Friday, 18 November 2011

It was 30 Years Ago Today ...

I wasn't even going to the match. We'd talked about it at school in the weeks before the game but nothing had come to anything. But about 4.30 in the afternoon I got a call from the father of one of my schoolmates who said they'd decided they were going to go anyway and did I want to come along.
We must have set off soon after to drive the 60 odd miles to Belfast, and then crawl along roads filled with buses and cars all heading, like us, for Windsor Park. The streets around the ground were already full by the time we arrived and squeezed in. There were thousands in the rickety old ground that night, more than 40,000 it's said. I'd never been in a crowd that size before. It's hard to imagine now in a ground that struggles to contain just over a quarter of that number. My memories of the game are little more than flash images, the glimmering green of the Northern Ireland shirts, the roar that went up when Gerry Armstrong scored the only goal of the game - the goal that confirmed Northern Ireland would be in Spain the following summer - driving the ball in from a Billy Hamilton knockdown. The thought of Billy Hamilton conjures up my teenage years just as effectively as old pop songs.
Most of all I recall being in that crowd, the sense of being part of a huge breathing animal moving as one, shouting as one, reacting as one.
I think we left before the lap of honour, edging our way out of the ground and through tight back lanes back to the car. I can't remember the journey home at all. My memories stop with the game, the thrill of it, the savour of success.
On Snow Patrol's new album Fallen Empires Gary Lightbody sings at one points: "This is all I ever wanted from life: Ireland in the World Cup, either north or south." Northern Ireland playing Spain in the summer of 1982 is, he told me the other year, his first real sporting memory. At the moment memories are all we have. The Republic have qualified for next summer's Euro finals and good luck to them. I hope Robbie Keane grabs a bagful. But I'd rather it was Kyle Lafferty.

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