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Soccer Tales From A Small Island ...

Paul Vance’s footy travelogue from a recent visit home ...

Northern Ireland v Estonia - UEFA EURO 2020 Qualifier
Northern Ireland’s George Saville crosses despite the attentions of Estonia’s Gert Kams
Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

The Impact’s gruelling six-match early season road trip left Montreal’s match-going fans adrift of action for longer than usual this season, so I took the opportunity of a brief trip home to the Emerald Isle to get my live footy fix, before MLS returned to Stade Saputo on April 13.

Living in Ireland provides fans with the option of two international teams to follow, just 100 miles apart; the Republic of Ireland, based in Dublin, and Northern Ireland in Belfast. Not too many actively attend the games of both teams, although when living in the old country, I always endeavoured to do just that whenever opportunities presented themselves.

Schedules worked out favourably this time around, with two European Championship qualifiers scheduled for Belfast and another in Dublin, all on different days within the span of just under a week.

What follows, is my travelogue ...

Match #1 - Thur 21 March 2019 -
Northern Ireland ... 2 Estonia ... 0 Euro Qualifier - National Stadium at Windsor Park, Belfast. Attendance: 18,176.
Ticket; 50 pounds. Seat excellent. Matchday Programme; 4 pounds.

My jet-lag hadn’t quite yet worn off prior to the first visit of my trip to the National Stadium at Windsor Park, to give the Belfast venue its formal name. On went the old, green jersey with the round white collar, favoured by my national team back when my schoolboy interest was taking root.

They didn’t achieve much in those days, but having George Best, the country’s greatest-ever talent, allied to the spirit and pluck of a band of journeymen pros, there was always hope. Sadly though, apart from a few notable exceptions, George’s performances in the red of Manchester United tended to overshadow those when wearing his country’s green. Didn’t stop them naming Belfast City Airport in his memory though.

I’d often gone to the ‘Bot’ before and after international games in the past, and thought sticking to tradition made perfect sense. A bite to eat, watch the Scotland game in the bar, then saunter down to Windsor, fuelled by a couple of jars of Guinness.

The plan to drive to Culloden Hotel on the shores of Belfast Lough, avail of its parking-lot, the short train hop into the city alighting at Botanic Station, worked a treat.

There were a couple of surprises in store upon arrival at the pub. Concerns around finding a free table were totally unfounded. Don’t fans go to the pub to loosen their vocal chords before the game any more? Were we too early? It all looked the same as always, but it was as dead as .... well, ... Scotland’s chances of winning in Astana, as it happened. That was the second surprise, confirmed by a quick glance at the TV. Scotland’s finest were trailing 0-3 in Kazakhstan.

So much for getting into the big game atmosphere. I suppose we did get to eat in peace and relative comfort however, before calling some friends who suggested Lavery’s was ‘the place’, or Ryan’s.

“Ryan’s?” I asked.
“Yeah, on the Lisburn Road, top of Ashleigh Drive,” came the reply.
“Used to be called what?” I re-inquired.
“Four In Hand”
“Ahh Right. Gotcha’. Seeya’ there!’”

Now this was more like it. No matter you had to stand at the bar ridiculously long to get a pint, no matter that shoulders bumped as expectant patrons sidled past. This was jostling and alive, as we knew it would be when we saw the throng of fans outside.

Northern Ireland v Estonia - UEFA EURO 2020 Qualifier
Niall McGinn of Aberdeen (extreme left) congratulated by team-mates after scoring Northern Ireland’s first goal against Estonia.
Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Time for the short and well-worn trek to the National Stadium, rebuilt to replace the old Linfield home at Windsor Park. Down Edinburgh Street, left into Northbrook Street and up over the old, red-brick railway bridge. It wouldn’t be Windsor without the railway bridge. The same memory always pops into my head every time. It’s of a Wednesday afternoon World Cup qualifying clash, when the Holland of Cruyff, Neeskens, Rep and Krol visited in late 1977.

I’d played truant from school to be there. The prospect of missing Johan Cruyff in my own backyard was not one to contemplate, especially with George Best, post hiatus, and a few games into the resumption of his international career, on the field too.

The game was a damp squib, chances few and far between and the Dutch scored a narrow single-goal victory thanks to Willy, one half of the van der Kerkhof twinship. Apart from feeling we deserved a draw and witnessing a horribly fluffed chance you’d have expected Cruyff to have taken blindfolded, my one outstanding memory was the crowd. It felt and looked huge. It was probably the largest attendance I’ve ever seen at the venue.

Official records show that exactly 33,000 were there. It was a time when printed crowd figures were often inaccurate and rounded off to the thousand. I’d been to games where the ground was less packed, and a higher crowd statistic produced. There wasn’t a space visible on the terracing, and not an empty seat. And that railway bridge on the way out? Even to this day, there’s still a narrow passageway running between a brick wall on one side, sealing off the railway tracks, and a iron railing on the other, separating the passageway from the stadium grounds. It leads onto the concrete steps of the bridge.

I’d heard stories back then of people going onto Liverpool’s famous old Spion Kop, their feet never touching the ground from first whistle to last. Where you began standing, you would rarely end up at the same place at the end of a game. Never really believed it that much. At least, not until that day at Windsor Park!

The crush as we made our way to the steps ensured slow movement. Feet groped for terra firma without a hope of finding it. We moved along, expelling innocent laughter at the situation. Maybe some adults were more concerned, but we were still getting off on the fun of it all. Eventually, and thankfully, we reached the holy grail of the steps, the floating stopped and feet once again found traction.

I don’t recall panic, only a calm surprise, people were cool, but I’m vividly reminded of the experience each time I go to the stadium, now all seater with a capacity of 18,434.

Northern Ireland v Estonia - UEFA EURO 2020 Qualifier
Rangers’ Steven Davies, the Northern Ireland captain, scores his country’s second goal against Estonia from the penalty spot.
Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

The new stadium produces a great atmosphere, the acoustics are good, and the crowd knows how to get behind its team, even if the mundane victory over ambition-less Estonia didn’t provide too many exciting moments. The experience is different now. The Irish FA has worked exceptionally hard to create an atmosphere more palatable to everyone in Northern Ireland.

Nowadays, you’re more likely to hear, ‘Sweet Caroline’ or ‘Will Grigg’s On Fire’, than ‘The Sash’, or any of the old sectarian parodies of the past. It’s a welcoming atmosphere for anyone who wishes to come and support the national side, regardless of creed or allegiance.

It’s more expensive too. They’ve enjoyed some success, prices have risen and matches are now all-ticket. No more queuing up at the back of the Kop to pay a couple of quid at the turnstiles. I’d a choice of tickets for 40 or 65 pounds, and the match day programme (something that’s never really caught on in North America) was 4 pounds. Two days before the game the 65 pounds tickets reduced to 50. I’m glad I waited.

Match #2 - Sat 23 March 2019 -
Abbey Villa ... 3 Killyleagh YC ... 3 Northern Amateur Football League - Adams Park, Millisle, County Down. Attendance: 200 (approx).
Ticket; 3 pounds. Uncovered Standing (there is a small covered standing area available). No Matchday Programme

Through most of its existence stretching back to 1923, the Northern Amateur Football League has been just that, ‘amateur’. Not in its administration, but in regard to the players in that professionals or ex-professional players were not permitted to play. It is however the worst kept secret in Northern Ireland’s football community these days, that these rules are being, not quite openly flouted, but clandestinely disrespected all the same.

Some clubs, including I believe the two involved in this match, still stick to the ‘amateur’ ethos, but one of those, my former club, Abbey Villa, from the village of Millisle, in the past year lost a player to another club who pay him somewhere between 100 and 150 pounds per week, depending on who you speak to.

It really would make sense to simply drop the word ‘Amateur’ from the league’s title, and move on. There doesn’t appear to be any appetite on the league’s behalf, to bring to task those clubs which break the rules. Then again, how would they prove it? Brown envelopes are difficult to trace.

This was the best game of my trip. It was also the one played at the lowest level, and well worth the 3 pounds entrance fee.

Adams Park, Abbey Villa’s little, sloping, ground sits on the Abbey Road in the Ards Peninsula village of Millisle, adjacent to farmer’s fields, one of which it once was. The club took it’s name in 1962 from a new housing development on that same road, the builder opting to describe his units, not as houses, but villas. The club had already been in existence for 7 years, being known originally as Millisle United then changing to Millisle Presbyterian, after joining the Churches League.

Visiting on the day was Northern Amateur League royalty. Killyleagh YC have been Premier League Champions 8 times (all since 1985), a tally only bettered by one other club, East Belfast FC.

Their former chairman was Cliff Healy the father of Northern Ireland’s all-time leading scorer and joint-record holder (along with Robert Lewandowski), for the most number of goals scored in one European Championship qualifying campaign (13).

Killyleagh, like Millisle, is a village (both have populations of around 2,500 and are 40 km apart) and is situated in Co Down on the western side of Strangford Lough’s swirling current. It is also the location of the oldest inhabited castle in Ireland, which has been a spectacular concert venue in summer evenings past for Van Morrison amongst others.

The game itself was a tight one with plenty of thrills and spills. Promotion-chasing Killyleagh, setting the pace at the league’s summit with 16 wins and a solitary defeat from 20 league games, didn’t show much of that form in the early stages against mid-table Villa, who managed to secure a slender half-time lead, playing with the slope.

The vocal sixty-strong visitor following were finally cheering ten mins into the second-half, their side scoring from a penalty after Wallace in the Villa goal had inexplicably kicked out at an opponent.

The banter was lively but cutting and cruel at times especially that directed at the man in the middle. Who’d be a ref? From an engaged 200-strong crowd, you can hear every personal insult, every smart-ass remark that questions either your integrity, your ability to see, or both. And it’s coming from both sides.

The Killyleagh bench is vocal too, industrial language aplenty, but at least most is directed by the coach towards his own players as he tries to get more from them. Occasionally the two sets of fans would engage each other too, trading sarcastic taunts across the pitch, leaving cows in surrounding fields to wonder what all the fuss is about.

With the high-flying visitors now on level terms and playing down the slope, signs were ominous for the Villa. But they were to respond brilliantly, claiming a barnstorming headed goal by captain Strain, and then with ten minutes left, the best goal of my whole trip arrived. Glenn Stephenson a tall right-winger ran on to a ball pushed to him out wide, side-stepped two Killyleagh defenders and let fly from 20 yards. The ball flew into the net.

3-1, with ten to play, the visitors staring defeat for only the second time this season. But they weren’t top of the table for nothing. Character shines through in the best teams at all levels and in Killyleagh’s case there would not be an exception. Villa’s lead was halved within a minute, and as the dying embers of the game approached, a cross travelled all the way to the far post, where the visiting striker applied the finishing touch.

Killyleagh YC (white shirts) try desperately to haul themselves back into the game after going 1-3 behind with 10 mins left at Adams Park.

This had been a riveting contest, one that I intended to watch for only for 45 mins, then make the short hop across to Bangor in my hire car to watch the Irish League clash between relegation-threatened Ards FC and Crusaders, the reigning Irish League Champions. So at half-time in Millisle an executive decision was required, and taken; I would stay for the remainder of what had until then been an enthralling game. It was the correct choice, I was not to be disappointed.

Match #3 - Sat 23 March 2019 -
Ards ... 2 Crusaders ... 2 Northern Ireland Football League, Premiership - Clandeboye Park, Bangor, County Down. Attendance: 800 (approx, unofficial figure).
Ticket; 11 pounds. Terracing, but grandstand transfer available. Matchday Programme; 2 pounds.

Leaving Millisle right on the final whistle, a drive through the lush green countryside, with it’s prickly hedgerows, via Carrowdore, another village, but this one more famous for motorcycle road-racing, and onto Newtownards, the ‘home’ town of Ards FC.

Ards FC, Irish League Champions in 1958, when they played Stade Reims, conceding six goals to the great Just Fontaine in the first round of the European Cup, are the nomads of Irish football. Forced to sell their little Castlereagh Park ground to service crippling debts, they’ve been homeless since just before the turn of the century.

Clandeboye Park, the home of main rivals, Bangor FC, is the fourth ‘home’ ground they’ve used since then.

I arrive with the second-half underway. Gates were open as they generally are after half-time, so no charge. To my surprise Ards were in the ascendency, 2-0. The surface at Clandeboye Park these days is of the 4G variety sadly, as some Irish League clubs prefer artificial over real, giving them the option to generate revenue through local community use. This should not have deterred Crusaders, another of the clubs to adopt this arrangement as part of their own business plan.

I’m still deciding where I’m going to stand when Declan Caddell beats Sam Johnston to halve the deficit. After this and for the last 20 mins, it’s all Crusaders, who have two sets of brothers in their side. One set, the Hales, sons of club legend, Danny, provide the last key statistic in the match, when Ronan rifles home from 25 yards. Two-Two! Ards valiantly hold on for the last 7 minutes, disappointed having lead 2-0, but relieved knowing it could’ve been worse, Crusaders twice having come within a whisker of grabbing a third.

After equalizing, Crusaders pepper the Ards goal in search of a winner. Here Ards ‘keeper, Sam Johnston manages to tip a goal bound shot over the bar.

Ards value the point, the best they can hope for is to avoid automatic relegation. If they can remain ahead of Newry Town, at least they’ll have the lifeline of a play-off.

The little ground empties and I cast my mind back to when it looked different. The view of a modern housing development replaces one end, a flat gravel area, where I used to train as a youth team player at Bangor, and which used to serve as the pit area for stock-car and kart racing, prominent features of the past at Clandeboye Park. In those days, host club, Bangor had the smallest playing area in the Irish League.

The blue and yellow wooden pavilion is gone, replaced by covered terracing in time for European Cup Winners’ Cup football back in the early 90’s.

The old pavilion had it’s scariest moment when a prominent player was chased by gunmen across the pitch at training one evening and cornered in one of the changing rooms. One of the pursuers pointed his gun above the player’s head and fired into the wooden boards. It was a warning to not return to Bangor. The incident, not in the slightest football-related, was cloaked in para-military overtones, the pursuers and the pursued had links to opposite sides. Needless to say the player never did return and was transferred to another club.

Match #4 - Sun 24 March 2019 -
Northern Ireland ... 2 Belarus ... 0 Euro Qualifier - National Stadium at Windsor Park, Belfast. Attendance: 18,188.
Ticket; 50 pounds. Seat excellent. Matchday Programme; 4 pounds.

Back to the National Stadium again, this evening’s game was more entertaining than the visit of Estonia a few days prior. Belarus, who included former Arsenal and Barcelona veteran Aleksandr Hleb, now 38, were more robust opposition. Indeed Hleb helped silence the home crowd, claiming an assist on BATE Borisov club-mate, Igor Stasevich’s wickedly deflected equalizer in the 33rd minute.

There was a small band of Belarusian fans away to our right, and they must have been delighted how well their side was coping with Northern Ireland’s increasing pressure as the second-half wore on.

I normally moan and groan when my country introduces Bolton Wanderers’, Josh Magennis. Tonight was no different. He’s a battering-ram type of centre-forward, who may have added more finesse to his game than I remembered. Anyhow, on this night, Josh emerged from the bench to win a game that looked for all the world like tapering away to stalemate.

Northern Ireland v Belarus - UEFA EURO 2020 Qualifier
Jonny Evans celebrates after putting Northern Ireland in front against Belarus.
Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

He quite brilliantly started and finished a move involving Middlesbrough’s Paddy McNair. There were three minutes left on the clock. Heart-break for the travelling men from Minsk, but Northern Ireland’s 100% start to the group was preserved. It’s just as well. Germany and Holland lie in wait!

Match #5 - Tue 26 March 2019 -
Republic of Ireland ... 1 Georgia ... 0 Euro Qualifier - Aviva Stadium, Dublin. Attendance: 40,317.
Ticket; 45 Euros. Seat Good. Matchday Programme; 5 Euros.

Stocked up with a few eats from the local Tesco’s for the trip south, it was off to Dublin’s fair city, next.

It used to be a horrible, old road to Dublin after leaving the Northern Ireland border town of Newry, but EU money has transformed the route. The journey from Belfast can now be done comfortably in just under 2 hours. Before, it was always at least 2.5, when all the little towns and villages had to be negotiated: Dundalk, Dunleer, Dunleek and Castle Bellingham to name just a few.

We stopped for coffee and to book our Air BnB at a highway service station, another fairly recent innovation. Our host Yves, was French, from Cameroon. Cosmopolitan Dublin!

The arrival at our Phibsborough apartment under the shadow of Dalymount Park’s towering floodlights, in Dublin’s northside, was in good time. ‘Dalyer’ is the home of famous old Dublin club Bohemians FC, and was for many years where the Republic of Ireland’s national soccer team played. It was nice to reconnect with the old girl, even though we didn't take a walk over. I’d been to the venue a couple of times in the 80’s.

We had some insider help across town, regards parking near the Aviva Stadium (it’s not Montreal, but Dublin traffic can be horribly frustrating too). Lucky! .... although driving a hire car along the narrow lane to get to our parking, with a stone wall on one side and tightly parked cars with mirrors turned in on the other, was an exercise demanding utmost care and attention.

The ‘Aviva’ replaced the old Lansdowne Road stadium which belonged entirely to the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU). The new arena is jointly owned by the IRFU and the Football Association of Ireland, and holds just over 51,000. It is spectacular inside and out, Ireland’s only UEFA Category 4 stadium and hosted the all-Portuguese, 2011 Europa League Final in which Porto defeated Sporting Braga 1-0.

Republic of Ireland v Georgia - FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier
Dublin’s 51,000 seater, Aviva Stadium.
Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

The game, which included San Jose Earthquakes’ Guram Kashia on the right side of the Georgian defence, was unremarkable but for one incident which involved the playing area being pelted with green tennis balls in the 33rd minute.

It was the fans way of protesting over some questionable handling of FAI finances by CEO John Delaney. Anti-Delaney and anti-FAI chants also manifested themselves in the crowd.

If the incident had an effect on the Irish team, it was a galvanizing one, Aston Villa’s Conor Hourihane sweeping a right-footed free-kick into the bottom corner shortly after.

It was the game’s only goal, and provided Ireland a lead they rarely looked liked relinquishing, apart maybe for one anxious moment towards the end of the first half, when the Georgians went close.

Twenty years had passed since I had last been to the old Lansdowne Road (for the European Cup Rugby Final). I had been impressed by the pictures on the many occasions I’d seen the Aviva on TV. Now I finally made it there and the venue lived up to expectation.

A good sleep, a morning walk along Grafton Street up onto St Stephen’s Green and of course a Guinness-accompanied lunch in one of Dublin’s many fine city centre pubs was all that was left to do. None of that disappointed either. Even the weather co-operated.

Match #6 - Sat 30 March 2019 -
Cliftonville ... 2 Glentoran ... 1 Northern Ireland Football League, Premiership - Solitude Stadium, Belfast. Attendance 1,400 (approx, unofficial figure)
Ticket; 11 pounds. Seat, just OK (behind the goal). Matchday Programme; 2.50 pounds.

This is one of those fixtures in Northern Ireland that needs security policing. The mainly nationalist fans of Cliftonville, and the predominantly unionist following of Glentoran. There have been flashpoints in the past, and the two sets of fans are well-segregated at the North Belfast venue, as they are whenever the clubs meet in east Belfast at The Oval, Glentoran’s home.

Glentoran striker Curtis Allen shoots for goal against Cliftonville.

For reasons best left unsaid, I wasn’t able to get to the match for kick-off time, instead arriving there only after 30 mins had elapsed. Problem! All turnstiles and gates were bolted shut, at least they were at the Bowling Green End, populated by my Glentoran-supporting friends. I had no way to enter the stadium other than through the home turnstiles, although I wasn’t sure they remained open either.

I looked down the little lane towards the Cliftonville Social Club, a doorman and a yellow-bibbed steward enjoying the sunshine at the entrance.

Approaching them I described my predicament, something I probably wouldn’t have done 30 years ago if faced by the same quandry. Times were different now though, but I was still a little apprehensive.

They each looked at me as if I was ‘not the full shilling’ as they say in Belfast. Then the steward spoke raising his eyebrows at the same time, “Are you a Glenman?”

“Yes,” I said and thought it might be the best time to play the ‘... but I’m over from Canada where I’ve been living for the past 20-odd years’ card’, so I did, adding ...

“It’s just I have a few friends in there I haven’t seen for a while, so I’d like to get into the Glentoran end.”

“Look, I can’t get you in there until half-time,” the steward said. “Go on into the social club and sit down, I’ll get someone to help at the break.”

So in I went, ordered a pint of Guinness and tried to look as inconspicuous as possible.

“How much do I owe you?” I asked the barman.

“Three quid. Oh No! Six quid - you’re a Glens fan.” He’d picked up on my conversation at the door.

Nervous laughter from me and, “Cheers, mate. I’m trying to keep that under wraps.”

“What’s the score in the game?” I asked.

“1-0 to Glentoran,” came the response. I worked very hard at concealing my joy.

Eventually with the social club filling up with the half-time crowd, my steward friend returned, hurriedly I finished up my pint, and he brought me back up the lane to the Bowling Green End. “Wait here, outside the gate, someone will open it and let you enter.”

I don’t believe his stewarding colleague inside ever got the message, but after another few minutes a couple of policemen emerged. I described my predicament and they let me in.

Cliftonville is the oldest club in Ireland, 140 this year, and Solitude the oldest football ground. It also holds the distinction of having hosted the game in which the first-ever penalty-kick was awarded in international football.

Solitude (1890) the oldest football ground in Ireland. The Whitehouse can be seen in the corner between the two modest grandstands.

The stadium is showing it’s age, although some modernization has taken place in recent years, with seated grandstands behind each goal, where only covered terracing once existed. The terracing on the waterworks side of the stadium is generally closed. It’s in front of this unpopulated stretch that the team benches are situated.

The Whitehouse, similar to the structure at Fulham FC’s Craven Cottage and situated on one corner of the stadium, once held the changing facilities, now located underneath the new 1600-seater Cage End Stand. The fate of this historical old structure hangs in the balance. Although many feel it’s preservation is important to Irish football, I understand plans have been drawn up for its demolition. It would be a sad day if that comes to pass.

I didn’t bring my team much luck. Cliftonville equalized with 20 mins to play through former Tranmere and Gillingham striker, Rory Donnelly, and Ryan Curran pounced in the last minute to end my latest Irish footballing odyssey on a depressing low.

Yet it got worse, ... just a few hours later. I tuned in for the Impact game. The Bleu/Blanc/Noir were on the road against Sporting Kansas City. Need I say any more?

Some days you are just not meant to get up out of bed ....