Basel. An everyday routine city in north-western Switzerland became another landmark for the Northern Irish footballing family last Sunday. If the real story lay elsewhere, it is perhaps best that the raging cacophony of injustice lies smothered and smouldering in the rivers and mountains of Helvetica. For here lies not so much the ending of a campaign, or indeed a dream for many, but a temporary closure of camaraderie as the petals perhaps finally fall.
The Northern Ireland team that played the last match of 2017 in the St. Jakob Park stadium left more than their defeated souls as an imprint on that muddy pitch. The Swiss team and fans celebrated their passage to the lair of the Russian bear as they expected. They believed that however they got there after nine victories in qualifying, this Irish contretemps was simply a small hurdle to pass by.
They may not have been aware that the steel bolts in that hurdle were being re-welded mentally in their white-shirted opponents and their banks of followers in the steep seats of the B section and beyond. For this was more than the end of a game or campaign. Through the raindrops that iron bond of comradeship between team and followers was being reinforced in the pupil -shielding glare of injustice. The post-match Ulster pride was coursing through and in the same way a foal struggles to greater height, this team’s immediate story elbowed its way onto the same lofty ledge of previous legends in green.
It may not have been a night of dreams fulfilled, but it was a moment that took on silicone protection in the memory banks. For the scribes and commentators cannot create or allocate pride. Pride and respect – the hardest earned, the easiest lost.
For Michael O’Neill, the moments of these four days will return to him more than anything else as he reflects in the proximal and distal years to come. His whole being, stretched and pummelled from the tactical and directional of the surface battle was now having to manage with the sheer pulsing professional love of his players. The media harried and hustled around thinner pelted issues such as player futures, his own future and serpent-tongued penalty decisions. Yet these huge stories as indeed they are and will be, floated past him as there was no room in his inn right then.
Soundbite interviews under bright neon and pinned before a brash brocade of corporate screaming logo are no place for a story that will carry far beyond the immediate and the morrow. He and most of his players will have walked through six years of the journey – a journey that has stumbled through quicksand and onto the clear golden view high on the sunny hills of Europe. A journey that has seen him rope – pull his players through the deafening white blizzards of defeats in Luxembourg and Estonia, to the everlasting glow of the present nirvana. An adventure that will run and carry whenever this group of men come together in the future.
It is a story of reversing a group paddling fast over the falls to swim against a cultural and historical current. It is a story of asking a collective to swim outside their comfort zone forever, not a while. O’Neill put his being on the line with his senior players and they were first out of the boat pushing it along without their life-jackets on. As he put it himself, “ Speak to Aaron Hughes about retirement” as a tip of the hat to the man who has got more out of the last six years than anybody. This is not about which players might retire, but more about the fact that this period of time and history will be keenly identified by the faces, calibre and personalities of the likes of Chris Brunt, Gareth McAuley, Steve Davis, Aaron Hughes, Michael McGovern, the Evans boys and indeed Chris Baird.
It is hard to see these names and not see their profiles on a green background looking over Windsor Park and their manager behind them in paternal overview. I see them looking over and beyond all directions covered. For they have indeed covered. They and their team have taken the Northern Irish footballing story into further waters. Only men of stature can do this as it is full of vulnerability. Those who can take the hit and still rise with the load on their back will always be lauded. For the load on their backs is indeed all aspiration, and for those of us unwilling or unable to carry our own dreams through life we look to such men of core. We give them a green shirt with a Celtic cross to do it. We watch and we will them on.
There is little doubt that the drama of Basel has a certain finality about it as the two battles with Switzerland have memory intensity about them. But I take you back to the start of this piece and remind you about the connecting bolt that all who follow and play in this team gratefully grasp. It shows in different ways. In the Novotel prior to game as fans collected tickets, Colin Murray, radio broadcasting fan with his first leg heart still penalty – bleeding put across to the world the dichotomy of being caught in such a clasp. Being amongst his people in a foreign land it was an education seeing the professional join hands with the personal with such intensity. It was a second journalistic tour de force within a few days fuelled by the power of emotion. His powerful mantra let many know you need fibre to walk with his team.
“If you can’t follow us when we lose, don’t follow us when we win.”
Other things are worth a mention. Stuart Dallas who arrived in crutches played down the left wing as if it was own neighbouring Brenner pass. In the final minute as Johnny Evans’s header was cleared off the line the question hangs as to whether this is the end of the line for this team and this era. As the side came over to their fans in the northeastern corner of the ground in emotion and embrace it was a snapshot quickly moving to sepia. It was a snapshot of several years condensed. It was a snapshot locked.