“Four years, it only took four years…”: Northern Ireland 2-0 Azerbaijan

If you told anyone who religiously followed the Northern Ireland football team in the 1980s that we could ever go FOUR years without a home win, they’d laugh at ye…however things got rather grim once upon a time as a true Northern Ireland die hard. With 1999 being a total disaster at home, with no home wins for the first time in years, and even our only home goal that year was an OG by some Canadian, things couldn’t have got any worse for us, even under Lawrie McMenemy, could they? Well wrong, as under Sammy McIlroy using a total of 10 different strikers over a 2 year period couldn’t even get us a goal (February 2002 – February 2004). Either side of this, we didn’t even manage a home win! And naturally, as a Northern Ireland fan who hasn’t missed a home match in 12 years, I was there to see the last home win under Sammy McIlroy, and the first home win under Lawrie Sanchez. I didn’t expect to have to wait FOUR years, but then football’s a funny old game, and in this case it’s totally not. You wouldn’t have seen me laughing between September 2001 and September 2005…

So I turned up in September 2001 for our last home match of that campaign. I was just fresh back from a trip to Canada for my cousin’s wedding, and we were due to play Iceland at home, having just earned a creditable 1-1 draw in Denmark, thanks to a Phil Mulryne header. The Iceland home match we had hoped for revenge, as they bate us 1-0 away the previous year, a goal which Roy Carroll messed up. Fast forward a year and we tore Iceland apart! Half time was 0-0, but playing towards the Railway End inspired us as we ripped them to shreds! A cracking David Healy volley set us on our way, before Michael Hughes jinked in at the near post to make it 2-0. The boys in the Kop were doing a topless conga at this point, and I seem to recall singing “Hey Baby” (by DJ Otzi), but I could be wrong. Then George McCartney marked his debut with a goal and we had won 3-0. It was a great performance by Northern Ireland. Then four years elapsed as I took my place in the Kop for the visit of Azerbaijan. We didn’t win a single home match in those four years (but did manage a few away wins, including 3-0 in Trinidad & Tobago and 1-0 in Malta)

A morning flight from Bournemouth to Belfast (on the Go Fly airline) had me in Belfast city centre by 12 noon and having a few beers with the boys ahead of the Azerbaijan match. The match was five days before the “bigger?” match v. England at home, but this one was a must win. And two set pieces in the second half sunshine did it. The relief on everyone’s faces as Stuarty Elliott banged in a 20 yard free kick, followed by the enthusiasm of Warren Feeney’s cool penalty gave us a 2-0 win! We had won a home match for the first time in FOUR years. I remember Skin, in front of us starting the chant “four years…it only took four years…” And boy was it sweet. I never ever want to see my country do four years without a home win, it was such a depressing time! Mind you, when it did come, it only took another FOUR DAYS until the next home win. That’s right, you may remember we bate the England in the same week, a post on that famous night at Windsor Park is bound to follow some time…

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