Belfast Telegraph

Euro 2016: I'm enjoying these happy days for Ireland, north and south

By Henry McDonald

For a supporter of Cliftonville, Everton and yes, Northern Ireland, these are the days of living in 'You Couldn't Make It Up' land.

This is especially so if you have happened to follow the Green and White international team through the fallow years of the last three decades.

A side without its top striker or an English Premiership-minted centre half sweeping one-time European champions aside; a squad that is almost exclusively drawn from locally-born players; an outfit that reflects all sides of the community and one of whose heroes of October 2015 happens to be black and all-triumphant in a stadium where once Catholics even on the field were booed, which now is free of sectarian or racist chanting and abuse. Not a bad time really to be a follower of the beautiful game, even in the era of serial Fifa corruption, top-flight superstar agent-fuelled greed and hiked-up ticket prices driven by corporate cretinism.

Under the ever-modest Michael O'Neill, the Northern Ireland squad's exploits have at least reminded us that there is still plenty of genuine romance, drama and commitment in football, even at an international level.

Sepp Blatter and (writing this with a heavy heart) Michel Platini's temporary expulsion from the sport represent the stain of shame that has smeared world soccer. Fifa's granting of the next two World Cups to Putin's Russia and the Gulf oil/gas oligarchs of Qatar has been a moral disgrace that only enhances the cynical but understandable viewpoint that football is no longer the People's Game.

Yet the scenes inside Windsor and beyond on Thursday do give some hope that when the under-resourced underdogs do have their day, it can be a glorious one for those who still love football.

O'Neill and his men's campaign to get to France 2016 falls into that Roy of the Rovers storybook narrative. The sides that were minnows are now strutting the world's stage.

The Goliaths (think Germany on Thursday) are felled by Davids (the other O'Neill's Republic of Ireland side), and sporting karma is complete.

In a society still as divided politically and socially as ours, the success of a united side in sport is particularly poignant.

And it would be Pollyanna-esque to suggest that a cross-community squad like the current Northern Ireland one could act as a template for squabbling politicians and sectarian factions to come together and get along better.

The legendary 1982 World Cup squad was as representative of Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter as the present one, yet the former side made soccer history just after the 1981 hunger strikes, one of the darkest and most dangerous periods of the Troubles.

Back when Jennings and McIlroy, Armstrong and Nicholl were our heroes, Windsor was a forbidding place for a Catholic-born fan like myself to attend, although I do recall a couple of glorious afternoons at Home International matches and a World Cup qualifier against the great Dutch side of the '70s, that first got me hooked on the Northern Ireland team.

Even if you were surrounded by fellow fans who sang 'I'd rather be a Muppet than a Taig' and then broke, without irony, into 'Super Pat, Super Pat' whenever Pat Jennings, a Catholic from Newry, pulled off another one of his many world-class saves.

Seven days ago, I sat in my seat at Solitude in the sunshine alongside my son and my sister, enjoying one of the best Irish League games I've seen in a long time.

Shell-shocked and depressed at half-time after being 2-0 down to rivals Linfield. Fearful that Cliftonville were about to endure a hammering at home we haven't experienced for a long time against the Blues. Then euphoric towards the end of the second half, as the Reds turned the match upside down and were leading 3-2. Finally feeling flat after letting Linfield back in for a 3-3 draw - a portent of the following day's Merseyside derby when at Goodison I would see Everton fail to score again and win over Liverpool, yet another draw.

There was another straw in the wind at Solitude last week, but not one with any menace surrounding it. A tiny group of Linfield fans tried to start up a rendition of The Sash in a ground where 'party tunes' from every tradition are no longer welcome, where politics is kept outside the doors. It faded away even more faintly than it came in.

Perhaps a commentary in itself on how our local game, even at somewhere that was once a place of potential peril for fans like me, has become a haven from the toxic tribalism that remains outside.

Martin McGuinness was actually the politician who hit the most positive note this week, when he tweeted congratulations to both Irish teams and both O'Neills that manage them. If only some soccer-loving unionist political figures would do the same and share in the equal joy of RoI fans, north and south, for beating Germany and moving towards the edge of qualification themselves.

And yes, those of my fellow supporters who prefer to follow Martin as opposed to Michael's team are perfectly entitled to do so, even if I will still support the North, even if we happen to draw the south in France next summer.

Belfast Telegraph


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