Slowly and gently, Northern Ireland fans gently and gingerly began to filter out of their shelters and self- help groups after the previous year. The Northern Ireland football team were not so much members of FIFA as offbeat squatters of the dark web. The crushing weight of the goalless last campaign bent many as well as the weight of carrying one hundred and twenty- six FIFA ranked teams above us. There should have been an announcement at the end of the last match for the Northern Ireland fans – “If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this campaign please contact the following helpline.”
First, we needed a manager.
Enter ex-player of three cap history, Lawrie Sanchez. He had surprised a few by beating 1982 World Cup favourite Jimmy Nicholl at the interview to land the international manager’s job. Jimmy Nicholl couldn’t believe his lucky escape. St. Jude told his secretary to say he was in meetings should Sanchez call.
Soon, however, this semi-Ecuadorian enthusiast started to halt the horror. A 4-1 friendly defeat by Norway in February saw the return of a long-gone practice called a goal scored by that David Healy. Sammy McIlroy’s refrain from eighteen months ago hovered briefly then left the proceedings -“When did David last see a goal?” Rarely have four goals conceded at home ever been so happily dismissed. A month later another goal enabled a victory in Estonia. Scales and sores started to disappear from many of the afflicted fans as yet a third was seen at home to Serbia in a 1-1 draw.
Following a summer tour to the West Indies, nine more of the blighters had occurred. Lawrie now was the saviour and Windsor sold out in advance of a qualifying group of England, Wales, Azerbaijan, Austria and Poland. The last two years hadn’t happened as far as the fans were concerned as they rolled up to Windsor that first sunny Saturday of September. A sudden and Silesian 0-3 slap in the face sobered everybody up. A defensive mix up between Damien Johnson and goalkeeper Maik Taylor on a corner set the tone as we did not get to grips with the slippery Poles all day. This defensive malaise spread to the central defenders who did not deal with a simple long ball due to bad positioning and we were 2-0 down at halftime.
Finally, a breakaway goal led to a third and Poland really had not had to work too hard for their victory. Back to the real world. A trip to Cardiff four days later hopefully would help but it was an inauspicious start after learning to walk again. Backed by five thousand Ulstermen the game v Wales was to go down in history. Michael Hughes and Robbie Savage were sent off inside the first quarter of an hour and then Jeff Whitley and Healy had us 2-0 up. Eye-popping stuff! Saint David Healy then lost out to the real St. David by getting sent off for offending the referee in his goal celebrations.
The nine men put in a heroic shift but the epic game ended up 2-2 and pride was restored. The strange sight of substitute Andy Smith being substituted not to injury was an interesting one. The only two times I have seen that happen involved Northern Ireland teams, though at least the first time injury was the cause. Moving on. It was a strange evening.
A month later we set off to the land of black oil and the Black Sea. We did have hopes for our first ever battle with Azerbaijan but these were severely tempered by the suspensions of Michael Hughes and Healy. This was Healy’s first missed match since he had started with us four years ago though it may have seemed forty years. An injury to Chris Baird didn’t help after nine minutes. An unsurprising 0-0 draw was the result which prompted one of the greatest ever left backs in the game’s history to call Northern Ireland’s performance s**t. The only good thing to say about this was that Carlos Alberto did happen to be the Azeris’ manager but still Carlos…. Just be thankful you didn’t come up against Georgie Best who might have made a mess of you.
Yet again our series of ‘low – high’ was repeated as another crackle and pop of a home game v Austria had us all NI high again. We had hopes for our first home win in three years through a 14th-minute goal conceded created the sound of silence rather than the sound of music. That concession was probably worth it to witness Healy’s equaliser. About 35 yards out he took a ball in mid-air on his right foot, swivelled and with his left volleyed an astonishing shot past Alex Manninger in the Austrian goal.
On the hour Colin Murdock got on the end of a corner to head us into the lead which was to last a minute and into the last quarter we conceded a third. Cue substitute Stuart Elliott who threw himself at a James Quinn second phase header in the 94th minute to give Windsor a famous last-minute frenzy. So three points in total wasn’t great as we finished 2004 but we had been entertained royally in a few games.
I hesitate to insert another low moment in our history as a February friendly against Canada registered another grim kick in the Banffs with a 0-1 defeat. A young ginger Cullybackey lad made his debut in midfield by the name of Davis. After that performance, I am glad he came back. Easter Saturday saw the return of World Cup activity and a daunting match with England at Old Trafford. A mighty first half led by goalkeeper Maik Taylor saw the team enthuse the green hordes and it was goalless at the interval. However, a loose Capaldi pass shortly after was punished by Joe Cole. The green door started to shake and it finally collapsed at 4-0.
Out to Poland on the following Wednesday and a solid performance was finally broken with five minutes to go and we lost to the solitary goal. We had been out of the running really since the autumn but the team was showing positive signs. The 1298 minute goalless nightmare which had fixated the local press had long gone in the rearview mirror.
September rolled around again and we had two home games against Azerbaijan and England. Certainly an appealing doubleheader for different reasons. We triumphed as we should have with a 2-0 win with a delightful free-kick from Stuart Elliott and a penalty from Warren Feeney. Finally, a home victory. This settled and encouraged many for the big ding dong with the Three Lions. Many will never forget the historical 74th-minute cross-shot that punctured Sven- Goran et al. That match became the defining game of a generation and it appeared that had we not suffered as we did, it would not have happened. This is how you end up thinking. If we had conceded three points rather than acquiring them no-one would have cared. Each lion had a Celtic cross branded onto its withers.
It could be said that nothing really mattered after that game such was the feelgood factor that the country wallowed in. It was a result that went beyond the football world. David Healy became a proper legend overnight and appeared on walls around the city.
The return match with Wales in early October was unwelcome insofar as it would only interrupt said wellbeing.
In fact it was another belter of a game with five goals to enjoy. Perhaps the team was still living off September as they soon went down 2-0 to goals from Davies and Robinson. Aaron Hughes and Chris Baird were badly missed. After the break a resurgent team came back with Keith Gillespie’s second international goal and a first for Steve Davis. Howls of delight at pantomime villain John Hartson as he missed a penalty at the Kop end provided another great moment of folklore. Artur Boruc was to challenge that five years later. However, a real piece of quality from a Ryan Giggs free-kick ensured the points lay east of the Irish Sea.
The team signed off in Vienna, supported by 1700 which was indicative of forgiveness for a meaningless game. A 2-0 defeat was taken on the chin despite a stirring performance and ended ten apiece as Messrs Johnson and Pogatetz tangled and saw red. Manager Sanchez took to the field with a microphone at the end and addressed the Ulster fans who thought he was running for political office. It wasn’t like that in 2003.
The team finished with nine points and in fourth place and more importantly above Wales which was satisfying. All of that was nothing to that epic night in early September 2005.