would see me, outside the doors of The Crown bar on Great Victoria Street, awaiting Saturday morning opening time. On my shoulders rested the responsibility of securing the same snug for the same set of mates, travelling down by train, to re-enact our ritual of two years previous on our way to that afternoon's Irish Cup Final between Glenavon and Linfield. And we won, just as we did two years earlier, so try telling us our tried and tested match day idiosyncrasies are irrational.

By now you get the picture. Football can send otherwise sensible, upstanding, responsible adults completely bonkers.

Inexplicable obsession, skewed priorities, a kind of madness, call it what you will. Football is in the DNA of those of us in its thrall. It is like an opiate and we are hooked, so much so that the opening game of the European Championship last night arrived like an antidote to the biennial cold turkey of summers without our football fix between seasons and tournaments.

And this time, we have a Northern Ireland team to support at a major finals for the first time in 30 years, sparing us having to pick another team to follow for the duration.

Football supporters, you see, need to have skin in the game; an interest, be it on a betting slip, or merely a desire to see a disliked team, player or manager lose. Reason does not enter into it.

And once aligned to club and country, we do not deviate. To support a football team is to enter into a lifetime pact, brilliantly summed up by the author Nick Hornby in "the best book about football every written", Fever Pitch, his rite of passage experience of following Arsenal Were we to fall out with our romantic partners, Hornby contended, no matter how painful the parting, chances are that in six months, six years or however long, we will find love again with a new partner. But if we fall out of love with our football teams, the chances of taking up with another are nil.

My whole life has revolved around football. I had no chance of leading another.

An earliest boyhood memory is of being taken by a next door neighbour, Ronnie McMurray, a Dromore Amateurs stalwart, to watch him play for them in the Sixties. The smell of wintergreen, the thud of the old leather and laced 'caser' being booted, the shouts of the players and the sheer excitement of seeing the ball hit the net at either end was utterly intoxicating.

I resolved there and then to be a footballer but lack of pace (and ability) put paid to that notion of ever progressing beyond Boys Brigade and junior level.

But if I couldn’t indulge one fascination, another quickly suggested itself in an admittedly inauspicious way, being ignominiously sacked from a paper round after complaints of late deliveries as I tarried while reading the Back Pages.

The late, great sports editor of this paper, Malcolm Brodie, wove these wonderful tales of football triumphs and calamities, all the way from the Maracana in Brazil to my own Mourneview Park and I knew I wanted some of that. Malcolm was our go-between to the greats of Manchester United and the earnest scufflers of the Irish League in the days before mass media and wall-to-wall television coverage.

I devoured every word and it was a dream come true when he took me on to his staff; writing my first report for the late, lamented Ireland’s Saturday Night was like scoring a winner at Wembley, although Malcolm sometimes despaired, calling me a supporter with a notebook.

I took that as a compliment for it is my belief that to write for football people, you need to share their passion and understand the mindset; loyalties that transcend the ups and downs of following a football team.

Our allegiances tend to be generational and geographically influenced though I arrived at mine by a slightly circuitous route.

Like many of my generation, I grew up idolising George Best in the green shirt of Northern Ireland at Windsor Park and can still recall being distraught the day he was sent off against Scotland for throwing muck at a referee. How lucky was I, through my job on this paper, to get to know George in later life, a lovely guy I revere to this day.

Manchester United are my English team, because of George but the true love of my football life is Glenavon FC. Born into a traditional Linfield supporting town of Dromore, I was taken by my Blueman dad and his pals to Windsor from I was no height and loved it. We even had a picture of the 1962 Linfield seven-trophy winning team on our wall at home.

Then at the age of 10, a workplace relocation took us the fledging new city of Craigavon. I could walk to games at Mourneview Park all on my own and away from parental influence, albeit for 90 minutes on a Saturday afternoon, I threw in my lot with the Lurgan Blues, for better, for worse, mostly the latter.

Over the last 40 odd-years, Glenavon have taken me from trophy-winning heights to the depths of despair and back. But even in the worst of times, we stick with them. Even when things aren’t going well on the pitch, Mourneview, like grounds all around the country, is a meeting place for mates and, unlike Old Trafford, where you can be on first name terms with the players, manager and chairman. It’s been like that since my earliest days when we literally lived among legends. Wilbur Cush, the Roy Keane of his day for Glenavon, Leeds and Northern Ireland was our milkman; record goalscorer Jimmy Jones lived around the corner and on Sunday nights we’d see him and his twinkle-toed winger pal, Jackie Denver of Glenavon and Belfast Celtic fame, setting out on their weekly constitutional along the Waringstown Road.

One day our star striker, Dennis Guy, turned up in our street to fix a junction box in his day job as a telephone engineer. Kids from all over the estate were drawn like a magnet as word spread and he ended up in a kickabout with us. How could you not stay spellbound by childhood memories like that?

Football? Bloody hell! It all depends how you say it. With all the exhilaration of Fergie that night in the Nou Camp, or with the dismay of those who cannot see a month of football at the Euros far enough.

I’ll leave the latter to check their pulses; I’ve got a game to watch.

  • Jim Gracey is the Belfast Telegraph’s group sports editor

‘You learn to cherish memories ... it could be a long wait until the next’

Ah, 1982. Probably the most memorable year of my life, for several reasons. For a start, it was The Final Year Of Having No Responsibilities. Mortgage? Couldn’t even spell the word. Gainful employment? Well, we can kick that particular can down the street for another year. And bills were for birds.

The music was great too; Total Eclipse Of The Heart, Billie Jean, Sexual Healing, Heat of the Moment, Africa, Don’t Stop Believing... Come On Eileen.

What a soundtrack to a year that I’d start “on the broo” and end as a trainee journalist, filing unpublished practice reports on the DeLorean closure, the Hyde Park and Regents Park bombings, the Falklands War, the legalisation of homosexuality in Northern Ireland, the first election contested by Sinn Fein and the Droppin Well atrocity.

Nobody asked us to write about that other rather newsworthy item of 1982... the World Cup in Spain, and, especially, the “Arconada... ARMSTRONG!” moment.

Okay, I’m going to make a confession at this point; I didn’t actually see the ball hit the back of the Spanish net.

Thousands of replays later might convince me that I had but, no, just as Big Billy was sending over what I believed was a nothing cross I turned away to my mates, muttering something like: “See? That tube couldn’t cross the roARRRRRRRRR...”

There was just loud, incoherent cacophony of noise after that. Drink spilling everywhere, people hugging and wanting to be hugged, brains melting.

I didn’t get to see the TV replay either but, through that surreal, euphoric fog, it emerged that Gerry was the one who had found the onion bag after yer man Arcadia-or-something-like-that had spilled Big Billy’s now devastatingly clever cross.

Here’s another confession: we’d have been content with just scoring against Spain, never mind the ultimate result.

And when Mal Donaghy got sent off courtesy of the greatest injustice in history; well, we’d always have that goal to cling onto. Remarkably, Bingy’s heroes thought the same. And, as we staggered out of Ballymena’s Countryman Inn in the vain hope that somewhere else was still serving at that time of the night, the collective agreement was: It doesn’t get any better than this.

We were right, too. There would be another World Cup tournament in Mexico four years later but it was like one of those movie sequels that so often fails  to capture the original’s magic.

Mind you, if we’d have known another 30 years would pass, we might have appreciated our boys’ efforts out there a little more.

That’s the thing about being a Norn Iron fan; you never know.

I first fell in love with Our Wee Country (©Barry Hunter, Nuremberg, 1996; Germany 1, Northern Ireland 1) when they were at one of their lowest ebbs.

Ironically, it was Valentine’s Day, 1973... and we’d just been humbled 1-0 by Cyprus in in Nicosia.

“Cyprus... are they even a country?” wailed my incandescent, inconsolable father, who banged on so much about how useless “Bestie and the rest of them” were that I started following them, that very day, just to annoy him.

I later learned, of course, that such disappointments are de rigueur (an appropriate phrase considering where Big Kyle and the boys are today) for GAWA members.

My late dad didn’t live to see the Cyprus debacle eclipsed by unmentionable events in Luxembourg three years ago.

(I can only imagine Joe Laverty saying: “Luxembourg... are they not a radio station..?”)

In hindsight, that dark September evening in the principality marked a turning point for Michael O’Neill’s men — albeit that they couldn’t sink any lower and that the only way, surely, was up.

Nobody though, not even the most irrepressible optimist, could have imagined that, less than a couple of years later, virtually the same bunch of players would be topping their qualifying group and ending three decades in the wilderness.

As a Northern Ireland fan, you quickly learn to cherish the memories, live each good moment to the full. You know there could be a long wait until the next one. Goals like that one of Gerry’s and so many of Healy’s always stick out, of course, but it’s funny how some other, more random, moments break out of the memory bank.

Like the Bestie goal that never was. No, not THAT one against Gordon Banks; I’m thinking more of the brilliant one he ‘scored’ against Scotland at Hampden in May, 1969, probably because it’s the first Northern Ireland ‘goal’ I can remember. (I was six at the time).

I later found out what the referee said to Bestie after he disallowed it: “look, sonny, no player in the world could have controlled that cross without using his hand...”

Oh, how foolish must Mr David W Smith (for t’was he) have felt when, later on telly, he saw Bestie ‘kill’ the ball, legitimately, with his top of his right thigh before rifling a screamer past the helpless Jim Herriot.

Bestie told me about it himself, the last time we spoke. At a dinner in the Europa a few months before he died.

In turn, I told him about how I became a Northern Ireland supporter — and Bestie told me to remind my unforgiving father that the world’s greatest footballer wasn’t playing the day we were humbled by the Cypriots.

  • John Laverty is the BelfastTelegraph’s executive editor

‘I can’t quite explain my love of football  ... it’s just in the DNA’

The moment I fell in love with football was when I was about three in the playground at my school in Donegal.

The boys needed a goalkeeper and they happened to pick me. I remember catching the ball and, for me, that was the day I caught the love of the game. My mum or dad weren’t sporty, so it was my uncle Mark who harnessed my enthusiasm for football. He would regularly play with me in the garden when we moved back to Belfast when I was about five.

At primary school, my mum had to fight with the principal in order for me to play.

I made my debut for Northern Ireland’s women’s team at the age of 15. We weren’t particularly good and it was a difficult time to be involved — particularly as a centre half.

The best moment ever, though, was when we beat Slovakia 3-1 in November 2005 in a World Cup qualifier at Ballymena Showgrounds.

It was Northern Ireland women’s first-ever competitive victory.

What is it about football? I can’t explain it. It’s just part of my DNA. I’ve never known my life without football.

  • Sara Booth is the IFA’s women’s domestic football manager

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