Unlikely lads

Northern Ireland’s shock victory over England was a welcome tonic on and off the pitch, as Robbie Meredith reports

Strange as it seems now, the visit of England to Windsor Park wasn’t originally particularly important. Sure, it was a rare chance for us to ogle at the Team England circus and gain some attention from Motty, Wrighty and… um… Woolnoughy, but many Northern Ireland supporters initially viewed the Azerbaijan match the preceding Saturday as more vital. It was a realistic chance to pick up a rare win, whereas most of us assumed that England would stroll into town, patronise us with a load of guff about how they expected a tough contest, then cuff us with relative ease. 

Lawrie Sanchez followed the same script. After a 2-0 victory over Azerbaijan, our first in a competitive game for four years, he sighed with relief and said: “The pressure is off… we can relax now.” Sven also played along, describing Championship stalwarts David Healy, Keith Gillespie and Stuart Elliott as capable of causing some problems, before spoiling the illusion by claiming that James Quinn, our immobile centre forward from Peterborough, would be a testing opponent for Rio Ferdinand. Meanwhile, the local media were delighted to have some genuine stars to interview for a change, and gave David Beckham plenty of chances to state how happy he was to be in Belfast.

And then it all went a bit Twin Peaks. Like the Scots and Welsh, Northern Irish people have an ambivalent relationship with their larger neighbour. Even those who cheer loudly for Queen and country in a political context usually become members of the “Anyone but England” brigade for sport. But no one really believed that we would win and on the night the creeping realisation that England weren’t actually very good came as a surprise. Rooney combusted and Owen laboured, while Gerrard and Lampard were out-fought and out-played by Steve Davis and Damien Johnson.

Yet until Healy scored we hadn’t contemplated anything other than a moral victory and the fact that England didn’t put us under any real pressure in the final 15 minutes showed that there may be justified doubts, beyond tabloid xenophobia, about Sven’s capabilities.

A country that likes to stereotype the English as lacking a sense of perspective in victory or defeat promptly dissolved into hyperbole. Much was humorous and understandable. Of late, in witty defiance of our horrendous recent record, fans have chanted “We’re not Brazil, we’re Northern Ireland.” On the morning after the night before, headlines appeared on several websites declaring: “It seems we are Brazil after all.” The Belfast Telegraph published a 24-page commemorative supplement, comparisons were made with the defeat of Spain in the 1982 World Cup and radio and television news programmes devoted most of their broadcasts to coverage of the game and its aftermath, a welcome diversion from our ongoing political troubles. Sanchez unwittingly gate-crashed a press conference given by the visiting Irish President in Belfast’s Europa hotel, causing her to be left abandoned as journalists clamoured to get a quote from him instead.

Less forgivable were the constant cringing references to “our wee country”, something that strikes an unnecessarily provincial note, and the fact that the IFA announced a range of “Christmas marketing initiatives” to cement their “brand image” in the wake of the result.

Still, the victory provided a welcome escape from reality for a while. The next Saturday, a contentious parade in north Belfast caused rioting to break out across the city for several days, rendering our brief flirtation with footballing ecstasy even more precious. Can we play you every week?

From WSC 225 November 2005. What was happening this month