It was early 2007 and I was busy planning more South of England Northern Ireland Supporters Club days out. The first one was Oxford to meet Jimmy Quinn and Darren Patterson, the next one was Weston Super Mare to let Sammy G host a meeting, and the third one fell into place rather easily! Probably the most important SOENISC meeting ever (though at the time, not many people would have known that) as for the only time at a meeting in the South of England, we were there supporting our wee country Northern Ireland on the pitch!! In 2006 – 2007 I lived in Dartford in Kent so I could hardly believe it when one day, Sammy G e-mailed me to say that the England v. Northern Ireland Womens (or as I prefer, Ladies) European Championship qualifier was to be held in May 2007…in Kent! And not just that, but in Gillingham at Priestfield Stadium, where I had already been to watch AFC Bournemouth draw 1-1 and it was also only about 6 or 7 train stops from Dartford. Not only did I plan to go and the day out, I hoped that the whole of our supporters club would join me and it would be a mad crazy day out with lots of us!
It was mad and crazy, but sadly the records will show an attendance of ONLY FIVE at the meeting, despite it being the only chance we got to watch a Northern Ireland national team play England in the South of England in a non-London location. It could be 30 years before we get that chance again. Anyhow I was on it, and the SOENISC meeting in Gillingham, Kent was confirmed, the date being Sunday 13th May 2007. At the time I used to go out drinking a lot in London and the Saturday night (the 12th) was no exception, I had done a major pub crawl with James, Steve and his mate John (from Republic of Ireland). I ended up in Sounds nightclub in Lesi’s Q after a pub crawl which included The Porterhouse at Covi G and Belushi’s also on the corner at Covi G. By the end of the night it was just me and James and on that particular night I pulled this crazy Australian lady whose name I have since forgot, and whom I never met again. As we parted ways that night, James and I then got the night bus back to mine in Dartford. This leaves from Strand and often is full of funny characters. I told everyone on the bus I was heading to watch England v. Northern Ireland ladies that day. No-one else cared…
I also hadn’t bothered booking match tickets, not expecting it to sell out in any way, and hadn’t checked train times from Dartford to Gillingham, assuming they would be good. But this was a Sunday! Well James stayed at mine and we didn’t get in until 5 am so minimal sleep was gained for a strange early kick off of 1 pm as I recall (I cannot check this anywhere!). I decided then that the quickest way to get there for kick off was to drive. It was only a 25 minute drive so we left at 11.30 am, expecting to be able to be there and parked well before kick off, get a wee beer, a ticket and a match programme and of course form our own Northern Irish section in the England crowd, with the SOE NISC fleg up. I got in the car and realised I needed petrol, so me and James bombed it to the petrol station before getting onto the A2. It was a simple trip to get there on the A2 – straight down past Bluewater, Rochester and Chatham and into Gillingham where Priestfield was situated in the middle of terraced housing.
I had fully expected fellow SOE NISC members Scatt Gordon, Graham Anderson and Tim Beattie to phone me and arrange to meet before the match. However I didn’t hear from any of them, and it became obvious that none of them were making this, the big one, the chance for SOE NISC to support Northern Ireland on their “home” turf of the South of England. It was Shaun Schofield and Alan Scott instead who kept phoning me to ask where I was. I was on my way, but things were not all fine and dandy on the A2. There was a MAJOR traffic marmalade, not only was there major roadworks, but traffic was heavy, it was raining and there was a car crash, meaning we sat at zero miles per hour for about 20 minutes. I was raging, got really frustrated, even having time to make a video of the traffic (see bottom of post), was beeping my horn, revving the engine and fearing I’d miss the kick off. James was calm as you like, while I was getting livid!!! I had a right to, it is still the WORST ever traffic marmalade or bottleneck I have been in. It showed no signs of getting better…
Finally after about an hour in traffic, we got a free run to Gillingham, got parked quickly somewhere near the ground. I was dressed ridiculously in green as usual. In the Kent rain I stood out wearing a green SOE NISC polo shirt, a green hat, a green snake and I had my fleg with me. Running into the stadium, the turnstiles were shut, the game was 10 minutes in and I banged on the railings where a steward kindly met James and myself and let us in. For free. We had missed 10 minutes, but we thankfully got in free, at last a silver lining in Kent’s Sunday raincloud. Walking into Priestfield we were in the home stand (The Rainham End I think) which was to the left of where I stood the previous year watching the Cherries play Gillingham. The stadium was more packed than I expected – 4,000 or so for a ladies match in the pouring rain. Nobody was in club colours on entering and by sheer luck, James and I fell into the same section where the other 3 SOE NISC representatives were that day. Alan Scott and his girlfriend Khalida were there, sat down beside a green raincoated Shaun Schofield. Everything was fine as I took my seat and started chanting “Northern Ireland” on my own in a shy crowd. We were battling well. I picked out Ashley Hutton and Una Harkin as those I recognised from the website.
The match was 0-0 so I hadn’t missed anything, and we were looking good. A rain swept Stacey Hall took the ball down the line a few times and I yelled “GIve us a wave Stacey!” I doubt even Alan Scott heard me…soon though it was half time and there didn’t appear to be any allocated seats so the five of us decided to move, find more Northern Ireland fans (there were bound to be some) and put our SOE NISC fleg up and hope for a Northern Ireland win. There was always hope! The match was 0-0 at half time and we left our seats, taking a right as Northern Ireland were playing that was the second half. I headed straight for a steward to ask where I could put my fleg up, and if we could put it behind the nets. The steward was a total wanker and told me I couldn’t put it up. For fuck’s sake mate, I’m a football fan, I’m a chairman and all I wanted was to put our fleg up and support my team. Biggest wanker in the world – that steward at Gillingham that day.
So, just to prove a point, Shaun and I then climbed over the blue seats all the way to the back where some more Northern Ireland fans were. We held the fleg up full mast, and while the public address system played the tune “Chelsea Dagger” by The Fratelli’s we danced up and down like maniacs with the fleg while I looked down at the wanker stewards doing the fingers to the cunts! They certainly weren’t going to spoil my afternoon or prevent our fleg from getting noticed. It was at this point that we were photographed by James Prickett, a famous photographer of ladies football, he got a good snap of Shaun and I dancing with the other Northern Ireland fans in the background. We were drawing 0-0, raging with the steward and going mental. At the same time, Alan Scott and his girlfriend were thinking “who are these nutcases?” Even though I had been in touch with Alan Scott by e-mail and text message, this particular day was the first time I met him. Introductions were short and sweet as James, as the token Englishman said that England would win second half. He was probably right, we were ranked much below. And then to our right, all the Northern Ireland ladies came out proudly…
“Northern Ireland du du du du du” Shaun and I proudly chanted at them, getting the odd look up from the team and evn from some nearby fans. An English fan also got his digital camera out at one point to take a photo of us. I then got talking to a few of the other Northern Ireland fans, and found that the five of us from SOENISC were actually the only ones who were “fans” rather than FAFs. FAFs meaning Friends and Families, this contingent around us, some of which were decked in green was the friends and families of the players. Great I thought! My dream date and dream girlfriend and dream wife will always be a Northern Ireland ladies international. Shaun passed me his programme and I began concocting songs for some of the ladies on the NI team. The second half was underway and we were on the back foot, England looking particularly strong.
That didn’t stop Shaun and I from singing “1-0, we’re gonna win 1-0” at the England fans including James around me. We were getting a few laughs and Shaun and I were singing louder now, enjoying our team’s battling in the Kent Kent rain. My sister Cathy had also went to school in Bangor with Lee-Anne Hutton, it was Cathy’s best friend as a child, and Lee-Anne lived round the corner from us in Marlo. One day Cathy told me that Lee-Anne’s younger sister, Ashley Hutton had signed for Arsenal and was playing for Northern Ireland ladies team. There her name was in the match programme and I shouted a “Come on Ashley!” at her as she battled down the near touchline. We were getting stuck in and giving our all against a full time professional England ladies team. It wasn’t going to last but we were enjoying it at 0-0.
It was at this point I turned my head round behind and heard a “that’s my daughter out there playing!” at me, from Ashley Hutton’s Mum. Ashley’s Mum had known my Mum and was aware of me, if not my name, she guessed a hazardous “Johnathon” (not even my real name on my birth certificate by the way in case you wondered…) at me, knowing my name was something like that and I said “well actually its Jonny but hello!”, she then said “you’re Cathy’s brother what are you doing here?” “I’m here to support Northern Ireland and Ashley, I run the South of England Northern Ireland Supporters Club, I’ve lived in England the last 4 years!” Wearing a green snake round my neck I wasn’t sure how seriously she would take me. Carol Hutton was her name and she was so surprised to see me there, small bloody world. Soon I had asked her if Ashley was single, but she had a boyfriend, so I whispered to Shaun “I’ll have to try my luck on the number 9 then…” which is actually Sarah McFadden, lovely girl, actually as I later learned being a fly on the wall in Belarus. For now I was in Gillingham Kent, and on 53 minutes the dam burst.
Kelly Smith fired England 1-0 up and then within minutes young Una Harkin, a Derry miss had unfortunately scored an own goal and we were 2-0 down. “5-2, we’re gonna win 5-2” Shaun and I sang again, as well as mixing the chants right up – “Alfie Wylie’s Green and White Army”, “One Ashley Hutton”, “We’ll Support You Evermore” and “Can We Hear The England Sing?” We were outsinging the England fans and putting the wanker stewards to shame as they stood at the front wishing they were as fun a person as me. As we continued to sing, and encouraged by the FAFs who started to join in, suddenly we were 3-0 down and it was all over, but we had done well this far. “8-3, we’re gonna win 8-3” Shaun and I then sang. I also loved watching the beautiful Northern Ireland ladies slip and slide through the rain that day. They were doing us proud, putting in the tackles, and looking rather sexy. This was my first EVER ladies football match I had attended, and it was brilliant. 3-0 and we were having a laugh. I also wondered on the possibility of getting backstage with the Northern Ireland ladies and a photo of the team with my club fleg. That was going to be some challenge, and now we were 4-0 down after 76 minutes and had ran out of steam.
“12-4, we’re gonna win 12-4” sang Shaun and I, followed cleverly by a “4-0 you always win 4-0” at the English. This was of course a reference to the 4-0 defeat to England’s men’s team two years earlier, March 2005 at Old Trafford. The irony of it was that both matches had penned out exactly the same. England were favourites, half time it was 0-0, a goal at the start of the second half got the ball rolling, the next goal was an OG, the next two goals followed swiftly, it was game over, Northern Ireland fans were much louder than the English fans. It was a de ja vu for me and Shaun from the match two years earlier. As the final whistle drew near we sang “We’re not Brazil, we’re Northern Ireland” and Shaun gave me a preview for a new song of his. The original song was “Cecilia” by Simon and Garfunkel (younger readers might remember a Suggs (Yer man from ‘Madness’) cover version of the song in 1996. Shaun’s version was something like “Healy, you’re breaking my heart, yer shaking my confidence aily, David Healy I’m down on my knees I’m begging you please just to score.” It was a classic and on a wet day in Gillingham life couldn’t get any better.
As we were 4-0 down and losing, I said to Shaun, “do you fancy going to the next match? Just us two?” Straight away Shaun agreed, said yes we’ll go! It was a mad crazy idea and one that I was up for. I didn’t know when it was, where it was, who it was against but I wanted to be there to support our wee ladies. Shaun Schofield, as I have mentioned before is a celebrity Northern Ireland fan. Originating from Lytham St. Anne’s, near Blackpool, Shaun slowly fell in love with the Northern Ireland international football team, so much so that he wrote a book about it (“There’s Always One: 10 years of following Northern Ireland”) and has been to over 100 consecutive Northern Ireland matches home and away in all competitions. He is quite a man and was up for the next match with me straight away. However the match was still happening and talk of this was left to the post match pub and pint. Shaun and I also talked about how we fancied the Norwegian referee, and soon the final whistle had gone and Shaun and I again danced with the club fleg as the NI ladies marched past us and off the pitch just in front to rapturous applause and kiss blowing by me. I had fallen in love with the Northern Ireland international football team during the 1986 World Cup Finals. But now in 2007 I had fallen in love with the Northern Ireland ladies international football team. We lost 4-0, but were loud and proud and the ladies had worked hard.
It was at this moment that Carol Hutton dispersed from the crowd and I noticed number 7 Ashley Hutton over at the touchline, I raced down seeing th elovely Ashley with her foot up on the railings talking to her Mum. “Here Ashley that’s Cathy’s brother…”she said as I turned up with my camera. Of all the photos I’ve had taken in my life, this has to be one of the best. I put my Northern Ireland scarf up in the air, kept my hat on, grabbed Shaun on one side, Ashley Hutton on the other side and posed for a photo. I could have died a happy man that night I reckon. I’d met and spoke to a Northern Ireland ladies international, and the extremely attractive Ashley Hutton at that. What a nice lady – thanks for the photo Ashley and well played. Not even Ashley could have predicted however that I would meet her again about 3 months later in the sublime location of Bobruisck in Belarus, which brings me to the post match story.
After getting my photo with Ashley I tried to blag my way into the members bar at Gillingham FC to no avail, I even said “I’m the chairman of the SOE NISC” but they woul;dn’t let me in, so I guessed I couldn’t meet the NI ladies and get a photy and a chat with them, so those few seconds with Ashley Hutton would have to do, as Shaun had booked us into the British Legion in Gillingham so we headed there for a quiet chat, quick SOE NISC meeting (just to make it official) and a pint. I could only have one as I was driving, but ran through some club updates for those there, announcing that we would have a quick FA Cup Final Meeting in Bristol at the end of May 2007 before taking a break for the club until October/November 2008 when we were due to hit Exeter. It was then that the crazy idea took a twist. Shaun looked up the Northern Ireland ladies fixtures and found that the next match was in a few weeks at home in Coleraine v. Czech Republic. Well unfortunately that was too short notice for Shaun or I to book home and go to it, and it was also a bit sensible – watching Northern Ireland in Northern Ireland: too obvious. So then…the next fixture after that was Belarus away, and it was on 1st August, sandwiched right in the middle of our summer 2007. At the time I was working for Bite Communications in London and had already decided to leave the job in June 2007, do a few months travelling (the Canada, Germany, Latvia and Iceland parts of which had already been booked), and so I thought – BELARUS!! That’s perfect I’ll go round the world and make sure right in the middle of it all that I end up in Belarus that day as the only Northern Ireland fan at the ladies match. This was because Shaun felt the date didn’t suit him, so I would either go alone, or not go. I love lunacy in life so I decided to go. NO Northern Ireland international football team had ever played Belarus at any level (not even under 21s, ladies, men, or even friendlies) so I decided I would have to be the first. That story appears elsewhere on the blog. To end this one, I was simply in awe of the Northern Ireland ladies team that day, and decided to give them all messages of support, which I did online through Bebo and Facebook websites, and posting some photos up. It was a great day out, the best SOE NISC meeting of all time and one which will never be forgotten. I love supporting Northern Ireland. I love it.
Sweet dreams one and all,
Date: Sunday May 13th 2007
Location: Priestfield Stadium, Gillingham, Kent, England
SOENISC Gang for the day: Jonny Blair, James Condron, Shaun Schofield, Alan Scott and Khalida
Known FAFs: Carol Hutton, Kimberley Turner’s Da.
Bars We Visited: The British Legion in Gillingham then when we got back The Bear And Ragged Staff in Crayford, once I’d left the car home.
Final score: England 4-0 Northern Ireland
(Smith, 53, Harkin og. 66, Chapman 72, Sanderson, 76)
England (4-2-1-3): Brown (Everton); Houghton (Sunderland) (sub Carney (Arsenal) HT), Asante (Arsenal), Phillip (Arsenal), Unitt (Everton); Chapman (Arsenal), Williams (Everton); K. Smith (Arsenal) (sub White (Arsenal) 73); Scott (Arsenal), Sanderson (Arsenal) (sub Barr (Leeds United) 77), S. Smith (Leeds United).
Substitutes not used: Potter (Charlton Athletic), Telford (Sunderland), Exley (Doncaster Rovers Belles), Johnson (Everton).
Northern Ireland(4-1-4-1): Higgins (Glentoran Belfast United); Leyland (Northland Raiders), Nelson (Newtownabbey Strikers), Harkin (Drumahoe YMCA), Bailie (Glentoran Belfast United); Hutton (Newtownabbey Strikers); McKenna (Newtownabbey Strikers) (sub Gillespie (Glentoran Belfast United) 56), Turner (Glentoran Belfast United), Hall (Glentoran Belfast United) (sub Carson (Newtownabbey Strikers) 80), Corish (Newtownabbey Strikers); McFadden (Ballymena United).
Substitutes not used: Platt (Newtownabbey Strikers), McGovern (Fermanagh Mallards), Booth (Newtownabbey Strikers), McDowell (Newtown Abbey Strikers), Patterson (Newtownabbey Strikers),
Referee: Ms A. Ostervold (Norway).
The Traffic Marmalade on the A2 in Kent, which made James and me late for the match:
Faye White’s goal in the return fixture in Lurgan 2008. Northern Ireland 0-2 England:
More Action from the same match:
An England corner in the same match: