Wednesday 9 September ~
On a sunny Saturday afternoon in late September 2006, Northern Ireland's campaign to reach Euro 2008 began in utter calamity. The Northern Irish fans went into the season quietly confident, buoyed by a run of promising friendlies and the magisterial defeat of England the year before. All that momentum and belief was left in tatters by an Eidur Gudjohnsen footballing masterclass. A 3-0 defeat at home to Iceland was not the start anyone had expected. Jackie Fullerton, the province's very own John Motson, almost shied away from commentating on the second half, preferring to recount a story about his wife joining a local gym.
The sad reality for fans was the operative word in the phrase "Our Wee Country", which is widely used locally, even in news bulletins. With a population of less than two million people, Northern Ireland are always going to struggle in qualifiers, but for generational miracles of mid-1980s proportions. The country's last attempt to qualify for the European Championship, in 2004, didn't even yield a goal. So it was no real surprise that Iceland, with their Barcelona-bound starlet, had conquered Windsor Park.
Then, three days later, Spain came to Belfast. David Healy chipped Iker Casillas and logic went out the window faster than you could sing “We're not Brazil”. The young Manchester United defender Jonny Evans made his debut on that memorable night, with Kyle Lafferty and Steve Davis of Rangers both adding a youthful composure that has typified the team since. With the talismanic David Healy leading a team full of belief, Northern Ireland were unlucky not to qualify for the finals.
Typically, the World Cup 2010 qualifiers began erroneously. A single point from the first three games seemed to suggest a return to the bad, old, barren years. The team that beat England, Spain and Sweden were not meant to lose to Slovakia and Slovenia anymore. But, in truth, Northern Ireland fans recognise that every match is as likely to end in elation as in misery.
After losing their winnable games, Northern Ireland showed bloody-minded bravery to take points from the trickier fixtures in the group. Home wins over Poland and Slovenia, and a well-earned draw in Chorzow, displayed their usual fervour for the role of underdogs. From an inglorious beginning, Northern Ireland have played themselves to within a whisker of qualification.
Nigel Worthington's men face Slovakia tonight in Belfast knowing a victory will give them the best chance of qualifying for the World Cup finals since the glories of 1986. The significance of the game is not lost on the players or supporters. Defying footballers' tendency to speak in a language removed from the terraces, Northern Ireland defender Gareth McAuley is genuinely ecstatic at the prospect of playing in a top-of-the-table, crunch-time qualifier: "This is the biggest game of my career. It's huge and there's no getting away from it. We can't wait for it. We've got to play like its our last game ever." The Ipswich Town man was echoed by Sammy Clingan, the Coventry City midfielder: "This is the biggest game I've been involved in. To get to the World Cup would be unreal. It is what dreams are made of."
With so much of the team playing above their weight, there are no guarantees for the Green and White Army. But as they pack Windsor Park tonight they can rely on the sheer willpower of the 11 men sent out to represent them. It would be churlish in the extreme to ask for any more than the effort and enthusiasm given by the current squad. The fans know this and will bounce into the stadium half an hour before kick-off in the hope that a ferocious atmosphere can intimidate the Slovaks. As with all Northern Ireland matches, the only safe bet is that all bets are off. Paul Campbell