Northern Ireland football fans have long enjoyed a reputation throughout Europe as being among the most supportive and good humoured in international football.
Always vocal, always loud and large in number wherever they go, the Green and White Army are well known for a support which is as noisy in defeat as it is in victory – a reputation which sadly has been tested a little too often over the years.
It’s a fact not lost on European football’s governing body, UEFA, who as far back as 2006 presented Northern Ireland fans with the prestigious Brussels International Supports Award.
“That’s all very well”, you might say. “But when are the team going to catch up?”
The answer seems to be NOW!
Norman Boyd explains why…
Three straight wins in the opening games not only put Northern Ireland at the top of Group F, but inspired a belief in players and fans alike that this crop of players could herald the beginning of a new era.
Sure, the away defeat to a classy Romanian side brought everyone back down to earth, but a win against Finland put Northern Ireland firmly back in the hunt for one of two automatic qualification places.
Happily, myself and around 4000 other fans danced and sang our appreciation of that Finland result, blissfully unaware that, for reasons still unknown, the Kop stand was sinking beneath our feet. As one friend said on seeing a photograph of the bent and buckled structure later that week, “Oh great. You broke it.”
But we’re all about silver linings in Northern Ireland and on Saturday those 4,000 fans, along with everyone else in the sold-out stadium, had a first real glimpse of how the new Windsor Park will look. And it’s impressive!
Displaced from the now demolished West Stand, the Kopites, split between the new East Stand and one end of the North, were determined to make even more noise than that for which they’re well known.
On the pitch, Northern Ireland more than matched the fans for enthusiasm. The difference now is that they are matching even quality opposition in technique as well as effort. Manager Michael O’Neill has his side playing with a composure not evident in previous years.
And Kyle Lafferty, reborn in this campaign, ran tirelessly thoughout. He may have missed a late opportunity to win the game, but he’s become a player as important to Northern Ireland now as David “Heeeeeeeealy” was in his prime.
Sure, we could – probably should – have won, but the very fact that 10,000 fans left Windsor Park disappointed at drawing with the group leaders, shows how far Northern Ireland have come.
And let’s give credit where it’s due. Over the years I’ve been as critical of the Irish Football Association and some of their decisions as the next man. But standing in the sun on Saturday (no – we still won’t sit, wherever you put us), singing until we were hoarse, watching a Northern Ireland side play composed, skilful and often exciting football and all in what looks to become a stunning stadium of which we can all be proud, it was impossible not to feel optimistic about the future.
Of course we’re not there yet. There’s much still to be done in this campaign and in the future. But (and maybe you had to be there, but trust me), there’s a feeling around Windsor Park. It runs through the fans, the players and everyone involved with international football in Northern Ireland.
We’re a tiny country and our pool of players is further reduced by issues of national identity. There’s little we can do about that. We’ll never play on the same level as the Germanys or Brazils of this footballing world. And we can’t become complacent either on the pitch or in the stands. But if Saturday is anything to go by, right now we can all feel pretty good about the future and about ourselves.