Friday, 2 September 2011

It's the hope that kills

Northern Ireland play Serbia tonight with a chance of finishing second in group C still a possibility. It’s best not to get too excited at such moments. It was about this time two years ago that I travelled to Windsor Park to see them play Slovakia with a place in the 2010 finals in South Africa not totally out of the question. It was by final whistle. Slovakia won 2-0 and that was that.

It’s quite possible that I will not see Northern Ireland qualify again for the finals of either the World Cup or the European Championships. Maybe I should consider myself lucky to have been around in 1982 and 1986 when they went to Spain and then Mexico.
And yet it’s impossible to be totally disheartened. There’s an argument that if the football over the last decade hasn’t been great (and sometimes it’s been terrible) the story off the field has been on an upward curve.
Of course it couldn’t have got much lower in the wake of the death threat against Neil Lennon which ended the then Celtic player’s international career almost ten years ago. Yet within four years Northern Ireland fans had been named the best fans in Europe after a concerted, self-generated campaign to tackle sectarianism at Windsor Park during international games.
Last month when Northern Ireland took on the mighty Faroe Islands another small step forward was taken when Stormont’s Sports Minister Caral Ni Chuilin, of Sinn Fein attended (although she arrived late to ensure she missed the playing of God Save The Queen). Unsurprisingly it was her first visit to Windsor Park.
Not sure she was still about when Paddy McCourt ("the Derry Pele") scored his wonder goal. McCourt, a Celtic player, originally from Stroke City (London/Derry - delete according to preference) was cheered to the rafters on the night.

Of course four days before, James McClean, also from the second city, decided that he didn’t want to play for Northern Ireland. The Sunderland player had been called into the squad and had represented Northern Ireland at U21 level. But he said he’d rather wait and play for the Republic if he got the chance.
It's still not nailed on that players from the nationalist community will opt to play for Northern Ireland.
Oh and McCourt might not be fit to play tonight.
Even so. My fingers are crossed.

Postscript - 22.07pm - at least Ulster won the rugby tonight. And The Smiths are on BBC4.

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