“You’ll never get Gibraltar!” – Northern Ireland 0-0 Spain (June 2003)

In my life I’ve been to four Northern Ireland v. Spain matches. It seems we are two teams that are nearly always drawn against each other. For example in every World Cup between 1982 and 1994 we were either in the same group in the actual tournament or in qualifying. We even had Spain in our last two European Championship groups! And in between played them in 2 friendlies. My first Northern Ireland v. Spain match was October 1992, when we battled for what was then not considered a great result, a 0-0 home draw with Spain! We had high hopes in those days of Billy Bingham in charge. Then towards the end of the 1990s, we played Spain away in Santander, losing 4-1 with Gerry Taggart scoring (some Northern Ireland fans I know such as Marty Lowry, Jim McComish and Shaun Schofield will have fond memories of how they got the Plymouth – Santander route to that match. What a trip that would have been!). We then played them in April 2002 as a special 20 year anniversary of the famous night we beat them 1-0 in Valencia in 1982. That night was one to forget at Windsor Park. I sold our Northern Ireland fanzine on my own, the attendance was poor, we had TWO ROCHDALE players on our team (Lee McEvilly and Pat McCourt) and we lost 5-0! Yes 5-0, the worst ever scoreline I’ve seen from any of my teams, until I saw the Northern Ireland ladies lose, also by 5-0 in Belarus last year. Then we were drawn in the same group as Spain for the Euro 2004 qualifiers. We lost the first match, away 0-3 in Santander predictably, but by June 2003 we were hyped up for the home match with the Spaniards. Time for revenge and time to prove we could still play football!

A few weeks earlier, the IFA had arranged for us to play a friendly match in Italy at Campobasso with money from ticket sales going to help the recent Italian earthquake. That match we lost 2-0 but played really well, including debuts for two Irish League players (during what was an ongoing goal drought for the Northern Ireland football team, stretching back to February 2002), but we had played well against a strong Italian side and were now hoping to give Spain a real go. Our fanzine, Here We Go…Again jumped on the Andy Smith and Gary Hamilton bandwagon, and put both of them on the front page urging for a goal to end the goal drought or at least a decent performance. Then ahead of the Spain match, Sammy McIlroy announced that he would be playing a 4-4-2 with David Healy and Andy Smith up front. I was excited, could we finally get a goal?

At the time I was working full time in the butchery at Steensons and had Wednesday as my normal day off, in fact for about six months in that job I worked 6 day weeks (with Sunday being just 9 am – 3 pm). So the plan arranged by Brendan and myself, was to meet at 1 pm ish in Hunters Bar on the Lisburn Road in Belfast, get tanked up in there and head into the ground for the 7.45pm kick off. I remember our crew for the day was myself, Brendan Burdoch, Pete Moore (one of Brendan’s work mates), Gavin McClelland, Begzi and Michael McClelland. I seem to recall that Gavin had agreed to drive on the day, and that Michael was working in Belfast so would meet us in Hunters. We all left Bangor just after noon and parked near Hunters. Even back in 2003, watching Northern Ireland was nowhere near as popular as it is now, and bars such as Ryans and The Globe would never have let you in wearing a Northern Ireland shirt in those days. So Hunters it was. When we got in there, the place was really quiet, which was nice as we had time to order some burgers and start the pints in early as well as getting a seat over in the corner. It got busier and busier as the afternoon went on, and of course not all of those entering the bar were dressed in green or white Northern Ireland gear like us. I had my white Northern Ireland away top on that night, but there were still many people in Hunters Bar wearing Rangers shirts back then.

The wearing of club football shirts to an international match always bamboozles me, I agree back in the 80s and early 90s that the Northern Ireland shirts were harder to get, but I always tried to wear a Northern Ireland shirt where possible and with the fanzine, Michael, Gavin and I always tried to promote that idea. The banter in Hunters was great, that’s were there was a good atmosphere and the main song in those days was “Sammy McIlroy’s Green And White Army” which was sung loads during that particular match. As we drank more and more Harp (photos attached), Michael and I were always conscious of the time, and we used to leave the pub about 1 and a half hours before kick off (sometimes, myself even earlier) in order to stand outside the Linfield shop on the corner of the North Stand selling our fanzines.

It was a dry and bright summer night, as the photos show and we sold out that night, of say 150 fanzines (I’d have to check the exact number, normally for the big matches we done 150, and the smaller matches between 80 and 100). In fact looking back now that’s quite extraordinary that out of a support of 14,000 we would only sell 1 to every 100th person. If we had taken longer to promote the fanzine, spent money on advertising and been bothered to have more people selling and spending time selling, we could probably have sold one to every 50th person or more. Even in June 2003, a Northern Ireland home match didn’t quite sell out, on this night I doubt we had the full 14,000. Standing there selling I actually knew there wouldn’t be many more times I would ever do that. And I was right. Five and a half years on, and there have only been another THREE “Here We Go…Again” fanzines in that intervening time. It was a nice night for it though, I’m dressed pretty ridiculously looking back at those photos, I was 23 at the time and wearing NI shades like a steek or a spide! Yet the enthusiasm was there from Michael and I. “Norn Iron fanzines only a poun” we used to shout. We’d stop selling about 20 minutes before kick off normally, so we could get inside the stadium for the national anthems to be played.

While selling that night I bumped into old school mate Magoo. I’m not sure if it was the last time I seen him, but he was a good mate in school and in Boys Brigade and he used to go to the Northern Ireland matches a lot in the 1990s. He’s in a photo here, with Brian, Michael and Gavin’s Dad and a crowd of Northern Ireland fans, most of whom in 2003 didn’t wear green. The sea of green and the winds of change were just around the chimney corner. Once Pete, Begzi, Gav and Brendan had left the bar and met us where we were selling, we decided to join the queue and head up to our seats, on that night right at the back of the Kop. The queues to get in weren’t too bad, and I bought a match programme. A year on from our 0-5 defeat against a very similar Spain team and we expected better. It was also 21 years from the night Gerry Armstrong scored a 1-0 winner for Northern Ireland in Valencia against Spain in the group stage of the 1982 World Cup. We wanted more of that!

Once inside the atmosphere was amazing, all the supporters clubs had been organised to sit together, a deal the amalgamation had done with the IFA’s ticketing. I noticed a lot of more banners up that night, including my wee BANGOR NI banner which I put up at the back. The atmosphere was one to match my previous favourite Northern Ireland matches, they were a 1-1 draw with The Republic of Ireland (November 1993) a superb 2-0 win over Romania (March 1994) and a 3-0 win over Iceland (our last home win at the time, September 2001). Everyone was up for it, and Jim Rainey (a well known Northern Ireland fan who has done so much work for the game back in our wee country, and further afield) had his famous megaphone a few rows down from us at the back of the kop. It was the original Spion Kop that the stand had been built on a renamed it “The West Stand” (lately “The Alex Russell Stand”), everyone still calls it The Kop. The songs were coming such as:
Northern Ireland du du du du du
The Dambusters (a favourite from when we played the Germans a lot in the 1990s)
Sammy McIlroy’s Green and White Army (repeated loads)
Oh Sammy Sammy Sammy Sammy Sammy Sammy McIlroy
Away In A Manger…
You’re Not You’re Not You’re Not very good (Sang loudly anytime a Spaniard skied the ball or hit another shot wide…)
You’ll Never Get Gibraltar

From the kick off we started getting stuck in. Sammy McIlroy had really made the players believe. Andy Smith (then of Glentoran) was battling away up front against Champions League Superstars, not looking out of place! We were really competing with them. I remember vividly Tommy Doherty (who was making his home debut as I recall) testing Casillas (Spanish keeper) from just outside the box. Doherty had a black beard, looked rough and rugged and was taking no shit. At the Kop end that night he almost broke the deadlock. Valeron and Raul were both playing and couldn’t hack the hostile crowd. We were making one hell of a racket and they looked totally dejected when they missed any chances. Even our defenders were attacking, with George McCartney firing in a header. Spain did muster quite a few chances and by half time we were playing amazing, just wondering if we could hold out for a famous result. We didn’t even contemplate victory at that point, we were bottom of the group with just 1 point at the time (from a 0-0 home draw with The Ukraine). But the team went off to rapturous applause at half time and totally deserved. It got even better in the second half, at one point Smith and Healy were running rings round the Spanish superstars!! Half way through the second half, playing down towards the Railway End, came the big chance to win it. Healy found himself clear on a one on one with the keeper. And normally you’d favour him to score, but the keeper Casillas came out well, stood his ground and blocked Healy’s weak shot. Healy could have opted for a chip. As I turned round after that chance I remember my mate Brendan looking gutted and he was bowed down in despair, as if we’d blown our best chance. Actually he had, but it didn’t matter, we lasted out the full 90 minutes with the Spaniards and had gained an excellent 0-0 draw. The green and white army made some noise that night, and it was a great point. After that match there would only be one more Northern Ireland match for me whilst living there, as in September 2003 I moved to England, and have only visited for holidays (and em Norn Iron matches of course, I still haven’t missed a home match since 1996 v. Albania) since. WE danced and partied in the Kop that night for ages after the match before a celebratory pint on our way home. I also remember singing “Who put the ball in the Spaniards net? Super Gerry Armstrong!” and “Adios” at their flops as they sauntered off the pitch. There was also a guy who had broughten a Gibraltar fleg and was flying it as we sang a “tongue in cheek” chant of “Ye’ll never get Gibraltar” at them. That was meant to be as good as it got and I thoroughly enjoyed it. However 3 years later we would haven an even better result against Spain, that’s a story for another day though!

Who Went – Jonny Blair, Pete Moore, Gavin McClelland, Michael McClelland, Begzi, Brendan Burdoch.

When Was It? – Wednesday 11th June 2003.

What Was It? – Euro 2004 Qualifier – Northern Ireland 0-0 Spain

Where Was It? – Windsor Park, Belfast

A wee match report from the BBC here –

What Ever Happened To Andy Andy Smith –

Teams –

Northern Ireland: Taylor, Baird, McCartney, Aaron Hughes, Kennedy, Griffin, Johnson, Doherty, Jones, Healy, Andrew Smith.
Subs: Carroll, Williams, Toner, McVeigh, McCann, Hamilton, Elliott.

Spain: Casillas, Puyol, Marchena, Helguera, Juanfran, Etxeberria, Baraja, Sergio, Vicente, Valeron, Raul.
Subs: Salgado, Canizares, De Pedro, Morientes, Bravo, Joaquin, Gabri.

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