“Michael O’Neill’s Green and White army” – Northern Ireland football fans.
Now that June 2016 has arrived, it feels crazy that this month, I am finally living out a childhood dream. Since my early days growing up in Bangor, Northern Ireland I only had one dream in life. To watch the Northern Ireland international football team live at a major tournament. I was too young to remember Spain 1982 though Dad tells me, I was in my cot next to him while he was watching the matches on TV. After drawing with Yugoslavia and Honduras, we beat Spain in their Valencia backyard, winning the group and we almost beat the French too, to reach the Semi Finals, had Martin O’Neill’s legitimate first half goal have stood (he was never offside).
Four years later, for the 1986 World Cup, I collected the Panini stickers and watched all three matches on TV. Norman Whiteside was my childhood hero and we finished third in a tough group, with Algeria, Spain and Brazil. I remember one of the matches I watched with my Dad, and his friend Raymond and his son Neil Fitzsimmons on a black and white TV in our house in Marlo. As a 6 year old Ulster boy, seeing his country just appear in the only two World Cups since I was born was a dream. Not just that, but losing out on goal difference to the Euro 1984 tournament (having bate West Germany home and away!), and winning the British Championship 3 of the last 4 years it existed (we’re still holders). I thought that Northern Ireland were the best football team in the world.
“Gerry Armstrong, what a worker he is. Striding away there with Hamilton to his right. Norman Whiteside up on the far side of the area. Still Billy Hamilton, he’s got past Tendillo, and Arconada…Armstrong!” – John Motson, 25th June 1982.
The thing is, we were and we still are if you go by head of population! Yes, only really Uruguay (3 million people, 2 World Cups, many Copa Americas) or Trinidad and Tobago (1.5 million, 1 World Cup qualification) can stake an argument that they are better than us. For 1.6 million inhabitants we have twice been in the World Cup Quarter Finals, we have beaten world super powers down the years, produced the best ever outfield player (George Best) and the best ever goalkeeper (Pat Jennings). And we are still the British Champions. And out of that 1.6 million we have, lots of them choose not to support our national team!
“He’s tall, he’s thin, he bears a resemblance to Jimmy Quinn” – Northern Ireland football fans.
Since my first Northern Ireland home match in 1990 against Yugoslavia (we lost 2-0 to a brilliant team which featured Darko Pancev and Dragan Stojkovic), I have only missed three Northern Ireland matches when I was in the country of the match at the time! (v. Austria 1991, v. Lithuania 1992, v. Albania 1992). In that time I’ve amassed around 150 matches, keeping match tickets for almost all of them, match programmes for about half of them and photos from about a third of them. Memories last forever. I could tell you almost every goalscorer and almost every team sheet for every Northern Ireland match from 1986 to now.
“It’s just like watching Brazil” – Northern Ireland football fans.
In that time we’ve had ups and downs as Norn Iron fans, as the Green and White Army. I’ve seen us finish bottom of a group without scoring a goal, I’ve seen us lose 5-0 at home to Spain, I’ve seen us lose 4-1 to Norway yet go mental when we got our goal.
“These things that are pleasing you, can hurt you somehow” – Glenn Frey.
In contrast to this, I have also seen us extend our unbeaten record to 11 matches (last week with a 3-0 win over Belarus), draw away with teams like Sweden (2007) and beat England (2005), Spain (2006), Denmark (2007), Belgium (1997), Romania (1994) at home.
“These are crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy nights. Oh yeah!” – Kiss.
“KEITH! Gillespie” – Northern Ireland football fans.
I used to write for Dr. Wa’s Northern Ireland fanzine, “Arconada…Armstrong!” in the mid 1990s, even had my own column in it as a 15 year and that was my proud first ever writing job. Then in 1997, my friend Michael and I launched our own Northern Ireland football fanzine, called “Here We Go…Again”. I recreated a photo from the 1990s below…
The fanzine ran regularly from 1997 – 2004, with 19 issues produced and sold, in a period where we had four different managers. But Michael and I got too busy in our respective lives, he got married and I went backpacking and we never quite made that 20th issue.
Well, until last week when I was back on the Lisburn Road again, and selling fanzines outside Windsor Park. Here We Go…Again was back, issue 20. As we stood selling fanzines, Michael and Gavin and I knew that nothing had changed. We were still the same guys supporting our countries as we had been in the 80s and 90s. The fans around us were the same, only with some new younger additions. We’ve been on this journey together.
And now we have qualified for Euro 2016 and this month I am heading to France with my Dad, my two brothers and the Green and White Army. It’s real. It’s happening. These are my family and friends who have stuck by the Northern Ireland team through the years, getting our reward for all those nights of pain, passion and tragedy. Defeats to Luxembourg don’t get any better over time.
My route to France will of course feature some lunacy and hardcore backpacking and I thought I’d share my journey to France with you all. Most followers of this travel blog will be aware of my passion for supporting Northern Ireland, it’s played a huge part of my backpacking journey and on this blog, in fact for the last 4 away matches I have been to, I backpacked my way to them, including Faroe Islands and Azerbaijan.
Having edited the fanzine, written for 2 other fanzines and launched Northern Ireland supporters clubs in three continents, it’s time for me to take a back seat. I’m going to chill out and go to France for the party, rather than the burden of writing, doing PR or organising meetings. Something I did for these three clubs:
1.South of England Northern Ireland Supporters Club (2005-2009)
2. TasmaNIan WilderNISC (short-lived 2010)
3. Hong Kong Northern Ireland Supporters Club (2011 – 2015)
I hope to see all my friends and family from supporting Northern Ireland the last 30 years. If you’re a Northern Ireland fan, we’ve probably met in some bar in Belfast, or in Turkey, or San Marino or Poland down the years. I hope to meet you all again this summer in France! Those who “jump on the bandwagon” though, not sure I’ll have time to meet you if you weren’t there in the dark times 😉 If you weren’t there in the bad old days at Windsor Park and obscure away places like Azerbaijan and Latvia, then you simply haven’t earned much respect in the football fan sphere. I’ve seen enough “plastics” at Dean Court recently as an AFC Bournemouth fan. Some of the lads that I partied with in Turkey have hardly missed a match in 10 years, and Shaun Schofield (whose book I contributed to) hasn’t missed a Northern Ireland match at all since the mid-1990s! Amazing!!
Anyway, here’s my route to France!! #gawa #daretodream
Bangor, NORTHERN IRELAND
Rather than fly to France from Karakalpakstan, Afghanistan or somewhere equally obscure, I decided to come back to Northern Ireland to start this journey where it all began. I will be heading from Bangor to Belfast and then getting a bus south across the Irish border to Dublin.
Dublin to Cork, REPUBLIC OF IRELAND
From Dublin, I’ll head south west for an emotional return to Cork. I haven’t been back to the city since the 1996 Oasis concert. So I’m gagging to get back. I aim to stay in the Kinlay House Hostel in Cork and do a long overdue tour to the Blarney Castle with Irish Day Tours so that is pretty exciting! Then I’m hoping to meet up with my friends Pol, Anthony and Helen who went backpacking with me in New Zealand and Cambodia, back in the day.
Cork to Bergamo, ITALY
I’ll be flying into Bergamo for the first time and then heading to Milan, also for the first time. It will be my fourth or fifth visit to Italy, on previous encounters, I’ve visited Venice, Pisa, Rome and Trieste and a few cross border trips into San Marino and the Vatican City State. This time I will be with my Dad and younger brother Marko. We aim to do some sightseeing in Milan, maybe the San Siro and the Duomo and hopefully I will go on tour with Walks of Italy again.
“We beat the Turks, the Spaniards and the mighty Germans too.” – Northern Ireland football fans.
As far as countries go, Seborga is one of the most unusual and unknown countries in Europe, and yes it is a country!! I aim to try and visit it to keep up my lunatic country adventure to off the wallbanger places that Timmy Mallet would respect. Let’s face it, once you have backpacked through places Adammia, Ladonia, Gorno Badakhshan and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, nothing will ever be that untouristy again. I have had no reply yet from the Seborga government, so it will be a challenge to get there and get into the country!
“Sweet Northern Ireland, good times never seemed so good” – Northern Ireland football fans. It is NOT Sweet Caroline!
The honour falls to the city of Nice in France to provide myself and thousands of Northern Ireland fans with the moment of our dreams. We play our first ever European Championship Finals match here. And no, not because they increased it to 24 teams, not because they increased it to 16 teams. We were in the top 8. We won the group. Just like we did in the 1982 World Cup and the 1984 British Championships. As I write this (before the Slovakia away match) we are 11 matches unbeaten, a record for Northern Ireland.
“Will Grigg’s on fire; your defence is terrified” – Wigan Athletic fans.
We play Poland on Nice next Sunday and the place will be pumping with the Green and White Army. It could be emotional. I can’t wait. I am buzzing.
I’m going to take a wee side trip to Monaco while based in Nice. I love visiting these disputed countries and being the home of expensive bars and casinos this will be a cool place to spend a day backpacking in. I’ll up my budget on beers for the day. My Dad, brother and I could be celebrating!
“Please don’t take my Davis away.” – Northern Ireland football fans.
After Monaco and Nice, it’s off north to the city of Lyon. Here I will be partying with the GAWA (Green and White Army) and watching Northern Ireland v. Ukraine. It will be a tough match for sure, but I backpacked in Lviv, Kiev and Chernobyl last year and took a spanking for the lads. If we beat Ukraine, I’d say we will progress to the Second Stage.
“Northern Ireland. Du du du du de.” – Northern Ireland football fans.
After Lyon, I’ll head north to Paris for the Northern Ireland v. Germany match. By that stage hopefully we will have 3 or 4 points and the Germans will have 6 points and we can all have a party if we both go through. I’m serious. High on confidence and belief. For once, I actually think we have a chance of getting out of this tough group. Amongst all this, it gives me a chance to return to Paris for the third time and pretend I love the city…
“You’re supposed to be in jail” – Northern Ireland football fans.
I will be staying in France until Northern Ireland are no longer in the tournament and then I will decide my next move. Come and meet me and party in France. It’s a charmed life, or…
“It’s a weird and wonderful world if you come from Wimbledon” – John Motson.
Our beautiful wee Northern Ireland squad for the Euro 2016 finals:
Goalkeepers: Alan Mannus (St Johnstone), Michael McGovern (Hamilton Academical), Roy Carroll (Linfield)
Defenders: Craig Cathcart (Watford), Jonny Evans (West Bromwich Albion), Gareth McAuley (West Bromwich Albion), Luke McCullough (Doncaster Rovers), Conor McLaughlin (Fleetwood Town), Lee Hodson (MK Dons), Aaron Hughes (Free agent, was at Melbourne City), Paddy McNair (Manchester United), Chris Baird (Derby County)
Midfielders: Steven Davis (Southampton), Oliver Norwood, (Reading), Corry Evans, (Blackburn Rovers), Shane Ferguson (Millwall), Stuart Dallas (Leeds United), Niall McGinn (Aberdeen), Jamie Ward (Nottingham Forest)
Forwards: Kyle Lafferty (Norwich City), Conor Washington (Queens Park Rangers), Josh Magennis (Kilmarnock), Will Grigg (Wigan Athletic).