It was a great few days out. It was a great time. It was me being with my mates all over again. The mates that had been there with me through the 1990s and early part of this century. The whole plan came together and I forever thank Michael and Gavin McClelland for their organisation skills in what was for me a 10 day adventure to celebrate mine and Michael’s birthdays, in March 2005. Michael and I had been mates since the 1980s, when we used to kick ball about in Marlo Court, Marlo Drive, Linear Park and later on real pitches while playing for various amounts of 10th Bangor BB teams (including the famous day when we played on the same pitch, at Loughgall and became Northern Ireland champions. That was 10 years ago and I haven’t played football with Michael since…). Michael and I had both spent time living in the south of England, and the dates for our birthdays fall within 4 days of each other: Michael the 26th March, mine the 30th March. I don’t recall Northern Ireland playing matches on either of our birthdays in my entire lifetime, up until 2005, when they kindly played on both of our birthdays and on away trips to England and Poland. The plans started early and the idea was for me to meet the boys in Manchester, stay there for a few nights and then head to Berlin for a few days of sightseeing before getting an Iron Curtained Party Train through Eastern Germany to Poland and the capital Warsaw. My birthday celebrations wouldn’t end there however, as on another post you’ll notice I also spent two days in London and two days in Loughborough representing Bournemouth University at the National Student TV Awards (nice post on that elsewhere…)
So Michael, Gavin and I started piecing the information together and booking the flights, trains, hotels and match tickets. I left Bournemouth on Thursday 24th March 2005 on an early morning megabus to London. As I was off work (both jobs at Tesco and Bournemouth Seafront) for a 10 day break, conveniently at the busy time of Easter, I started on the beers on the megabus. I met my mate John Johnson for lunch near Bond Street Station/Marlebone. We had food and drink in The Duke of York and The Marlebone Tup. John went back to work for the afternoon while I pub crawled and met up with him again later, where I proudly wore my Northern Ireland shirt in bars and engaged in a conversation with some American students about how there were two countries in Ireland. That day I also popped into Oxford Street’s HMV to buy 2CDs. The memories of those songs will stay with me for the entire trip. They were the Killers album Hot Fuss (of which “Smile Like You Mean It” became a personal favourite) and the Tony Christie (featuring in some way Peter Kay) single “Is This The Way To Amarillo?” (more on that tune later and throughout this blog). John and I did a pub crawl before getting a train back to his place in Kent (a house where I later would live…) to drink some snowballs and retire. I had to get up at 5 am though for my trains, tubes and buses to Manchester. It was going to be an amazing trip.
The trip to Manchester all began in the Slade Green area of Dartford on Good Friday. Of course I’m an intelligent wee fucker when I need to be, but this day I managed to forget that it was a public holiday (Good Friday) and that the train and tube service would be running slow. I waited for TWO hours at Slade Green station for my train to London’s Charing Cross, where I then had to pray for a working district line to Victoria. This of course, after having to walk from Charing Cross to embankment through rush hour people (many places in London still working on this bank holiday). My only memories of this part of the trip was talking to a Croatian railway line worker at Slade Green, who was a big football fan and wished Northern Ireland good luck, and also getting through the barrier at Embankment station without a ticket (I went through the baggage part, I was in a rush, hadn’t pre-bought an underground ticket and didn’t at the time own an Oyster Card, I was on a fucking mission!). I had already booked the 10.30 am Megabus from London Victoria to Manchester Picadilly, and was now forty five minutes away from missing it. God that would have been a nightmare. In the end I even had time to stop at Sainsbury’s for a carryout and got a seat with a table on the Megabus. I had made it and we set off for Manchester. Well me on my own, with my beer and my stereo. That afternoon I was due to meet Gavin and Michael McClelland. These would be the happiest times your life could ever enjoy. There was also the added bonus of supporting MY country playing against the country I lived in. NOne of my English mates even went. But I am and always have been a massive Northern Ireland fan. I’m a proper football fan. I support my country win lose or draw and whether its in Belarus, Manchester or Belfast doesn’t bother me. I’ll be there!
I arrived in Manchester Picadilly Bus depot around 3 pm. I sent a text message (useful things really these mobile phones…) to Gavin to find they were already in a bar in town called Teasers. However I ended up getting a taxi on my own straight to the hotel to check in and leave my bags there. The hotel was booked by Gavin and was the Hotel Camponile. I think it was in Salford, but my geography of Manchester is shite so really I have no idea. I got showered and checked in and shared Gavin’s room. I then got a bus (bit of a wait again as it was bank holiday Good Friday) from outside the Sainsbury’s nearby straight into the town centre. I’ve no idea how the fuck I found the bar they were in, but I did and soon we were sinking lagers and discussing the great times of following Northern Ireland through all the shit times. I was also surprised that Michael Beggs (Begzi) was there. Begzi had been to a few Northern Ireland matches over the years with us, but this was the first time I had seen him in at least a year. Begzi is a quiet lad, but a good mate to have. Also there was Chris from the North Coast NISC. I knew Chris through Michael and had met him a few times before, most memorably in Hunters after the Northern Ireland 3-3 draw with Austria the previous year. And then Philip was there as well. Philip was Michael and Gavin’s younger brother who was also a big NI fan and had been with us at a previous away match v. Wales in Cardiff. The atmosphere was great as we watched Barnsley win 3-0 at Luton (a match which held particular interest for myself as a Cherries fan) this was because we wanted to catch up on Luton. We had started drinking in Teasers and then moved on to Walkabout. After this we popped into Brannigans for a quick beer before heading back to hotel to get ready for the night out.
We had some food and beer at the Hotel Camponile before heading back into Manchester city centre. There were lots of Northern Ireland fans about the night before the match, but most were not dressed in team colours as the bars wouldn’t let them in. I hate this rule in life, but we got changed into evening attire and gathered in Squares Club to start the night off. A few in there and we decided we would go to Teasers again. Teasers is a club where girls walk around in bikinis and bras, but sadly not topless. We enjoyed that but wished they had their breasts on display. In there we met two ladies (whose names I forget and don’t normally) one was from Cloughy in Northern Ireland and the other was from Canada. We hung out with them for the night, I don’t think either of them had been to a football match before so we sang a few songs till them and educated them on football. Both ladies were hot and both were going to support Northern Ireland the next day, so we invited them down till the Walkabout where we planned to meet at 11 am. I think one of them had got free tickets through one of the players or IFA officials. For the evening we continued to drink shots and beers in Teasers, walked the girls home to their hotel and then got a taxi back to our hotel to kip for the big day ahead. England versus Northern Ireland at Old Trafford!
I was first up the next morning and unfortunately breakfast wasn’t included in our hotel bill, but I was up for a big fry as I knew a full day and night of drinking was ahead so I crossed the road to the Sainsbury’s which had a cafe/restaurant. In there I got a big fry up, then we all mingled and posed for photos outside the hotel. We decided to walk to the city centre, where a few of the guys from the North of England Northern Ireland Supporters Club had arranged for us all to meet outside Walkabout at Deansgate. When we arrived there were already about 200 Northern Ireland fans waiting to get in, all dressed in green and white and sporting many and various flegs. The atmosphere was building early and we all rushed in when Walkbaout (an Australia/New Zealand themed bar, which I have since termed as ‘Wankabout’) finally opened its doors. I think this was 11am. In there with us was Dave Watson and all his mates (one of which was Tim Beattie, who I would meet later and form the SOE NISC with) as well as Chris from the North Coast NISC and my mate Fish from Bangor (I haven’t actually seen Fish since, though he’s either lurking round Liverpool or Bangor somewhere). Pints were begun and it was also Michael’s birthday.
This was on top of the two girls we had met the night before and the usual crew of me, Michael, Gavin, Philip and Begzi. In there I also met Toddy and Nolers from the NoE NISC. They were handing out balloons and all sorts of green things. A few England fans came in as well, these were the first I’d seen and the banter was good, though in reality we knew they would win the match. Millionaire footballers against the likes of Whitley and Murdock, we weren’t going to stand a chance.
After a few more in Walkabout we wanted to see daylight and soak in the atmosphere before marching to Old Trafford. Northern Ireland fans were all over the square in Manchester with flegs, carry outs and dressed in green. There weren’t many England fans in sight in honesty, and all the photos I took that day prove it. It was strange seeing so many in the stadium but basically NONE in the bars. Where did they all go?? Before and after the match they were nowhere to be seen! So while we soaked in the atmosphere in the streets we had to decided whether to take a tram or a bus or indeed dander to the stadium. In the end we followed some other Northern Ireland fans onto a bus, which went pretty much direct to Old Trafford. Not a bit of wonder these fans knew what they were doing – some of them lived in Manchester. These fans turned out to be Magic (Gary Caddell), Toddy (Garreth Todd) and the North of England NISC, who we would later meet in Berlin and then Warsaw that week.
On the party bus, we sang some tunes to the bemused locals who actually didn’t get our sense of humour one bit. No seriously folks, “We’re not fucking Brazil, We’re Northern Ireland!” As it was Michael’s birthday I also had the whole bus singing “Happy Birthday” to him which was a nice gesture, but I think it embarrassed him. Then all of a sudden we got out and walked round only to see Manchester United’s Old Trafford! I had been to Old Trafford before, on a BB trip in 1996, where we got a guided tour of the stadium. We didn’t watch a match that day, but now I had a ticket in hand and a greasy burger and we were on our way into Old Trafford. We found the Northern Ireland end quickly, the green shirts were a clue. I also bought a copy of a NEW Northern Ireland fanzine called Happy Days there. It was interesting for Michael, Gavin and I to see a NEW Northern Ireland fanzine. From 1997 – 2004 we had edited, produced, printed and sold our own Northern Ireland fanzine ‘Here We Go…Again’ in the days when Northern Ireland were shite and nobody used to watch us. Now suddenly there were 6,500 Northern Ireland fans at an AWAY match. Jesus!! The home match against Yugoslavia only had 6,000 and that was only 5 years earlier. How far we’ve come, and Michael, Gavin and I could have actually made money out of selling fanzines in 2005. We did our bit when hardly anybody else gave a fuck about supporting their country. It was nice all three of us were there together in Manchester seeing 6,500 fellow Northern Ireland fans. It was real!
Once inside the stadium I had the taste for beer again, but they didn’t sell it, so I had to make do with a cola. I then put a ridiculous bet on. I spent £5 on England 0-1 Northern Ireland with Keith Gillespie scoring. It was a nice dream to have. Inside the stadium we were high up behind the nets, with some other noticeable green shirted Northern Ireland fans at other points round the stadium. It was a total party atmosphere! We knew we would lose but we bloody well enjoyed ourselves. The sour faced English fans looked up in disbelief as we danced, sang and bounced before the match had even begun. Then came the National Anthems. Proudly I stood for God Save The Queen, some English people looked confused. I tell you what, they should bloody well know we exist by now! Our National Anthem (and one which I love, respect and sing) is also God Save The Queen. It was great to sing it at Old Trafford, especially since we were louder than the English at singing their own anthem! A classic moment. Why so many English people think Ireland (as an island) is one country is beyond me. It annoys me, I have to correct at least one person in England every week. Its not Ireland, its either Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland (or Eire as the name states).
As the match began, England got slowly on top, but our players were holding out well against the odds. At half time we were astonishingly holding them to a 0-0 draw. Expectation in the stands was actually that we could get a point. I didn’t believe it and expected an onslaught. You wouldn’t have known it though, as we danced at half time. Memorably “Is This The Way To Amarillo?” came on the speaker system and the entire Northern Ireland support danced and sang the whole song. English fans looked in awe and disbelief. This is what supporting your country is all about. Once we had calmed down a bit, we were singing Northern Ireland songs again and the second half had begun, with England firing on all cylinders. The inevitable happenned. They scored. We made it easy for them. Chris Baird, Aaron Hughes, Colin Murdock and Tony Capaldi had a nightmare second half. Check the highlights and you’ll see how easy it looked for England. Soon we were FOUR NIL down. It was that bad. Murdock even headed one in to help them out, while Baird deflected crosses and the rest of the defence failed to clear. Not that it stopped us singing, in fact it got us singing louder, of that I’m sure!
At 4-0 up the England end went bizarrely silent. If you heard chants of “Eng il ind Eng il ind Eng il ind” it would have been the Northern Ireland fans. We sang songs for them as they were so quiet. No passion in the stands for a team on top on the pitch. We also sang “4-0 and you still don’t sing” for about 5 minutes of the second half, that is my best memory of the day out. The team that was 4-0 up still didn’t sing, and there was us, the GAWA (Green and white army) singing in full voice, lighting flares and doing the bouncy! The England fans finally did muster a song, to us singing “Are you Scotland in disguise?” That was easy, to that we responded by singing “Flower of Scotland.” “You’re supposed to be at home” and “5-4 we’re gonna win 5-4” were also sung by us right to the final whistle, where we had to admit defeat to a much better team. My mate Skin, the next day at the airport was reading a newspaper piece which described (by an English reporter) the Northern Irish end as being like a “Massive green jelly.” That was a nice touch. The English were quiet, they’d won the match, but at least they appreciated our passion. I was a proud part of that bouncing green jelly that day in what was a great day out supporting my country, despite a terrible result. But hold on, the trip to Manchester was far from over…
On the way out of the stadium I met Marshall and Bean (both South of England based NI fans) who shared in my disappointment, and I wondered if starting a supporters club in the south would be an idea. Nothing came of that just yet…We dandered home to the hotel for the night out again to celebrate Michael’s Birthday via a fish and chips dinner and pint at Harry Ramsden’s. We were sung out, sore throats and all that, but I needed a few more beers. It was to be a 10 day holiday and I wanted to enjoy every single moment of it.
We sang some more songs in the Hotel Camponile bar while I spoke with the boys from Carrickfergus and then Michael Boyd of the IFA came in and joined us for a beer. Then there were green balloons floating in mid air, some sailing to the ceiling, to which we sang “Away in a manger” ending with “Helium, Helium, Helium.” We got taxis into town again that night and danced and drank all night in Walkabout with fellow NI fans. Someone had put the sign “God’s Country” up on the roof and requested loads of Northern Irish bands like Ash and Van Morrison. Also on the dukebox was Disco 2000 by Pulp, Sweet Caroline, Is This The Way To Amarillo and Teenage Kicks. It was a great party and soon we got taxis home and it was like 5 am. As we had to be up at 7 am I didn’t bother going to sleep. I just got showered and packed and had a quick rest in the hotel. At the time I had a lovely girlfriend called Lauren and I remember dying my pubic hair green at this point, photographing my willy and pubes and sending it to her. She found it hilarious, though I washed the dye out pretty much straight afterwards. She also sent me a text message saying “I can’t believe how long it is till I see you again.” Which was nice. I did miss her that night and just got ready for the train journey onwards to Manchester Airport.
We were booked on a flight with a few other Northern Ireland fans from Manchester – Berlin. As mentioned before the idea was to spend two days in Germany before a party train to Poland. We were all up and on to the train before making it to the departure lounge some 2 hours before take off. That was great, I had my first beer in a bar which had “Sunday Morning Call” by Oasis on the MTV Video and my second beer while we waited for the plane. It was there that I met Dave Watson and Skin, and a new face. It was Dean Nutt, an Institute fan from Londonderry. Dean is a great lad and I have since met up with him every now and then at Northern Ireland home and away matches. At this point we were called to board and my short 2 day trip to Manchester was over, however I was now off to Berlin for a whole new adventure!
Bars I visited – The Duke of York, The Marlebone Tup, The Argyll Arms, The Tottenham (London), Hotel Camponile Bar, Walkabout, Teaser’s, Brannigans, Squares, Harry Ramsdens, Both Manchester Airport Bars (Manchester).
Who I hung out with – Michael McClelland, Michael Beggs, Gavin McClelland, Chris, Fish, Philip McClelland, Dave Watson and mates, one Cloughy girl, one Canada girl.