GAWA: Matches I’ll Take To My Grave: Spain 2006

Northern Ireland

“The ring wraiths ride in green”. The line, borrowed and customised from Led Zeppelin’s 1971 epic ‘The Battle of Evermore’ seems appropriate for this mid – decade duel. If most of the matches previously mentioned in this series were conflicts tilling the soil of green partisanship, this match was slightly different in that it demanded attention at the other end of that emotional spectrum.

I’ve always been able to see this game slightly more dispassionately than others on Ulster’s footballing Mount Rushmore. We can discuss this as we go along. As time goes on in any sphere one is able to place any event more correctly in its natural resting place. This match took place amidst a cold and tense hinterland.

The previous Saturday in our home opening game of this Euro 2008 qualifying campaign we had repeated 2004 and lost at home 0-3. Deep in the ranks of the green Praetorian guard we as fans were of course very down with this. The lance of disappointment pierces further at any opening defeat as any fan will tell you.

And yes, it was harder to take than Poland two years previously as Iceland were still considered not capable of that sort of North Atlantic havoc. But the local media decided to take it upon themselves to be judge and jury on manager Lawrie Sanchez and that frankly was a step too far when they deigned to be ‘our spokesperson’.

If I remember correctly they posted a story of several of the players out drinking after the Iceland game in an attempt to get us on board to hammer the manager. Risky tactic as fans aren’t comfortable generally with any agenda which is unhelpful to the team. The other factor relevant was the belief that this was more about the manager not pandering to the local press as had been perhaps the norm. Don’t bring your pettiness to the ground was the feeling of many fans to all this.

Sanchez had brought the team back to life. We were now capable of scoring goals and had a team playing to its strengths and he had given us a memory forever with last year’s defeat of England. This was quite a misjudgement by the press and to this day many fans still hold the odd journalist or two guilty for Sanchez eventually leaving for Fulham with their crassness. So wrong man, wrong tactic and wrong fans to play footsie with and history since suggests they have learned from that to a degree.

So with this tetchiness in the background we returned to Windsor uneasy at this second yet more difficult chance to get our campaign going. The thing with Northern Ireland is that we tend to regard any positive as huge but are well used to setbacks. All that said mind you, we do tend to consider ourselves historically hard to beat at home and struggle with reverses at Fortress Windsor. The fans consider themselves very relevant at Windsor Park so results that undermine this belief tend to unsettle.

The other factor which never kills our optimism is that we do tend to do well against better opposition, although we had low expectation against this growing Spanish footballing beast. So there was a more sober sense about all this static in the air. Being a man of history I was particularly tuned in to the first anniversary of the English defeat. I also had all three sons with me now, as the third had recently been baptised in the Lagan in green and white robes and had risen from the pollution chanting ‘Green and White Army’. I jest of course, but mentally perhaps not.

So I had hopes that we would give a better account of ourselves. The new strip we had appealed to me greatly. A flash of navy on the neckline and with our standard Celtic cross tastefully superimposed into the back, it was set off well against white shorts and interestingly, white socks. This strip was now to earn its place forever in my mind.

So I and the team I believe had a rump of resilience nestling within as the teams lined up. This was a Spanish side now earning respect and not flattering to deceive. Since 1982 I had seen them come to Belfast and deliver a 0-0 draw, 0-2 and 0-5 defeats to us. This team was different and indeed was to go on and become twice European champions and World Cup winners. In amongst the red and blue shadows lurked players such as Raul, Puyol, Ramos, Torres, David Villa, Xavi Hernandez and Xabi Alonso- the final player in that list interestingly the son of Juan Miguel Alonso who played against us in 1982. On the bench Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas looked on ready to unleash a decade of Spanish grief on the world.

I should note here the debut of one Evans J at left back for NI. Like Norman Whiteside though on a lower level, we as fans were aware of him probably due to being with Man U. I can’t quite remember if he was there or on loan to Royal Antwerp at the time but I do remember seeing the embryonic elements of the composure, concentration and class even then that we are so familiar with today. It is very much such a part of his history that he made his debut in such a big and challenging match at eighteen. Somehow it was always to be that one of our best ever players would not come on in a safe friendly for the last ten minutes for his premiere.

Off we went and not a dozen minutes in and big Roy Carroll, guardian of the goals went off injured to be replaced by Maik Taylor. This was significant in a greater sphere as Maik took over the jersey from this point on for the rest of the decade. It was to be a similar story nine years later with Michael McGovern when Roy was ill against the Romanians.

A few minutes later, Catalunyan chaos as Xavi Hernandez volleyed in across Taylor into the net. I had the same line of view a year ago with Healy against England but this time the bile burned. It was a goal that highlighted how classy teams punished small mistakes. Apparently it was Spain’s 1000th goal in history as well. I wonder how many other countries have us featured with significant statistics like that.

Unnerved we set about them with more gusto. I remember with great glee Fernando Torres tearing up the touchline in front of us at young Jonny only to be buried by the triumvirate of Evans, Lafferty and Sammy Clingan who had used that summer’s tour of America to take his place in midfield. Torres disappeared amidst a green cape and the blond bull’s horns were not a threat for the rest of the game.

Defensive blunders continued exponentially but this time the Spanish excelled. Losing a header from Taylor’s deep free kick, Xabi Alonso let a ball bounce in the danger zone. Facing his own net and hesitating meant disaster as Healy nipped in to equalise. It was an ‘estudiante’ howler.

The crowd’s dander was well up but again defensive nonsense undid us. Unable to clear our lines as Spain buzzed around our area, an eye of the needle pass allowed that piece of quicksilver Villa to finish at an angle. That familiar grim feeling of chasing a superior team enveloped once more.

But lo, character, ability and a striker called Healy were about to elbow aside these Castillian trespassers and set up two goals which would permanently exercise the annals. As some of you wonder where your annals are, you will remember my gentle teasing of our ‘set in stone’ free kick routines. The man running over the ball was as much a part of us as the rising inflection in our accents at the end of sentences. Our next goal, as far as creative set pieces were concerned was like the splitting of the Ulster footballing atom.

I have since heard from Sammy Clingan that he wasn’t happy that it (pre – planned free kick routine) was going to work as he stood over the ball. You can understand the pressure on him right there and then-a young lad barely into the team with the responsibility of getting it right. The movement in the middle needed to be perfect as did his ball. Interesting to watch on video rerun! For us fans the activity in the middle meant no one saw the green blur coming in from the south. The ball perfectly met at right angles flew past Casillas and Healy’s run continued into the now roaring jaws of the Kop. The Spanish body language said ‘Que’ and “Heal ay ee, Heal ay ee, Heal ay ee” belted around the early autumn sky.

A young upstart always coming back at its superior is always great grist, and with about twenty – five minutes to go the customer considered whether to change his order from tapas to a fish supper. The invisible floating question marks started dropping onto the Spanish half. There was an unmistakable feeling of the red shirts getting squeezed by those Ulster lancers now riding amongst them and the glowering Divis Mountain behind them.

And then in the 79 th minute rapture released as the lob of the century ripped Spain out of Iberia. A quick belt of the ball from Taylor suddenly had the Spanish defence in clear and present panic. The problem was that Healy was mentally onto the flight of the ball before Delgado in particular. The Spaniard’s early concern was now terror – akin to facing a hissing viper as the ball bounced through.
He could only watch as Healy’s right foot found the only possible space between the fading arched hand of Iker Casillas and El Dorado. Casillas rocked back on his knees knowing he had been undone like a kipper. Healy may well have given him a certificate saying ‘Killed in Killyleagh’ as he skipped past him.

It was a stupendous goal and at that point the whole football world sat up to see who David Healy was. It was the all round quality, range and ruthlessness of that hat-trick against Spain of all people that threw an anchor into the soft historical ground for him, that team and that era. He of course would add more outrageous goals but that night marked him and the team as serious players now.

Going back to my opening remarks about this game, this was not a ‘one in ten chance’ of beating England type game. We had come back three times against the eventual tournament winners and that this would be the last defeat of this Spanish team for several years. I believe it was the first hat trick from an NI player since ‘Geordie’ put three past Cyprus in 1971. Healy would go on and win an award for the thirteen goals he scored in that qualifying group and still shares that record with another European who secretly wants to be an Ulsterman.

It was also the game that took David Healy onto a higher plane. Probably not onto Gerry Armstrong status at the time but they certainly had neighbouring lockers in ‘Norn Iron’ nirvana as far as the fans were concerned. More drama ensued at the end with Sanchez throwing his coat into the crowd at the end. He then took on his journalistic antagonists at the press conference. Aragones, the Spanish manager reflected on the ‘disgrace’ of losing to us and I think Raul never played for Spain again. It was heady stuff and one of those games where it was hard to go back to work the next day.