“Teenage dreams so hard to bate” – The Undertones
It wasn’t Fearghal Sharkey, Norman Whiteside or Colin Clarke that got me into supporting Northern Ireland. It was my Dad. My Dad, Joe Blair is a veteran of over 200 Northern Ireland matches down the years. He dare not count them, but in the past 50 years he’d only miss a home game in an emergency. My Dad also went to Wales, Austria and Liechtenstein away with me in the last 12 years or so and he bought me my first scarf (Mexico 86), Panini Sticker Album (Mexico 86), took me to my first Norn Iron match (A 0-2 defeat to Yugoslavia in September 1990) and got me hooked on supporting my country. Our wee country. This small proud nation of over achievers. 1.6 million of us.
“Back on top again” – Van Morrison
My Dad wasn’t with me as I backpacked my way through the magnificent Faroe Islands in September 2015. My eyes were on the prize but the GAWA (Green and White Army) daren’t believe it. Of course we can’t. If you’re a real Northern Ireland fan you will know the score, we support through the rough and smooth and we don’t give a flying f**k as we will be there singing till the end. Win, draw or…lose (and let’s be truth – every match we play could end in any of those three ways – we are unpredictable).
“Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland, we’ll support you evermore” – Northern Ireland fans
We’d draw 1-1 with Honduras then beat Spain 1-0 away (and win the group), we will draw 1-1 with Armenia then grab a sensational 1-1 away to European Champions Germany. You know what – we will lose 3-0 at home to Iceland then dick Spain 3-2 with a Healy hat-trick within FIVE days. Yes – this is the rollercoaster ride of supporting Northern Ireland. And we love it. My previous three away matches before this one were all defeats, and we didn’t even score in any of them! I wrote about my Azerbaijan 2-0 Northern Ireland and Turkey 1-0 Northern Ireland experiences before. Good times, but bad results.
“Here we go, oh, drinking all over the world” – Status Quo Tweaked by the GAWA
We daren’t expect anything. A 0-0 with Romania in June (which I watched in Hong Kong with Roger from Bushmills) set us up nicely, win in the Faroe Islands and we could be top of the group. Oh really? Aye – but this is Norn Iron. We’re the best and worst team to follow emotion wise. I booked my flights, deciding to spend 6 days in the magnificent Faroe Islands exploring the country and somewhere in the middle of it all was the small matter of the international football match. Which suddenly, became highly important. Aren’t they all?
Arrival in Torshavn was by bus from the village of Sorvagur where I spent my first three days in the country at Guesthouse Hugo. On arrival in the capital, I was greeted by the bouncing GAWA. The Lisburn, Hillsborough and Bangor boys had taken over Café Natur in downtown Torshavn. Flegs, taps and carryouts snuck-in galore. (Translation – flags, NI shirts and alcoholic beverages bought outside that there bar but consumed inside that there bar). The place was pumped with the usual suspects.
You become a community when you follow Northern Ireland. The Green and White Army. The GAWA. Our Wee Country. We know each other, we look out for each other. Nobody takes anything too seriously you see. Except for one thing – the 90 minute match tonight. This was a big one and we were serious about this one. The rest of it was just a party. In 2010 we scraped a 1-1 draw here thanks to La La Lafferty Fermanagh’s Ulster goal machine. Five years on, with a different manager (Michael O’Neill) and a matured team, we were quietly confident as we sipped our drinks in Cafe Natur and Glitnir Bar pre-match. All the NI regulars were here – Glenda and Andy, Toddy (minus the snake), Nial Coulter, Stuart Glencross, Davy McKinley, Aaron McCallister, Sinti, Paul Duffin, Karen Turkington, Michael “Bangorboy” Lewis, Robert Mann. I recognise most of the GAWA to see, lots of them to talk to and some of them I’ve roomed with on away trips down the years. We’ve shared this crazy rollercoaster ride together.
Espana 82 veteran Jim Rainey was on the decks, pumping out the beats in the vibrant Café Natur. Round the corner in Glitnir Pub, we had Justin from Ballyclare working his way through YouTube classics of the GAWA down the years, accompanied by sidekick Andrew Milliken AKA Moby – yer man from Aghadowey. Mr. Milliken and I have met up in more countries than we can remember.
“It’s the Ulster boys making all the noise everywhere we go” – Northern Ireland fans
And from there the scene was set. It was an away match. We all know you need to win away matches to stand a chance of qualifying. Home matches are the easy ones sure – we won 5/6 home matches in the 2008 Euro qualifiers, yet we won just one away match (Liechtenstein) and guess what – we didn’t qualify. Back in 1985 we bate Romania 1-0 and drew 0-0 in England in our last two away matches to magically qualify for Mexico 86. Sweet dreams my friends. But I was only 6 and some of yousens reading weren’t born.
“She never told me her name” – Tim Wheeler
This time, Michael O’Neiil’s boys had been nailing it. La La Lafferty, Fermanagh’s Ulster goal machine went on a crazy run in Athens, nutmegging his opponent and smashing the ball into the net. Hard and low. It was all a dream. Add that goal to Jamie Ward’s first half fluke and we had beaten Greece, a World Cup last 16 side. We bate them 2-0. Away. Oh yeah and before that we had come back from 1-0 down to win in Hungary. We never come back from 1-0 down away and win. This time, there was a hint of belief in the air. Torshavn felt it.
“You can feel it, you can feel it in the air” – Snap (Rhythm is a Dancer)
But the Faroe Islands are a hard side to beat these days. They’ve beaten Greece twice in this group. They narrowly lost 1-0 to Romania and even missed a pelanty in Belfast in a 2-0 defeat. Lafferty inspired the Ulstermen on manys a night. There was his superb equaliser in the Sweden away match in 2007, his goal in Poland in 2009, in a match we should have won. Tonight, as we walked from the Café Natur towards the stadium, the GAWA was rather muted in our own nervosity. But we’re never quiet long, so we’re not. A few of us chatted to Sky Sports and UTV’s Ruth Gorman on route to the stadium and I met up with Alex Logan, Owen Shepherd and Nick. Nick had been drinking with me just a few days earlier in Copenhagen, Denmark. Then there was Katie from Boston in the USA. I met her on the walk from the airport to Sorvagur and we did the Gasadalur and Traelanipa hikes together. Somehow on the day, she had met Jim Rainey in Cafe Natur and managed to get a match ticket in the Northern Ireland end!
“Ruth Gorman for UTV Live, Torshavn” – Ruth Gorman
On the walk to the stadium, I popped in for a beer with Richard Henry before the match, as we watched the GAWA lads march to the stadium outside us. Richard and I went back to the late 90s with the fanzine times – him and Marty selling TAWSIE and Our Wee Country. Myself, Michael and Gavin sold Here We Go…Again. That’s why Richard and I felt this is still all a dream. We’re almost in France 2016.
The singing got gradually louder, in expectancy. The mutes were no more. We got to the stadium and there were no nerves from Gareth McAuley as he headed in an opener. We were 1-0 up. We were top of the group. It was madness. But we weren’t as loud as normal. There is a tension within the stadium.
“Everyone has been burned before, everybody knows the pain” – The Charlatans
We knew it couldn’t last and it didn’t. It was no surprise to see the Faroese get a goal and work their way back into the match, at 1-1. I think most Northern Ireland fans expected it, but we knew we could nick one, somewhere, somehow.
The bar at the stadium was selling licensed alcohol which was a surprise. Normally it’s shandy and soft drinks only. We took advantage of this loophole.
There was a twist of fate. In the second half, a Faroese player got sent off. We’re playing against ten men. The likes of Chris Brunt, La La Lafferty, G Mac. Surely fitness will see us over the line here.
“He [Chris Brunt]’s got a name that rhymes with fanny” – Northern Ireland fans (most likely male)
“Woah Gareth McAuley” came the chant to the beat of a White Stripes song (I think). G Mac was there again. We were 2-1 up and in dreamland. He is the new Gerry Taggart! But we knew it would be tight to hold on for the win.
And then it was crazy times. Our tops came off and we danced and danced and danced. Lafferty put us 3-1 up, and with them down to 10 men and our tight defence, we may have been dancing prematurely. But deep down every Ulsterman and woman in the stadium knew it. This was our night. We were going to win this.
Josh Magennis (who attended the same Primary School as me – Kilmaine in Bangor) came on as sub and almost grabbed a 4th goal. We had done it. We won 3-1. The rest of the night, was just a party.
“Good times never seemed so good” – Neil Diamond
We started off in Cleopatra Bar where I was reunited with the Bangor boys – Stuarty Mellon, Rodney and Alan. Also joining us was Dan Pettigrew who had travelled from the USA to watch Northern Ireland! The Faroese fans were good craic too and they joined in the party. After all, they had already beaten Greece twice in this group.
In Cleopatra Bar we chose the music for a few hours. Tunes like “The Only One I Know” by The Charlatans, “Champagne Supernova” by Oasis and “Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond pumped out. After Cleopatra Bar, back to Cafe Natur for a few then we hit up the upstairs Irish Pub in town, which seemed to stay open the latest. There were yet more reunions and GAWA friends from previous trips – Squid’s brother Dessie. I had a chat with Paul Duffin in Cafe Natur and Gary Rogers and I reminised on the two horrendous Middle Eastern defeats – to Azerbaijan and Turkey. We had put all that behind us and we could now beat Hungary on the following Monday night and qualify outright!
The live music in the Irish Pub was good. I stood on my own for a few minutes sipping my beer and listening to their Tequila Sunrise cover. I videoed it, and afterwards I shed a tear. It was an emotional night here. We won 3-1. It was a great night.
With thanks to all of my fellow Northern Ireland fans and heroes down the years mentioned within the post and to my Dad and brothers – Joe Blair, Danny Blair, Marko Blair for the matches we have attended together through the years. I’ve stuck a few photos up as this is an important week for us coming up – let’s get behind the boys and hope we can do it!
The Monday night after the Faroe Islands was another crazy night as I headed to a pub in Edinburgh in Scotland, where Lafferty’s last minute equaliser in a 1-1 draw with Hungary saw myself and 5 NI fans I had never met before going wild in the pub! We are now one win, two draws or a Hungary f**k up away from France 2016. Warren Feeney has no doubt we will qualify. I believe his words, he’s an Ulster Cherry too.
I’ll be in Crawley of all places for the Greece match and London for the Finland match hoping to meet some of the SOE NISC and London NISC. After that hopefully make it to a few friendlies ahead of France 2016. We will be there. Don’t you doubt it my friends.
“Away in a manger, no crib for a bed…” – It’s a hymn sung in church
We’ll beat Greece at home, but we want and need the GAWA in full voice. Let’s do it and I’ll see you all in France in June with the travelling Northern Ireland flag!
Here are some videos from that crazy crazy night in Torshavn, Faroe Islands: