Belfast Telegraph

No Laps in class from the Irish FA at Windsor Park

Northern Ireland football family was celebrated in style.

By Paul Ferguson

Only in Northern Ireland could a parade cause so much offence.

Usually the outcry is over re-routing, allowing a march to proceed or, in some instances, the actual choice of music during such a walk.

But a lack of participants — that is a new one, even for our wee country.

It appears the Northern Ireland international football team has a greater number of supporters than the Irish FA could ever have imagined — and that’s not even counting the 40,000 fans who applied for just over 18,000 World Cup qualifying campaign cards during the summer at the new-look Windsor Park.

Famous faces from a variety of different sports, who have maybe shown little interest in the past, suddenly want to be associated with the Green and White Army.

Forget the jokes and embarrassment of a few years ago when the non-converts would proclaim that ‘you couldn’t pay me to go to Windsor’ — Michael O’Neill’s Northern Ireland team, it seems, is the ‘in thing’.

Qualifying for the Euros launched the bandwagon and with thousands having jumped on, the Irish FA are quite rightly trying to maximise their appeal. So in an effort to give something back to the fans and to showcase the Northern Ireland football family in many different guises, at the official opening of Windsor Park last Saturday night and ahead of the game against San Marino, the Irish FA organised what they titled ‘A Lap of Legends’.

Sunday Life exclusively revealed the event THREE weeks ago and detailed the stars including Gary Lightbody, Charlie Lawson, Carl Frampton, Eammon Holmes, Jimmy Nesbitt, Peter McParland, Bethany Firth (below) and Kelly Gallagher who would be on show and the fact the Irish FA were going to team them up with representatives from different sides throughout the Association, including homeless and cerebral palsy. In the days leading up to the match, the Irish FA reaffirmed our story with a press release of their own.

In truth, they didn’t have to bother with such festivities — the fans were primarily there for the World Cup qualifier against San Marino while the new stadium was officially being opened by special guest, FIFA President Gianni Infantino, with the First and Deputy First Minister, Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness, also in attendance. But having been criticised in the past for their lack of match night experience, and I have been a harsh critic, the Irish FA during the last five years have slowly brought new, exciting and welcoming facets to attending an international at Windsor Park.

The ‘Lap of Legends’ compered by radio DJ and Northern Ireland fan Colin Murray was, according to the reaction in the Windsor Park stands, a major success and greatly enjoyed by the supporters.

Due to time constraints, just 20 minutes, and the fact the Irish FA wanted to include passionate and loyal members of the Northern Ireland fanbase including builders who helped renovate the famous old stadium, there were always going to be omissions from the guestlist.

So in terms of invites, the main criteria was that they were sent out to well-known supporters of the Northern Ireland football team while in this day and age, it was also important to get a gender equality which was achieved. The religious balance was reached without too much trouble.

Therefore, along with the celebs from music and television, it was excellent to have representation from a wide variety of sports in Northern Ireland including football, rugby, snooker, athletics, boxing and even the Paralympics, which is often overlooked in favour of the mainstream sports.

Golfing superstar Rory McIlroy flew in from his Ryder Cup disappointment in the States to be there and it was great to see the Irish FA’s friendship with GAA continue to prosper as Ulster Council President Michael Hasson and colleagues took their place in a VIP suite.

The event hit the right note, was perfectly choreographed with limited pitch availability due to FIFA regulations and did not infringe on the players’ warm-up ahead of kick-off last Saturday night.

While certain sport stars in recent days have argued they should have been invited and on social media there has been questions asked about why Tony McCoy’s horses, Jonathan Rea’s back wheel, UTV favourite Julian Simmons, Ballymena’s finest Liam Neeson or Jimmy Cricket’s famous left and right boots weren’t there, it is well worth remembering that this was not a celebration of Northern Ireland people — it was a celebration of the Northern Ireland football family. And I suppose if the IFA are guilty of anything, and this is being totally pedantic, then it is using the term ‘legend’ when it did not apply to all those who graced the perimeter of the Windsor Park pitch. But it was an excellent and catchy title for the event and would have sounded great in the marketing planning meetings.

The Irish FA should be commended for their ‘Football for All’ programme and I know Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill, being so hands on, is an active participant and huge supporter of the campaign.

Windsor Park, we are told, does not discriminate, it is a welcoming and fantastic new modern football stadium which plays host to an international team proud to represent the entire community.

Such a pity then that the official opening of Windsor was tainted by negative connotations in the hours and days after such a positive and refreshing event.

Maybe another one for the parades commission.

Or in this instance, as an old friend would say — it’s manners to wait until you are asked.

Belfast Telegraph Digital

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