Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland National Stadium opening: How things have changed at my Windsor field of dreams

With Fifa's president about to open the National Stadium at Windsor Park tomorrow, Ivan Little recalls the glory days of his childhood

By Ivan Little

Virtually alone in the eerie silence of the new Windsor Park, with all its multi-million pound modernity - from its cushioned seats to its plush hospitality suites - it was still surprisingly easy to conjure up some boyhood memories of the very old, very different and much noisier venue.

Shutting my eyes, I allowed the time machine of my mind to transport me back to those magical Saturday afternoons in the Sixties, when the home of Irish football was a second home to me and second to none for a wide-eyed schoolboy in short trousers.

Nothing, not even a piece of the Spion Kop terracing, has survived the slow-placed journey of progress from the old crumbling stadium to the new resplendent all-seater arena, which the IFA has rebranded the National Stadium at Windsor Park (NSAWP).

The tongue-twister of a name is a compromise to address the concerns of Linfield Football Club, which built the old Windsor more than 100 years ago and rented it out to the IFA for a cut of the gate receipts.

But now, after protracted negotiations about the new venue, the complex tenancy agreement has changed dramatically and Windsor is like the proverbial game of two halves - with Linfield and the IFA ground-sharing the space, though most of the photographs on the walls of fame are of Northern Ireland players and all the lounges are named after international stars.

The transfer of responsibilities hasn't gone down well with some Linfield supporters, who've complained that they've been made to feel like strangers in what was once their own back yard.

Yesterday, Linfield manager David Healy - who is still eulogised in song by Northern Ireland fans for his goal-scoring heroics in the green jersey - was bullish about the transformation, although he joked, or appeared to joke, that his invitation to tomorrow night's gala opening of the new ground was to the National Stadium - and he didn't know where that was.

Healy won't be part of the parade of Northern Irish veterans before the San Marino game, because he'll be in Scotland with his Linfield side, preparing for a match on Sunday against Queen of the South in the Irn-Bru Challenge Cup, a world away from the World Cup.

All around Healy, behind the scenes, workmen were putting the finishing touches to the NSAWP in readiness for tomorrow's opening by the president of FIFA, Gianni Infantino.

And technicians from Sky TV were also figuring out where to put their cameras at the ground, which took 29 months to re-develop at a cost of £35m and which was delayed by legal action and the unforeseen need to replace the old West Stand after cracks appeared in the edifice.

In the dug-outs yesterday, workmen were adding extra seats to meet the requirements of Fifa, which bizarrely aren't the same as the ones laid down by the officials who run football in Europe, Uefa.

In the old days at Windsor, fans were lucky if they got a lukewarm vol-au-vent to complement their sandwiches and pints, but yesterday caterers were readying themselves to serve up more gourmet - and more expensive - fare in the four new hospitality lounges, which are named after George Best, Pat Jennings, Danny Blanchflower and Billy Bingham.

Along the corridor, 10 corporate boxes acquired by the likes of Danske Bank and construction firm O'Hare & McGovern, will play host to their respective dignitaries, as stars like Jimmy Nesbitt, Dennis Taylor and Dame Mary Peters take their bow in the new ground - totally unrecognisable from the humble stadium that opened in 1905 with a match between Linfield and Glentoran in front of a crowd who paid gate receipts of just over £100.

But time took its toll on Windsor Park. An old grandstand with its famous Gallaher's cigarette advertisements emblazoned on the roof burned down shortly after fans left the enclosure where they'd been standing at an Irish League game.

The old wooden South Stand would probably have fallen down if it hadn't been knocked down to make way for the new NSAWP grandstand in all its two-tiered splendour, although there have been complaints that the new roof exposes supporters to the elements.

And teams of cleaners have been spotted before some domestic games with mops and buckets drying off the seats, which are a mixture of blue, green and white in a bid to keep all the fans happy with where they rest their partisan posteriors.

Behind the scenes in the new South Stand, the facilities are on a different planet from what was there before.

Where once there were cramped dressing rooms and large communal tubs, there are now power showers and ice baths.

Where once there was a treatment table in a cramped room where you couldn't have swung a mouse, never mind a cat, there is now an impressive medical room. And where once there was a tiny Press box, there's now what they're calling a Press tribune, complete with a media centre named in honour of the legendary Belfast Telegraph sports editor Malcolm Brodie, who had long advocated change at his beloved Windsor Park but sadly didn't live to see it.

Where once interviews were conducted in a commandeered social club or a corridor, there's now a dedicated Press room with seats for nearly 50 journalists, who also have a huge working space all of their own with ultra-fast broadband connections.

Photographers also have a room to themselves, and outside there's a mixed zone that all footballers have to walk through after a match, though they don't have to stop and talk to waiting reporters.

Even on a whirlwind Windsor tour, it was impossible not to be impressed by what the new stadium has to offer.

But it was equally difficult for anyone of a certain vintage with nostalgia coursing through their veins not to hanker after the past in the old place, grim as it undoubtedly was.

Surveying the NSAWP, the memories came flooding back of footballing greats like Blanchflower, McIlroy and Best, who took my boyish breath away all those years ago.

They were the wizards of my Windsor, heroes of all my yesterdays of innocence and wonderment. Just like the Davises, the McAuleys and the Laffertys of the current crop of players who wear the green jerseys of Northern Ireland with pride in front of a new generation of supporters.

Tomorrow night, the San Marino match will be watched by 18,600 fanatics in the Green and White Army (Gawa), buoyed by their travels to France for their team's glorious summer at Euro 2016. But back in the Fifties and Sixties the GAWA would scarcely have constituted a regiment on my first visits to Windsor, where they managed to sardine-pack 60,000 of us into a ground which had only a few thousand seats for what us plebs called the fur-coat brigade.

The rest of us were shoehorned onto the terraces in a crush that would have given health and safety officials heart failure - if there had been such a thing back in those more carefree days.

The NSAWP of the 21st century is something that the fans of the darker ages could never have imagined as they stood in what was in hindsight little more than a dump.

But it was our dump. A dump where footballing fantasies were made real. Where stars from the back pages of the Ireland's Saturday Night and magazines like Charles Buchan's Football Monthly came alive.

And from my prime position at the front of the terraces on the halfway line, the players from Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England in the Home Championship internationals really were larger than life, majestic figures who we'd only glimpsed fleetingly on small black and white televisions.

My brothers and I used to arrive three hours before the referee sounded his whistle to ensure we got our coveted places from where we had a ringside view - only we were standing - of the pre-match entertainment.

This included marching silver bands, community singing and the passionate preaching of a red-faced Bible-thumping evangelist everyone called Holy Joe, but couldn't hear in the Windsor Park cauldron.

But the real fun and games started as fans who'd had the consciousness squeezed out of them on the jammed terraces were passed over the heads of other supporters into the arms of St John Ambulance volunteers on the track around the pitch.

Chaotic scenes like those ones are unlikely to be replayed amid the smaller crowds at the new NSAWP.

But, such is the reawakening of interest in the Northern Ireland team under Michael O'Neill, IFA officials reckon they could now fill the ground two or maybe three times over for their matches.

That was rammed home to them after they advertised for 3,500 additional fans to become what they call "campaign cardholders" in the bigger NSAWP and they received a staggering 30,000 applications.

All of them could of course have been accommodated in the proposed national stadium at the former Maze prison, if that plan hadn't been given the red card - but that's a different ball game altogether.

Belfast Telegraph


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