I thought I’d publish a few thoughts before the Northern Ireland v German game kicks off.
Thirty years ago I was working in the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast while the World Cup was on in Mexico. After the exploits of the Norn Iron team in Spain four years before it marked high-water for the game in Ulster.
The benefits of sport to society are often exaggerated and mythologised by journalists and authors - too often such an analysis bears no reality on the ground and myths arise unsupported by the facts. In the midst of a terroristic campaign that team did represent something better - in a divided society Protestants and Catholics playing for and alongside one another had a huge feel-good impact.
My own personal belief is that the football coincided with and reinforced the fantastic work Barry McGuigan had done in and outside the boxing ring - Barry was in a mixed marriage, boxed for clubs north and south of the border as an amateur, trained in Bangor for his big fights, fought lots of his professional fights in the Ulster Hall and the Kings Hall in Belfast, and wore the dove of peace on his shorts - not easy things to do at that time for a Catholic lad from the south when the pressure from various shades of nationalism and republicanism on him was intense - but he steered a course which was scrupulously even-handed and decent.
The Northern Ireland team of that time was a beacon - in a sporting sense an example that most folks can get along.
The dash and élan of the team helped - an almost classic example of the dogged Ulstermen in defence married to a wild Highland charge when they got the chance to attack. A seemingly under-powered team - the 1982 team in particular had a fair sprinting of Irish League players - who punched above their weight because somehow a little magic was woven.
1982 did of of course produce a better set of results - in the early group it was two draws v Yugoslavia and Honduras followed by the unbelievable win against hosts Spain - “Arconada! Armstrong!” still rings down the years. My perch for those games was Strathclyde Students Union where the happy proceedings were only once mildly interrupted by a lone sadcase cheering the Honduran equaliser!
In 1986 the return to Mexico - the setting of the most iconic World Cup held in 1970 - helped to build the atmosphere at home - this was in what we can now regard (somewhat mistakenly in my view) as the halcyon days before Fever Pitch and the gentrification of football. Days when the arrival of the Norn Iron team at the airport to the sight of a banner proclaiming “Guadalajara Says No” could raise a titter rather than an internet barrage of petitions and mock-offendedness.
Amongst normal people respecting a flag, a national anthem or someone’s identity is not something that’s difficult to do - most Catholic NI football fans have no more problem with it than Protestants have standing for the Soldiers Song at the rugby. You get on with it and you get over yourself.
The relative decline of the Northern Ireland team post-1986 also coincided with the rise of the Republic of Ireland’s team - in my time the Republic’s team and in particular their support was treated as a joke with performances reflected in paltry attendances. The over-use of the grandparent rule was greeted with scorn - until it paid the dividends that it has for football in the Republic which no-one can deny. Northern Ireland’s net has been cast far wider than it once was - it it will be a long time before another Irish League player will feature in a serious competition I fear.
Norn Iron has also suffered from the politically and religiously motivated antics of some players and politicians - in some cases people who should have both known and acted better. However, the siege mentality that campaign produced has turned out to be entirely positive in the fightback - and make no mistake this team is the product of a remarkable struggle - the rise of the Green And White Army as a positive force sadly coincided was a record-breaking losing streak before the revival got started.
In contrast to antics of the detractors, both the team and the fans have been a shining example of what Northern Ireland can be now the Troubles are largely gone - co-operative, integrated, imaginative and good-natured. The naysayers may crouch around the telly with their stopwatches and imaginative hearing aids hoping for something to complain about - but they are irrelevant, washed away by a tidal wave of decency and fun.
Michael O’Neill has been impressive on and off the field - a recent radio interview saw him stand tall on various issues with a bluntness usually caricatured as coming from his Presbyterian countrymen. He faced up to the issue of the Republic poaching Norn Iron’s young players by saying that the problem is largely a sectarian one - ‘they approach boys from the Bogside not from the Shankill’ - but that he had helped to largely staunch that flow by working with parents and coaches - all the recent defections have not progressed. That was a remarkably candid, not to say courageous, thing to say.
Likewise, he confronted the rumours that 1/ he was appointed because he was a Catholic and 2/ that he was allegedly an alcoholic. The first point he viewed as actually a positive concerning what had gone before; and the second he faced up to clearly pointing the finger at a senior figure in Scottish football trying to sabotage his career. It’s a clear example of the cliche of the Honest Ulsterman.
Northern Ireland teams in the past had few real stars to work with - even the quality of George Best, Derek Dougan and Pat Jennings by themselves could not produce wonders - this current side is remarkable as it’s so obviously a sum of the parts rather than a team of stars. The willingness to play for the squad - no crying about the changes in the line-up for the last game being a case in point. It’s all about teamwork.
Dissenters and dissidents will always be with us but the direction of travel in Northern Irish society is fairly clear and the Norn Iron team is a symbol of that. Fans are having the times of their lives - I’m happy for them - it’s been a long time coming. Win, lose or draw - enjoy the phenomenon!