GAWA: Matches I’ll Take To My Grave – Wales 2004

Northern Ireland

Wales v Northern Ireland (2-2), 8th September 2004
Millennium Stadium, Cardiff

So a generational jump of twenty-two years of matches to cemetery plot five!  Certainly is. You are probably thinking I was in some sort of post-Bingham apocalyptic mental wasteland, unable to deal with the years of footballing famine all around me.  To a degree, there is a certain truth there, but I wasn’t quite walking around in my green loincloth looking for fuel and cigarettes to barter for survival.

I suppose the certain truth stalks around the periodic ‘Norn Iron Holy Trinity’ of mine and other lives – that being the Bingham years of 1980-86 though he carried on beyond, the Healy years for want of a better term and the ongoing O’Neill orchestration just to cast you out into permanent alliteration.

There were, of course, many exultant and eulogised matches within the period from 1982-2004. The 1-0 deflowering of ‘Die Mannschaft’ on a rainy November in 1982 should be in here. The same result against the same team a year later and the 0-0 v England in November 1985 can’t be due to my absence but they do earn their mention. As does the finest moments from Tommy Wright and Gerry Taggart that numbed Nuremberg in 1996.

Mexico 1986 didn’t happen due to house buying and other real life pressures. But I’m avoiding the point here. Yes, there was the odd occasional epic match (NI v Austria 1995 for example), the occasional never to forget goal (Jimmy Quinn v ROI 1993) and the odd player who caught your imagination. I use the word ‘occasional’ here fairly liberally here but it is important because anything good tended to happen in isolation. It was not a part of a bigger something or was to become a mental piece of football crawling ivy.

This is being slightly unfair on one or two eras. As far as I can remember we lost out on the 1984 Euros just by goal difference and the 1996 Euros by a point. There is no exact science to this but some things have to give when the final whistle stops at ten matches. This chat is just to answer a few questions some of you may be asking or more accurately to deal with that sport we are Olympic champions at- ‘whataboutery’.

As we NI football fans approached the autumn of 2004 and to put it in some sort of historical context, we were a bit like Berliners at the end of WW2. Delighted and exhausted that the war was over (the 1298 minute goal famine stretching back to 2001) but not yet fully benefitting from the Berlin airlift ( the international freak of nature that was David Healy ). The captain of the lead freight plane in that airlift was called Lawrie Sanchez but the squadron he led hadn’t quite taken off yet.

Anticipation, however, was the thing. We had been drawn for the 2006 World Cup Qualifiers in a group containing Wales and England amongst others and that had created huge interest. This was now bolted onto the green shoots of a decent summer tour to the West Indies and several Healy goals since that breakthrough in February against Norway. We had taken a thump the previous sunny Saturday at home to Poland losing 3-0 so a trip to Cardiff was a good pick me up.

This was my first away game in a long time. The two main drivers for me were the Millennium Stadium and also my belief to always show fan numbers against the other Home nations. Both were magnificent!

After a day in the sun, the travelling Green and White Mau Mau were in good form and were in early on their collective firestep.  The red and green seated dominion that was the Millennium Stadium came to life as the red and green throngs squared off in the stands. There were a good five and a half odd thousand of us there I believe and some say that this was the day that the ‘modern’ GAWA travelling foetus started blinking at the world.  One for others to debate but the Northern Ireland fans that evening were one throbbing Boeing-powered mass of green glory.

Full on is the only way to describe this match. Most football matches that you go to that involve your team can leave you exhausted due to your emotional involvement. A passing alien would have been engrossed at this one. The two lesser footballing countries of the Home Nations at the time simply didn’t know they had it in them to produce this powerhouse. This collision of the Celtic caliphate topped them all.

In a possible acknowledgement that this was the first home nation battle of the group, both sides went at it. That is possible, but more likely was our need to right Saturday’s humbling defeat by the Pole, whilst Wales in front of their home fans and after a 1-1 v Azerbaijan needed to win this. Gunpowder from the start- the Welsh ‘keeper handles outside his area unpunished to start the fuse of irritation. This fuse continued through to a drop ball and you could see the teeth bared by Damien Johnson as he agitated like an angry wasp at the referee and his opponent. The ref couldn’t really get him calm enough to let the ball drop and this tension pervaded all around the ground.

You could almost see the next events take shape. Pantomime villain Robbie Savage broke away brushing off both Jeff Whitley and Michael Hughes. The breakaway could have been dangerous and might have warranted one of those ‘take one for the team’ yellow cards but there was too much turbulence. The existing tension, the occasion, the brush off, the previous sense of injustice and perhaps above all the fact that it was Robbie Savage turned Hughes into an out of control scythe.

It was like a bomb going off.  Too much was going on to take it in coherently as emotion and sense lost on the pitch hit us all up high too. All I could properly take in amidst my hysterics was Robbie Savage losing all dignity in reprising Referee Alcock’s ridiculous fall a la  Paolo Di Canio a few years earlier. Then meltdown as he got the red card. Unbelievably, I was not noticing that Hughes had gone too but my delight at Savage’s severance was bliss. I still wondered what he had done but was quite convinced that being Robbie Savage was a red card offence with which the Italian referee concurred.

Metaphorical plucked feathers lay across the pitch as the game resumed and the simmering boil had been lanced to a degree. Soon after however, a loose ball at the edge of the Welsh area was blasted home by Jeff Whitley to send an already febrile GAWA further mentally adrift. The heat of the day was firmly in the maelstrom of the match as a second NI goal caused more uproar. It was well the roof on the Dome was open.

Somehow the Welsh centre-half slipped allowing David Healy to lob the goalkeeper enabling him to head in the partial save. Still fired up he does a magnificent kung fu to the corner flag and then for good measure executes a dubious sign to the crowd. At least that is how the ref saw it and in my ill-informed and excited head gives us our first red card of the night. We all fell off the mountain we had just climbed.

So with a crackerjack Italian referee centre stage, off we go again and ten minutes later Hartson puts in a header which horrified me defensively. 1-2.That said perhaps our two centre backs were still as dazed as the rest of us.

Half time and we all sat down to try and come to terms with the first half and still, I believed it was ten v ten. The team we had out that day would by no means in our history be considered one of the better ones and would have had perhaps three or four players who would be ‘up there’ in fans’ parlance. That second half, however, would go into history as one of our best ever defensive and otherwise performances. The team seriously shorn of two of its best players stamped their seal in sweat soaked history and no doubt the colours ran- but the team certainly didn’t.

Concentration, discipline and running never ceased and Tony Capaldi put in a shift never to be forgotten. His performance I sometimes feel never got the credit it deserved from the fans but that night he owned the left flank.  The penalty he should have had still rankles with me to this day. The dam eventually caved in the 73rd minute as another soft centre allowed little Robert Earnshaw to equalise with another header but I am being harsh.

Not for the first time I left a football ground empty. When your system becomes powered by emotion instead of blood and oxygen that’s what happens.

What a game! The other factor significant in my personal demolition was the part us fans played: non-stop turbocharged stuff resulting in James Quinn bringing the team over in acknowledgement to our corner and the Welsh fans saluting our contribution in a similar fashion. To the outside world, football fan support seems aimless noise most of the time and that’s not wholly inaccurate. Inside football, there are many nuances of humour and history that make it certainly significant on the footballing patchwork quilt.

But certainly there are occasional matches where to be part of such a support is a privilege – and that generally happens when team and support are locked and twined as we need to be. It was to be the first of a few in recent history. Later in the hotel room, I was shocked to find out in a phone call with my nine-year-old son that we had played the game mostly with nine men. I was dumbstruck but in a way not surprised. The final postscript to the game was who should be sitting anonymously like any other citizen in the airport amongst many unknowing NI fans- seemingly without a care in the world? Mr Dominic Messina – Referee.

8th September 2004. Game to remember.  It would be the same one year later.