On Wednesday night this week, Northern Ireland played the Faroe Islands in Belfast in a 2012 European Championship Qualifying match. It was the return fixture from earlier in the campaign where I had one of the most exotic trips with one of the most abysmal footballing results… so frankly, leading into the game, expectations were hard to pin down. We can be a decent team when we’re set up right, everyone knows their role and pulls in the same direction. We also have the ability to be rubbish (helped in no small part by a manager who’s thinking is as confused as a bowl of spaghetti).
It was also going to be a first for me as both my Dad and Brother were not going to be at the game!! Now I have missed friendly fixtures in the past few years as travelling from India to Belfast to watch a friendly just isn’t worth the money or hassle… I’ve known Mark to miss the odd friendly too because of being a married man… but I have never known Dad to miss a game in Belfast, pretty much since I’ve had conscious thought!!
They were both missing because of a wedding down in Fermanagh of a close family friend… in truth I probably didn’t get an invite because I am resident in England & the happy couple would never have considered me to be in NI at the time of their wedding… they clearly didn’t check the date against the International Football Diary!! Obviously I consider it a schoolboy error to arrange a wedding on a football date (N.B to self: Check potential Wedding Dates against the official FIFA calendar!!), I’m with the great Bill Shankly on that one:
“Of course I didn’t take my wife to see Rochdale as an anniversary present. It was her birthday. Would I have got married in the football season?”
So with two spare tickets, I took the decision to initiate Dina to the ‘Northern Ireland Wonderful Windsor Wednesday’ experience. The lucky girl.
As I’ve noted in my previous blog, we actually spent Wednesday venue shopping for our wedding so we spent most of the day outside of the city… and on our travels, Dina discovered that she had to buy a dress for a wedding we’re due to attend this weekend. So my schedule was under threat. Anyone who knows me knows how I hate being late and my anxiety levels were starting to rise… so I dropped Dina off in the city centre, desperately hoping she’d walk into the first shop she’d find, see the first dress on the rack, like it & buy it.
As you may have guessed, that didn’t happen.
What did happen though was that she spent 20 minutes or so wandering around town, bought nothing & grabbed a cab from the city centre at about 1905 to come back to the flat to pick me up. Originally, she was to come in & change in to an NI jersey that I’d brought over for her so that she’d be properly dressed for the carnival. However, with her only getting back to the flat at 1920 we decided to bail straight to the game in the same taxi.
As you do about these parts, I got chatting to the taxi driver, who was a football man and who had somehow managed to overlook the game in his diary when organising his shift (see schoolboy error mentioned above). I said I had a spare ticket & put it on his dashboard & said he could have it… regardless of whether he had the time to make the game or not. This turned out to be a master stroke and frankly says a lot about the mentality of people in NI. The taxi driver thanked me, refused our fare & said he would be trying to park up. Sure enough, 10 minutes into the game, he came climbing up the stairs and stood in beside us in the ground… and gave us a lift home at the end of the game for free. Legend.
As it happened, with our taxi journey down to the ground and a quicker moving queue than normal into the ground (via turnstiles which no amount of warning seemed to prepare Dina for), we made it to our seats on time… which was huge relief to me. I hate being late for things, and I especially hate being late for the football… that drug of having to be there, having to see and digest it all, see the atmosphere build, is still pretty intoxicating and I was delighted to get there in time to see the teams walking out.
As for the game itself, well, NI started brightly. We scored in the first five minutes with an Aaron Hughes goal… yes, you read that right… our Captain Magnificent in his 77th game for Northern Ireland scored his first international goal. In non-footballing terms, this is the equivalent to Mr Miagi not only making the Karate Kid into the Champion who defeats the bully in the final, but also tutoring the boy to also rescue stranded puppies whilst helping little old ladies across the street. He can do no more for the cause.
Of course, Northern Ireland, being Northern Ireland, then managed to take the foot off the pedal and let the Faroese back into the game. They probably created the best chance of the game, through we hit the post as well. The reaction at half time was mixed to say the least… even though we were winning one nil.
The second half started as the first had finished… ponderously and it was not until the introduction of Nial McGinn that we started looking like we wanted to win the game. Shortly after, he set up Steve Davis who beautifully side footed home from the end of the box… a great goal, which Dina managed to miss* as she was texting someone… a schoolgirl error for sure, but forgivable given it was her first game & the quality of football served up by NI to this point was not exactly great.
She didn’t make the same mistake twice though!! When Paddy McCourt went skipping through, played a one-two with Jonny Evans and slotted home it was a moment we’ll all remember!! Paddy’s first goal for NI was quickly followed by his second, which was a ridiculous effort… ridiculous because he managed to carry the ball from the half way line, beat two players with skill before chipping the next defender and the keeper from about 12 yards using his weaker foot, all the while, making it look like he was playing around in the park with his kids… I’m struggling to judge at the moment if it was the best goal I’ve ever seen Northern Ireland score. It was that good.
That fourth goal was also Northern Ireland’s 600th of all time, since we started playing football back in the late 1800’s. Dina not only has a 100% win ratio watching Northern Ireland (something very few can claim!) but she also witnessed a bit of history to boot!!
So, a return of the Wonderful Windsor Wednesday experience for us all, which now puts us in 3rd place in the group with a game in hand on the team in 2nd. With four games to play, our next match against Serbia in September in Belfast, is now massive. Come on Norn Iron!!
– – – –
* Dina did however do much, much better than Caral Ni Chullin (Carol Cullen to English Speakers out there), the Sports Minister in the Northern Ireland Administration. Ms Chullin is a Sinn Fein minister, a party which has spent most of it’s existence denying Northern Irelands, yet she accepted the offer from the IFA to attend the game. As she doesn’t recognise Northern Ireland’s position within the Union of the UK, she deliberately turned up late to avoid having to stand for the National Anthem… fair enough… but it also ensured that she missed the opening goal. Yet another schoolgirl error, though understandable given the context. What is bizarre though is that Ms Chullin also left over 30 minutes before the end of the game, ensuring that she missed all the other goals as well!! Now that is just silly.