Northern Ireland v England (1-0), Wednesday, 7th September 2005
Windsor Park, Belfast
Part of me dreaded this game to be honest. Going to NI matches expecting a hammering I can deal with and am armoured to deal with that. I had been to the 4-0 reverse against them in Manchester the previous March. That defeat wasn’t a problem and indeed it was again to be a privilege of the GAWA. We were adored by the Manchester police and David Beckham in equal measure. Not that we need that- it is just good to show what proper support is all about.
What is difficult is the supposed NI fan there who is ready to be starstruck by England. Sometimes you want to weep. Over the years you see and hear people only able to see what is in front of them through years of the anglicised media, or through their own sense of low national self- esteem. Hearing NI supporters behind me say things at the likes of Jonny Evans such as-‘Not bad for a Man U player’ makes you want to scream. Booing /clapping Man U /Liverpool opposition players was another epic torture that had me tightening my mental tourniquet. That’s the sort of thing that would have me forming a NI punk movement. Thankfully it rarely happens now but you get a sense of my discomfiture. My mindset was warlike against some of my own fans and would use the forthcoming defeat as good reason. I wasn’t necessarily proud of myself that night about all this but there you go.
That said, I was looking forward to it and was doing my Ulster hospitality bit to any English fans who were over – perhaps recalling their unselfish support of us in Spain all those years ago. I had my two eldest boys with me and I have to say pre match it certainly was a bit of a party atmosphere. We are just the same as Scotland and Wales and indeed the Republic of Ireland- it is always good to play England at home just to have a go at them to see what happens.
This attitude manifested itself in the ground and it was one of those ‘look around you’ atmospheres. Windsor Park in those days was probably one of the ugliest grounds still hosting international football. Again part of me cringed at it but at the same time if you were a visiting team not quite up for it, the place was not somewhere to find yourself alone. It would be too easy to say that it was a night that the complacency was shaken out of England. That was certainly true, but there were various contributing factors for me that led to Rorke’s Drift being replayed in South Belfast that night.
England were if not already, certainly nearly qualified for the Germany World Cup and were playing an awkward looking 4-1-4-1 type formation. Beckham was lying deep to playmake rather than Makelele with Wayne Rooney wide left leaving Michael Owen to forage on his own. One can debate the arrogance or sense of trying this out against a team they had beaten 4-0 just over five months ago. Stark for me though was that ever beautiful culvert mine of football- with the right attitude and on the right day, anyone can be beaten.
This was again an England collection with some fantastic players. Decorating your global entertainment centre were Premiership stars, Owen, Rooney, Gerrard, Ferdinand, Lampard and if you brush away the golden tickertape you can see David Beckham giving you a wave. Great individual stars on the Premiership dance floors, but asked to team up and show their moves on a local community hall some of the classic choreography was somewhat missing. Just for this match or is this an ongoing problem do you think?
The first half was mostly Irish industry and rattled Rooney. Young as he was, it was fascinating to see how an inferior team’s attitude could slowly fragment a supposed superior collective via its weakest link. Watching him unravel fuelled the crowd and by half-time when he started bitching at Beckham and Ferdinand most of the crowd were six inches in front of his face laughing at him. Now we were playing against ten men as his energy was directed at his own self -control rather than inflicting damage against us.
Aside from Wayne’s war I’ll always remember captain Aaron Hughes’s careful shepherding and eventual nullification of Shaun Wright- Phillips on a particularly dangerous raid. It should be shown to schoolkids everywhere as to how to defend against a faster opponent coming at you with greater speed and angle. It is always easy to look back on these sort of matches as some sort of fan driven energy max extravaganza. Yes, of course that was all there but through the mania, clear headed moments like these were happening all the time. It was probably Aaron’s finest performance in a green shirt and there have been a few. I could watch that tackle over and over again and it was to be repeated ten years later when Jonny Evans found himself alone against marauding Romanians at Windsor. Watch and learn Jonny from the master- your time is soon. He certainly did.
So aside from a Beckham free kick hitting the bar we were well in it at half time. I had encountered no subterranean England wannabe nonsense and all was good. As always could we keep the on field harassment for another forty – five? Goal mouth incidents were far from plentiful but in its own way it was an absorbing spectacle. Watching every man jack of a lesser collective maximise their personal resource to match and frustrate a greater force is the oxygen of sporting spectacle.
The Northern Ireland team of that day, whilst technically limited had growing confidence, on and off field leadership and when playing 4-4-2, the balance and player I personally like to see. The front six had playmaker (Davis), tigerish tackler (Johnson), two wide pacey players who could cross and work, (Elliott and Gillespie) and a little and large front two (Quinn and Healy) who could tie up defenders, provide outlet and score. Approaching the last twenty minutes you could sense the collective ‘this could get interesting’ thoughts of those assembled.
Did it what! In all the reams of reportage on the match I have yet to see anyone pick up on the four mistakes that surrounded the goal. Starting with Paul Robinson’s less than adequate clearance, Frank Lampard then failed to compete for the aerial ball. The biggest culprit in the whole sorry Anglo- Saxon mess was David Beckham. Strolling back with no real urgency to simply stand and watch Steve Davis pick his pass was appalling. Not only at that level but also as Captain and I have to say he was a man not known for being work shy. Finally the misfiring offside call which amidst much ball watching allowed Ferdinand and Cole to call it wrong.
None of these failings bothered David Healy who bent away to come back and meet the now live and viable device at his right foot. My line of sight was right behind him in the North stand and real life stood suspended. The diagonal right foot shot cut through England from Kent to Cumbria. There is a unique sound when disbelief and euphoria collide. It is a more unscripted roar and nobody knows where it will go and what it will take with it.
Its lifespan is fuelled by the extraordinary in its way. The Northern Ireland bench spilled all over the touchline. England players suddenly stand exposed in the teeth of a Celtic downdraught. A red flare in the Kop competes with the frenzy of the NI players at its base.
The game restarted with the new circumstance on and off pitch, pushing and pulling with greater vigour. The crowd is alive with all senses more highly tuned and the handbrake has loosened on all emotions. Being an England player for those last twenty minutes was a lonely post. Once again nerve ends curl and splinter as twenty odd minutes of pain and hope paralyse.
‘Make it happen Lads, carve the history’
The final whistle brings the knowledge that what has just happened transfers from the back page to the front page and that you, me and we are all part of it now, tomorrow, and forever after in your green and white comfort blanket. That comfort blanket at times will need to become armour – plated and this game just passed has just added an extra layer of protection.
David Beckham once again took time to acknowledge the part the supporters’ 33rpm howling roar had contributed to the victory against his team. Laps of honours and a celebration of oneness ensued as no-one wanted to leave this battlefield.
Depending on your makeup an atom bomb of feelgood plunges into the mental history bank and expels years of green grimness. Others like to hold on to the bad matches to make the honeyed times last longer. My first thought was for the kids who had suffered through the Canadas, Armenias, etc… and for a while had wondered why opposing teams played with goalkeepers.
A landmark had gone down in not only our footballing history but also our sporting history. Huge kudos to manager Lawrie Sanchez who convinced a team they could win. I have rarely watched a game where it was clear the manager’s input to attitude yielded so much.
Finally a postscript to English journalist Henry Winter, now of the Times but then of the Daily Telegraph. In my eyes a great journalist and an incident just to illustrate this. After our defeat in Manchester he wrote about the never ending support for the NI team despite very difficult circumstances. In a column for a football magazine after our victory he again eulogised our part on the evening’s events. It was a football equivalent of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’. His ability to understand the power and role of supporters is well honed. His main point was how the support level was the same in sickness and in health so to speak and it illustrated the quality of the man. Missed nothing. I wrote to him commending him for this and it was no surprise when he took the trouble to reply. At the end a line from Bob Marley’s classic 1980 song ‘Could you be loved’ came to mind.
‘Say something, say something’