Belfast Telegraph

Euro 2016: No Kop, but same old raucous atmosphere

By Ian Cahoon

Any fears that the atmosphere would no longer be the same at a Northern Ireland international at Windsor Park were dispelled on Saturday night.

As fans filtered in, summer sunshine bathed the new-look stadium, which was minus the popular West Stand after it was taken down due to cracks being found in the structure.

The Kop had become the place where a sizeable number of the Green and White Army gathered and helped to produce great atmospheres on some memorable nights.

David Healy fired home his winner against England in 2005 at that end, and two of his three goals against Spain found the same net a year later.

With the stand now all but gone, some wondered whether Michael O'Neill's team would lose their '12th man'.

However, even well before kick-off, it was apparent that none of the usual buzz had been lost.

Fans housed in the new East Stand were colourful, noisy and roared on O'Neill's men.

The game against table-topping Romania had rightly been given the big build-up and there wasn't a spare ticket to be had.

Lifelong fan Gary Gillespie admitted it was a big turnaround from the doom and gloom surrounding the Kop.

"After the high of Finland came the dampener that the Kop would have to come down," he recalled. "For a few weeks we didn't even know where the Romania match was going to be played. So for the IFA to get everything organised in time, I think they deserve credit.

"Even though the ground isn't finished yet, I think you can see it's going to be a great job, far better than what was there before."

James Harris believes the new ground, once finished, will be an advantage for Northern Ireland sides for years to come.

He said: "Some people worried that it wouldn't be the same because part of the charm was that the ground wasn't very glamorous.

"I think Saturday night showed that the most important thing is the fans getting behind the team.

"Still having the stands close to the pitch is important. I think we'll have a key part to play at home to Greece and Hungary."

Northern Ireland fans have always gone to international games determined to enjoy themselves, at home and abroad.

As this campaign has gone on, however, the football itself has brought a growing sense of expectation.

This is reflected in Lurgan man Tim Johnston's reaction to the goalless draw against Romania.

"The build-up to the game had me thinking this was going to be an historic game at Windsor Park once again, but sadly that wasn't the case," he said.

"It was a bit of a dull game to be honest. In saying that, I thought the players worked their socks off.

"Stuart Dallas was my man of the match. A draw is not a bad result in terms of the campaign."

Bill Hoey, from Belfast, believes the final four games of the campaign will be tense.

He said: "I don't think we can have any complaints about the result itself, we didn't really do enough to win it.

"I think we need to keep things in perspective though. Romania are ranked 12th in the world and we're drawing players mainly from League 1, the Championship and the SPL.

"We need to go to the Faroes and win, which will be easier said than done.

"A lot is going to come down to the Hungary game at Windsor in September, but it's great to be in this position."

Belfast Telegraph