BELFAST. I’d never been. The Anfield Wrap had never been. An international weekend seemed like a perfect opportunity to put both right. Especially after Steven Davis and his slightly rubbish mates had stolen my heart on a balmy night in Nice this summer.
We flew in on Friday afternoon to make sure we could attend the Green and White Army’s heavyweight clash against Azerbaijan and also so we could “acclimatise ourselves to the location.” Which is mainly seeing if the bars are any good. They were.
The flight to Belfast is ridiculous, isn’t it? Genuinely our taxi to the airport from Liverpool city centre took longer. Apparently there is a boat that takes eight hours. Unless you are taking literally everything you own, why would you do that? I bet it’s more expensive too. There were questions from our audience on Saturday night longer than that flight.
Whenever we go away people look after us. Without The Anfield Wrap listeners these trips wouldn’t happen. It would just be a load of drunk Scousers not being able to find their accommodation — which would be a decent laugh, to be fair, but I doubt we’d sell many tickets.
This trip was no different. Finton and Neil were at the airport to pick us up and take us to the house we’d rented for the weekend. Which was a good job as Craig Hannan and his “local knowledge” (which turned out to be generally appalling) had booked us a table to have some food about five minutes after we arrived there.
Atko still managed to sneak a shower in because he controls his own time zone. I went out for groceries and came back with two bottles of wine and a crate of lager. Gareth Facetimed his children, who had very different tactics to getting a decent present from the holiday. From outright demands to blag indifference and “just wanting daddy back soon” (what a performer).
Only slightly late, we arrive to find Craig not there. His mate was, and told us Craig lives quite far out and it would take him a while to get in. Finding out Craig was a wool, even in Belfast, was the highlight of Gareth’s trip.
It is raining. The most. It quite possibly, at the time of writing, hasn’t yet stopped. This meant there were very few taxis about as no-one wanted to be outside. We abandon looking for a cab and walk after Craig ensures us it isn’t that far. After 40 minutes of walking in the driving rain, through what can only be described as a sectarian Disney World, we reach the ground, only to discover we are on the wrong side. Unbelievably it seems to take even longer to get to the other side after being told we can’t walk down certain roads for no apparent reason.
In the end, we arrive only 10 minutes late and are relieved not to have missed a goal. Its fine though. Northern Ireland rain goals. Well four. Which seems quite tame when you watch Liverpool, but considering the team once went two years without scoring, it’s pretty good indeed. They have 11 in their last three home games. It’s positively a fortress.
At half time we try and get a pint, only to be told they only serve alcohol in the lounges. Two minutes later we’ve bunked into a lounge. There is an appalling amount of freebies but we do manage to buy a pint.
I miss the third goal quite simply through not paying attention but I assume some massive fella headed it in. The fourth is defo a cross though. Not having it as some belter. But 4-0. On the march to Russia.
I love going to Northern Ireland games. The whole concept of Northern Ireland can be an odd one for outsiders to get your head round. But I wasn’t there to solve it and found very few people who wanted to discuss it with me. Everyone I came across was just full of pride that lads they knew, who had been to their school or started at their local team, were suddenly able to take on the world. They’re not Brazil, they’re Northern Ireland, but it’s all the same to them.
After the game we’re in no mood to listen to Craig and his dodgy distances and point out there is a bar on the road we are staying on. Given that is genuinely less than a mile from the ground we don’t care if it’s any good or not. Luckily, it turns out to be the best bar in the world. Go ‘ed Cuckoo and their live band. They played “Freed From Desire” twice. They knew their audience.
After an after-party, which went on too late and was mainly me and Craig’s mates chatting wham, I woke up done-in and I swear still wet from the rain. Neil is in a cafe for breakfast but I can’t face getting up. Brilliantly though, he brings back bacon butties and hot drinks and that. A shower sorts me out and I’m ready to go again.
We’d been invited to Cliftonville FC — the oldest football club in Ireland — to watch a game. Before the game we are given a tour and made to feel very welcome indeed. They tell us about when they were great, about when they weren’t, and how the club has evolved over the years. It was really interesting. Then the football started…
They weren’t great, those Reds. I was assured their best players were out injured and they were normally better. But the opposition weren’t showing much ambition and Cliftonville weren’t showing enough to break them down.
It’s fine though. There was plenty of entertainment in the crowd. There were plenty who weren’t shy about giving the Ballinamallard players some stick. Especially a lanky lad they had up front called Lecky and a “fat” lad in midfield called McCabe. One of the few heckles I can actually repeat was “what’s your blood group McCabe, gravy?”
McCabe was laughing his head off. That’s the beauty of footy at this level. No one takes anything too seriously. When he got subbed he gave the home fans a decent clap and he had a beer with us after as well. You could tell he used to be a player too when he had legs!
As the game approached the end, most had given up. Encouragement from the crowd comes in the form of “stop all this foreplay shite, we need some penetration.” Suddenly there is a high ball and a knockdown and the striker McDaid is in a rare bit of space. He shimmies past one and he’s in on goal. The ‘keeper makes himself big, but a Dalglish-esqe dink sees the ball hit the back of the net.
He then brilliantly two-footed the advertising hoardings to celebrate. We don’t see though, we’re going bananas. Timo is on top of me, Atko has lost his glasses and limbs are everywhere. Nothing beats a last minute winner, does it?
We want to stay and drink forever after, but we have a show to get to. A quick change at home and we walk the small distance to Mandela Hall. Its a fantastic space which has featured some of the best bands in the world over the years, and now us. All a bit daft really, isn’t it?
It’s not for me to say how the show went. Ask the people who went. I’m just glad they did. As long as people keep coming I’ll keep throwing myself around like a lunatic and injuring my body and liver for the greater good. Nice one, everyone. It was boss to meet all of you. I feel like I had at least one pint with you all.
Same time next year? I might have recovered by then.