NORTHERN Ireland? You know us — mainly from the news. Some of our lot across the water used to misbehave quite a bit.
Recently though, we’ve toned down the terrorism. Despite the occasional petrol bomb and bickering between actual adults in power over which flag should be flown and who we should belong to, we’re a great set of lads.
We play a bit of football from time to time and are likely to be the team you curse if picked out in a work sweepstake. But don’t worry, we’re better than you think. Either that, or I’ve blurred reality with tonic wine and blind faith.
So what the fucking hell are Northern Ireland doing at the Euros?
Well, we got together at the beginning of the campaign and decided we’d like to take part this time.
Now we’ve bought Buckfast in bulk and are off on a road trip along the French Rivera to watch our lads win the thing. Just call us the Euro Champions Elect.
Not really. This wasn’t meant to happen, nor was it coming. Qualification had nothing to do with stats, form or history for a country that has lived with mediocrity at best and the acceptance of an underwhelming national team for 30 years.
You may not care for international football, but it’s not difficult to articulate how it feels for a country this small and this complicated. What does it mean to be at the European Championships when the odds tell us we have no chance in France?
It means everything. We’re here.
My earliest memory of international football involves a two-year long wait for a goal. Two years without the very thing we crave at a football game. So I’m celebrating having made it this far.
Three generations of Northern Ireland fans have grown up without stories of their own, settling instead for tales told by older relatives of the halcyon days of Danny Blanchflower and the great George Best in green.
Those lucky to remember Gerry Armstrong’s goal at the 1982 World Cup have re-watched and reminisced over Billy Bingham’s side sinking Spain in their own backyard ever since.
But these memories don’t belong to my generation. They don’t resonate with us in the same way and, until this campaign, our recent footballing history has been signified solely by David Healy goals against England and Spain in meaningless qualifiers.
To say that football has been endured rather than enjoyed would be an understatement.
It's basically like Christmas Day. pic.twitter.com/zmJCo3SdH2
— Craig Hannan (@C_Hannan7) June 12, 2016
There’s a different kind of buzz from supporting a side without expectation, without the demand for success. I’ve watched World Cups and European Championships and not ever contemplated my country taking part — to me it’s just not something that happens.
You see, it’s not that we’ve qualified It’s where we’ve come from to do so.
It’s an era that at times had threatened to become our nation’s most embarrassing — stuck second bottom in each of the previous two qualifying campaigns. With Azerbaijan above us and only Luxembourg below in Michael O’Neill’s first in charge, it was impotent and uninspiring.
Lack of consistency in squad selection and a poor disciplinary record were problems O’Neill had to address and the reinvigoration process started with a certain maverick striker who lacked focus and direction.
Kyle Lafferty had just been axed by Palermo and described by club president Maurizio Zamparini as an “an out-of-control womaniser — an Irishman without rules who would disappear for a week on the hunt for women in Milan.”
Subbed on against Portugal in the World Cup qualifiers only to be sent off minutes later, Lafferty was at a crossroads.
Two years on and seven goals later, his transformation as a talismanic target man could be O’Neill’s greatest feat as he continues to craft and mould the striker’s attitude.
Despite a late injury scare this week, Lafferty was described by a journalist as “moving well in training, pretending to be a horse in the warm up.”
Michael O’Neill has instilled a cohesion with this small pool of players and forged a bond with both the team and its fans. There’s a feeling of genuine togetherness that ensures the team as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Off the pitch, there’s a febrile positivity surrounding the Northern Ireland national team like I’ve never known before.
This is a fanbase that once had strong links to sectarianism and a country where bigoted behaviour at the football was commonplace during The Troubles.
Now we’re bridging the divide with a fully inclusive side led by a Catholic manager and a squad representative of all sides of the community. No longer are those in the national stadium draped in red, white and blue. No longer is wearing a Northern Ireland shirt politically motivated or solely a statement of unionism. And about fucking time.
It would be foolish to claim this is a country in complete peace and while there will still be an minority that are backwards in their beliefs, this is a nation that is moving forward with each generation.
We’re a complicated country in that half of our population support the Republic of Ireland — a decision often dependant on their background or religion. It’s ludicrous that any of this is even relevant to football or that politics should even matter.
— Craig Hannan (@C_Hannan7) June 10, 2016
But this campaign has captivated both sides of the community. I’ve met fans from a Catholic background who live in a nationalist stronghold travelling to France to watch both Northern Ireland and the Republic. I know fans of both teams travelling together to watch their respective countries at the Euros.
This would not have happened 20 years ago and now Northern Ireland is in the news for all the right reasons.
Your national team may have its heart rooted firmly in London, led by a manager you despise and a captain who has played for our club’s two biggest rivals.
But mine is captained by a lad who attended my school. Our left back used to mark me at youth level and I’m delighted to say I didn’t trouble him once. With a national stadium on the doorstep of where I was born, it’s been my version of going the game with my mates until a move over to Liverpool.
Although maybe subconsciously, our history and the binary nature of national team support and political beliefs are the reasons for our patriotism.
Now is the time for too much wine by the Riviera and celebrations by the Seine to make up for lost time. This has been 30 years in the making. Nice, Lyon and Paris. Northern Ireland at the European Championships.