8th October 2015
Northern Ireland v Greece (3-1)
Windsor Park, Belfast
Greece is the word! Conventionality was certainly thrown away that balmy autumn night as Northern Ireland qualified for their first ever European Championship finals by topping their group. Tell me more! One never in life, and certainly as a NI supporter should you ever take anything for granted but I was in little doubt, just like the Israel match in 1981 that we would win and qualify that evening.
The previous month had seen us all set up to do it against Hungary in what would have been my one thousandth attended football match. It turned out Magyar was not in the stars as a Michael McGovern howler and Chris Baird sending off postponed any anniversary glory. No matter, another few weeks of anticipation was fine by me as real life sat in the back seat for a month long countdown.
All was good and I had even managed to mentally deal with the civil media as I call them (essentially non – sporting). Their clumsy and ill – informed attempts to join the party are very trying but I suppose it is part of the team doing well. Another pint of Curmudgeon strong ale please! All three sons were with me with the middle one flying in and getting into his gold dust ticket of a seat ten minutes before kick- off. We had seats right down at the touch line and every pre – match warm up routine was eagerly absorbed. Further down the row golfer Rory McIlroy and boxer Carl Frampton no doubt discussed the science of taking a swing. These football players were going to serve up glory on a plate and a memory for life in the next couple of hours. Whilst still with one stand under construction, we now had a decent and modern new ground which was well down the line of providing that all important football fan’s ingredient to take it into manhood- history. The matches against Finland and Hungary had already delivered on results and drama. If all went well tonight, the baptism would be complete. Slight concerns on the pitch were that the absence of an injured Jonny Evans and the suspended Kyle Lafferty and Chris Baird could cause problems against the Peloponnese. Though he had been sent off against Hungary, Baird’s performance had been outstanding doing the grim work of preventing any goulash spilling in our box.
A check of the programme Eurovision style to see what nationality the referee was is always necessary. Any real or perceived issues that could be construed positively or negatively for and against both teams were all important. Having decided that Greece had never invaded Holland or vice versa I was happy enough with the Dutch master in the middle.
It is a marvellous thing to see the players in your supported team appreciate and enjoy a match in the same way you and the crowd in general do. It takes trust and a knowledge of the journey travelled together. It is heightened of course when a length of time is part of the equation, and probably also when that trust and link were not present. This now manifested itself in a team in green showing and wanting the ball. Greece knew they were always ever going to be supporting actors in this evening’s event.
The first goal epitomised all this and again, was a fitting endowment to a game and series that was now in full on treble clef for us. In our campaign most of our goals had famously come from set pieces though Kyle Lafferty’s finish in Athens in a move from our own penalty box will live long in folklore. In the thirty- fifth minute Captain and ringmaster Davis fed a ball from the right into Corry Evans in a more than usually advanced position at the edge of the eighteen yard box. As the line in the song goes there was movement all around and Stuart Dallas was roving with such menacing intent on the right he may as well have been in a book depository on Dealey Plaza.
The pass from Evans diagonally forward was akin to a heat seeking vapour trail. Greece had more than a financial Deutsche debt to consider as the ball was behind them and Davis flew in like a straining baseball player to meet Dallas’ cross and finish the damage he started. Davis, as grounded a character you would ever come across turned to the right and looked to the skies. Even in delirium, I marvelled at the calibre of the goal as it tended to inhabit the environs of Arabian airline sponsored football teams in red or sky blue. As if on cue, French flags started to appear in the crowd and there would be no turning back.
Yet it wasn’t all plain sailing across the Channel that first half. Various Greek corners caused us chaos as we failed to get first to the ball and a forward thrust of theirs resulted in a desperate block followed by a shot off the post. Another major slice of luck fell our way in a campaign notable for them in our favour. Manager O’Neill pondering on the far side of the pitch and who has a most expressive face, turned to assistant Stephen Robinson as he does in such moments to register disgust at our more casual grip of the game.
Most football fans and certainly managers will tell you that the gap between 1-0 and 2-0 is of Grand Canyon proportions. Within six minutes of the second half we had crossed the Colorado.
Having scored a goal of such divinity in open play it was back to set pieces. A corner in from the right was just about met by Josh Magennis and the ball just about crept in under the bar. Amidst the eruption he turned and absolutely charged by ‘first goal’ fuel, raced all the way to his manager on the half way line. Michael O’Neill barely managed to stand upright as the huge Bangor beast of a man jumped onto him in one of the memorable images of the whole campaign. The whole crowd shared his unbridled joy and whilst not quite Marco Tardelli 1982, is certainly one of the happiest memories I know of a goal scoring player.
The crowd visibly relaxed even more, and having so long of the game left to simply enjoy and absorb was a rare and hard earned feeling. For me, more natural culmination occurred with our third goal. Steve Davis for years had probably been our classiest and most consistent player with a tip of the hat to Aaron Hughes it should be said. But many had felt that there was still something missing and it wasn’t necessarily goals. I certainly felt that Nigel Worthington’s negative tactical barbed wire held him back and can often remember Davis failing to shoot when in good positions. Some felt also, more was needed from him as Captain.
But in this qualifying series he had finally blossomed as a great leader in tandem with his manager and in one night buried any considerations, accurate or not. This third goal was a bit off beat. A corner headed out was met by a diving Davis who lofted it back into the far right of the net from out at the edge of the penalty area – a long way for a diving header. It took a second or two extra for the crowd to appreciate what was going on. From my angle it had gone over a few players but I couldn’t see it drop slap bang into the garden of Versailles.
The crowd atmosphere of ‘it doesn’t get any better than this’ encased the ground like a coat. The DJ should have put on the Edwin Hawkins Singers’ ‘O Happy Days’.
The minor irritation of a late Greece goal was neither here nor there and at the end I witnessed deeply released emotion, the like of which I had never seen from a football team. It was a joy from the immediate but also the historical as they had carried and released that of others – both players and fans over the last thirty years. Injured and suspended players joined in on the spontaneous and corporate free party on the pitch. Nobody could leave as if doing so meant it hadn’t happened. Going against my own issues about ‘occasions’ we took family photographs which God help me, ended up as a customised Christmas card. It wasn’t God I was worried about as he had his NI shirt on too, but that I was turning into ‘ half and half scarf ‘ man. I got over it.
The champagne was opened when we got home and it was indeed a huge night for Northern Irish football. 8th October 2015: it had groove and it had meaning.