For some bizarre and unknown reason (justified only by money and the cost of travel) I didn’t go to a single Northern Ireland away match until March 2005, my 25th birthday match in Poland (except the one I’m about to write about and the England away match, both on UK soil, so not really ‘away’ matches). I hadn’t missed a home match since Albania in 1996, and had only missed 3 home matches since 1990, but I didn’t attend any away matches. Somehow I even missed the 1-0 defeat in Scotland (1992) and the 1-0 win over The Republic of Ireland (1999). My good mate Michael McClelland went to the Dublin match, and I’m not sure why I didn’t go that day! Anyhow in 2004 I was living in Bournemouth and Northern Ireland were drawn in the same group as England and Wales so I would finally get to an ‘away’ match, even though it was still in the UK. I was off to watch Wales v. Northern Ireland in the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. The Saturday before I had returned to Northern Ireland to watch the 0-3 home defeat to Poland, which was very demoralising. I had had a busy summer in Bournemouth, doing 3 jobs at the same time and now I was on a wee holiday! After the Poland home defeat in Belfast, I flew BACK to Southampton airport in order to move house late Sunday/early Monday in Bournemouth. It was a busy few days and for some reason I ended up getting 6 flights in the space of a week, when 2 would have been enough! I should have flown from England to NI for the Poland match then back to England and driven or got a train up to Cardiff. However I had arranged to go with my Dad, who was bizarrely making his away debut as well! That meant I had to fly back to Bournemouth to move house, then back to Belfast, then fly out to Bristol, drive to Cardiff, then drive back to Exeter to fly back to Belfast only to fly back to Southampton and get a train to Bournemouth. A stupid and dear way to do it, but it was all booked and sorted so I was ready for my first Northern Ireland ‘away’ match.
We were expected to get a total bollocking in Cardiff, having just lost 3-0 at home following high expectations now that we had gone 6 without defeat (including a very successful Caribbean tour where David Healy broke Colin Clarke’s scoring record). I was just glad to be there to support! We arrived in Bristol airport fuelled by Smirnoff Ices on the flight (due to the fact that all the NI fans at the front of the flight had taken all the lager!). There was me, my Dad, Andy McInnes, Trevor McBriar and Brian McClelland. We had a car hired and my Dad, Andy and Brian shared the driving from Bristol through gorgeous countryside (and seeing Ashton Gate) to Cardiff where we had booked a cheap hostel within Cardiff University buildings. It was about £16 a night just and did the job. We got parked in the Cardiff sunshine and headed for lunch, and a beer! I had many other friends who supported Northern Ireland and through the years had gone with me. This included Gavin, Michael and Philip McClelland, plus Begzi, Bob amongst regular fanzine sellers Marty, Richard and David Alcorn. This was the first trip watching Northern Ireland away from Windsor Park and I had dressed in a green wig/hat with green dye and Ulster sunglasses. After a first pint and some lunch in a wee Welsh corner pub by the river, we headed to the Wetherspoons called The Prince of Wales, which was heaving in a sea of green and white, with flegs everywhere. In there I met Clifford Healy (David Healy’s Dad) and David Healy’s Mum as well as David Healy’s gorgeous wife, who I got a photo with. We started getting pissed in there and I also bought a new green and white hat. Soon Michael and Gavin and some others from the Bangor NISC contingent had met up with us. Just at that point though, there was some trouble.
I’d witnessed a bit of football hooliganism before through the years, this was just a bit odd. A few Northern Ireland fans had put flegs up in the bar which was great, but some of them were Union flegs, once these boys started singing Rule Britannia, the Welsh (Cardiff Soul Crew possibly) just kicked off and started throwing bottles. Punches flew and I was just standing there chatting away to Welsh boys enjoying a wee beer. Soon though, the managers and bouncers came over and cleared the pub so we had to leave. I was the last one out of the pub as my Dad and his mates plus all the Bangor ones had left already, leaving behind ALL their bags! I had to go and get all the bags and left the pub to go to Walkabout round the corner. I always liked Walkabout in my student days. Even though it was a chain, they did £1.50 lagers and snakebites on selected nights and this was one of them! I had a few snakebites and we sang loads of songs, in there, on the streets and in Sam’s bar nearby. We were drinking only a 10-15 minute walk from the Millennium Stadium. At some point we left to do a wee scenic tour, see Cardiff Castle and all that which was great to soak in the pre match atmosphere in such a nice city. There were Northern Ireland fans everywhere, more so than in Belfast for home games, where the security is much tighter due to the political situation. Here in Cardiff we were free! And enjoying it, despite the scuffle in the Wetherspoons pub.
A few more beers later and the Walkabout was rammed we were enjoying it, and got ready for the big match! We wanted all the Northern Ireland fans to march to the ground together, which was about an hour before kick off. We met some random types such as Welsh Fireman Sam and Superteds. There was a lot of fancy dress. I also enjoyed chatting to some Welsh girls in dragon bikinis, as I think Welsh girls are SO attractive, the accent, the manner and the raunchiness. Some day I’ll have to shag a Welsh girl. It would be fantastic. I can’t have had as much sex as most 28 year olds, and to leave Wales out is sad. Perhaps I need to move there. Actually I used to study with two Welsh ladies at Bournemouth University: Joanne Dark and Francesca Carpanini and they are both very pretty and very lively. It wouldn’t be a regret that I never had enough conversation with either of them. I’m not sure my wisdom drenched Northern Irishness would have been music for their ears, who knows? Another time; another place?
My mate Brendan had also joined us on this trip, he was another of the hardcore who had accompanied me, Gavin and Mike over the years at Windsor Park. Now we were all together and marching to the stadium. I was fairly drunk, and once inside the MASSIVE millennium stadium there was no beer available, so I had a coke, soaked in the atmosphere and ended up standing beside my Dad. Gavin, Mike, Brendan etc were a few rows down and we would meet up after the match. The scene was set. We outsang the boring “Way ills” songs, even survived the booing of our National Anthem and the match began. The match got off to a ferocious start with the Welsh goalkeeper handling outside the box and we got no free kick nor a sending off for him. Then Michael Hughes and Robbie Savage had a tug and shirt pull at each other, ending with them both being sent off, Michael Hughes pushing Savage out of the way was a classic moment. I enjoyed that. We were both playing with 10 men now and the game was boiling over. Jeff Whitely sent us wild with a 20 yard right foot shot into the bottom corner. It was a great goal and we were suddenly 1-0 up in the Millennium. Stand Up For The Ulstermen was all you could hear!
Then a Welsh defender fluffed a backpass, David Healy seized on the opportunity and ran through, lobbed the ball over the goalkeeper and ran round to head it into the empty net. We were in dreamland!! 2-0 up and looking the better team. Healy did his usual goal celebration salute and then suddenly the referee went nuts, ran over to Healy and sent him off!! Seriously, David Healy was sent off for celebrating a goal, and a fantastic goal at that in a big stadium. It was totally insane. This was Healy’s normal goal celebration and the referee had thought it was some kind of rude gesture towards the Welsh crowd. Either way it was now a mission to hold our 2-0 lead for 70 odd minutes, away from home and down to 9 men. We kept singing and before half time Hartson pulled a goal back. It was as tight as a nun’s fanny.
The second half began and we were still doing some attacking. Recent squad member Tony Capaldi found himself free on the left wing, he cut inside the full back just inside the penalty box and was brought down. Definite penalty! But no! The referee didn’t give it…we were holding on and it was now just a matter of time before Wales would pull a goal back and snatch an undeserved draw. And they did. Robert Earnshaw headed it in to loud cheers. We kept singing though and as the final whistle sounded, we celebrated a fantastic battling away point, though we all know it should have been three…
After the final whistle on the way out of the stadium I chatted away to a load of Northern Ireland fans including Richard Henry, who was a regular on away matches. Richard said most of the NI fans were going to Walkabout. Not before a massive coincidence took place! I bumped into David Healy in the street! He was in amongst loads of NI fans and his Dad was there. We chatted about how he didn’t deserve to be sent off, while we all grabbed autographs and photographs. Then it was on to Walkabout.
I remember and will always recall drinking loads of snakebites for £1.50 (which was a Bournemouth Walkabout thing) and dancing ridiculously to TOXIC by Britney Spears. I will always love that song because of Cardiff. We felt we should have had the three points, but with happy with two away goals and a nice draw. We later went into two other bars, I think it was Toucan and D2. The Welsh came over and chatted away to me. It was all friendly, as life should be. I asked a Welsh girl for her knickers as a souvenir. She said yes if I would give her my Northern Ireland flag. You know what, I kept the flag, and I still have it. Just as well…
Wales: Jones, Delaney (Earnshaw 28), Collins, Gabbidon, Thatcher (Parry 63), Oster, Savage, Speed, Koumas, Bellamy, Hartson.
Subs Not Used: Melville, Page, Pembridge, Taylor, Crossley.
Sent Off: Savage (9).
Goals: Hartson 32, Earnshaw 75.
Northern Ireland: Taylor, Aaron Hughes, Murdock, Williams, Capaldi (McCartney 90), Johnson, Clyde, Whitley, Michael Hughes, Healy, Quinn (Smith 57), Smith (McVeigh 89).
Subs Not Used: Carroll, Craigan, Jones, Elliott.
Sent Off: Michael Hughes (9), Healy (22).
Booked: Quinn, Taylor, Capaldi.
Goals: Whitley 11, Healy 21.
Ref: Domenico Messina (Italy).