Belfast Telegraph

As Northern Ireland's football past put proudly on display, the big question is: Will the boss be around to make more history?

By Ivan Little

Michael O’Neill was tackled yesterday about speculation linking him to Leicester City job at opening of the new Education and Heritage Centre at Windsor Park, but they were challenges the talismanic manager dodged easily.

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill yesterday opened a futuristic new visitors' centre that will take the Green and White Army on a nostalgic journey through their country's glorious footballing past.

But all anyone wanted to know at the kick-off was if the boss could soon be history himself.

O'Neill, who cut the ribbons at the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park alongside his childhood hero Pat Jennings, has been linked with the vacant managerial job at Premier League champions Leicester City, but he tried to dodge tackles from journalists about the speculation.

He even gave fellow Ballymena man Jackie Fullerton the runaround in a public question-and-answer session, but he eventually admitted he would welcome the opportunity to manage in the Premier League. Someday.

"I haven't had any approaches," he insisted.

"And my focus is on our next game against Norway."

But he would say that, wouldn't he? And, besides, IFA officials have, privately, resigned themselves to losing their talented talisman. Someday.

Scores of guests were at the opening ceremony at the National Football Stadium, where there's been controversy about its long-winded name - Linfield fans still call it Windsor Park.

But what people have been calling a museum for months isn't actually a museum at all.

Its official name is another tongue-twister - the Education and Heritage Centre - and its manager, Cliftonville player Stephen Garrett, denied the title was an own-goal.

"We don't qualify for museum status," he said. "And, anyway, we are a lot more than a museum."

But whatever they call it, they can't call it boring.

The centre is a state-of-the-art wander down memory lane, with interviews with star players, interactive displays and historic artefacts from the IFA's beginnings in 1880 to more recent times, like the never-to-be-forgotten European Championships last year.

One of the most popular sideshows gives fans the chance to take a virtual reality penalty against a virtual reality Pat Jennings.

UTV's Ruth Gorman persuaded the "actual" Pat Jennings to have a go from the penalty spot against his computerised alter ego, who promptly saved his shot.

Fans also have the opportunity to measure their hands against the famously large mitts of the goalkeeping great.

Pat said the new facility was "fantastic" and perfectly captured the achievements and the spirit of the team with whom he played in two World Cup Finals in Spain and Mexico.

He said George Best, who made his NI debut alongside him in Wales in 1964 and who is heavily featured in the IFA 'museum', was the greatest player he ever played with.

"My only regret, however, is that such a fantastic player like George never got to do what we did and play in a World Cup," said Pat, who revealed one hilarious story that isn't recorded at the IFA centre.

For when he was picked in a World XI consisting of the top players from the 1986 finals along with the likes of Diego Maradona and Gary Lineker, the official team-sheet listed him as Pat Jenkins.

Pat was accompanied to the Windsor opening by another winner, his lifelong friend from Newry, Larry Powell, a member of the Down GAA team that won the Sam Maguire in 1968.

Which prompted Fullerton to joke: "Gaelic football at Windsor Park. Whatever next?"

The answer came quickly - women footballers.

For one of the speakers at the opening ceremony was the IFA's Sara Booth, the tournament director for the Uefa Women's Under-19 championships, which are being held in Northern Ireland later this year.

Sara, a former NI international, said the women's game was making huge strides here and she hoped the new centre would inspire more young people to play. Garrett said the new centre was part of a game of two halves.

"It's a two-hour visitor experience. For the first half people can see everything that's on offer here, and for the second half they can do a tour of the stadium."

The price is £8.50 for adults, with concessions for children and seniors.

It's hoped that in the future famous Northern Ireland players from yesteryear will act as celebrity guides around the centre and the stadium, although many of them won't recognise it from the rundown and outdated Windsor Park they knew.

Irish FA president David Martin said the Education and Heritage Centre was designed to showcase the 136-year history of football here.

He added: "I would urge our fans, and even those with just a passing interest in the game, to visit the centre.

"I am confident they will be impressed. Northern Ireland have achieved so much on the global stage and the new centre covers it all."

Pride of place at the centre goes to the British Championship trophy, which Northern Ireland won in 1984 and never gave back, because the competition was axed.

Also on display are old and more modern international kits, and fans can also browse through match day programmes and IFA World Cup and centenary publications.

North Belfastman John Duffy, who has thousands of programmes in his collection, helped to curate the publications at the centre, which has already been given the thumbs-up by Gary McAllister from an organisation with another mouthful of a name, the Amalgamation of Official Northern Ireland Supporters Clubs.

"It's very impressive. The more people who see it the better," said Gary, who added that IFA officials and supporters were working hard with residents around Windsor Park to address their concerns about disruption to their lives before and after internationals.

Fans like Gary will undoubtedly enjoy one of the biggest displays at the Education and Heritage Centre.

It's a huge video-wall that shows footage - narrated by broadcaster Colin Murray - of the best of the best of Northern Ireland's games, including the shock 1-0 win over England in 2005.

The scorer of that memorable goal, David Healy, wasn't present at yesterday's launch, even though he is the manager of Linfield, who share the stadium with the IFA.

But a digital David does feature in an interactive 'game' called Tricky Tackle in which visitors can try to stop players like himself and Paddy McCourt in full flow.

Sadly, the game's designers run the risk of getting a red card because their graphic asks fans about the quality of their 'defense' rather than their 'defence'…

Belfast Telegraph


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