Euro2016 and a new chapter

Médaille Irlandais - Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo presents the award to the Green and White Amry
Médaille Irlandais – Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo presents the award to the Green and White Army

To the relief of no doubt many the Euro 2016 championship have now ended, and while few pundits have called it a classic it will now be retold and relived by the fans who witnessed it for years to come, just like all such tournaments before. Before the tournament BBC screened a documentary in which Thierry Henry spoke about how during the World Cup in 1998 a victorious and multi-cultural French team helped to unite a France bitterly divided along various racial and social fault-lines. If a golden generation of talent had provided a veneer of harmony in a fractious French society back then it was still pertinent following the Paris attacks last November and now those in Nice on Thursday. It was President Hollande who proclaimed on Sunday (in likely expectation of a French victory) that “Sport unites, while politics divides”.

In Northern Ireland sport can sometimes serves to unite some against others, like many areas of life it has been affected by sectarian divisions in the past. Football is worth examining as while it is far from the only sport to be source of pride or passion in Northern Ireland but it is one familiar to both sides. A walk in any of the inner-city areas in Belfast or larger towns often reveals that like many parts of Europe, Latin America or Africa it is football that’s a language that young men speak, it’s on the stories on their lips, the jersies on their backs, the pictures on their TV screens.

In recent years, however it has been the Republic of Ireland’s team which generated the greatest excitement, much more than the North’s. Everyone in the republic remembers where they were during ‘Italia 90’ and everyone who wasn’t around then has heard everyone else’s stories again and again. Those days are at times used as a backdrop to more innocent pre-celtic tiger nostalgia, popular in literature such as Roddy Doyle novels as a common cultural reference point. Although football (or soccer as it often gets called in many parts of Ireland) has to compete with ingrained GAA traditions and ever-trendy rugby the tales of ‘the boys in green’ are still among the most enduring. Such stories contain all the ingredients of a classic Irish tale: plucky Irish underdogs on a glamorous world stage, well-lubricated fans and a grand day out in the sun. Recent exploits of the Republic’s travelling fans have only increased in the social media age. Previous adventures to Poland and the Ukraine have now been enhanced after this Summer’s escapades brought ever more tales and video clips silly songs in summer days, funny flags, free-flowing beer and a wide green ocean of craic.

In the years since the Northern Ireland football team’s last trip to the world stage in 1986 similar memories had faded. What was worse is that the national team was in danger of becoming weighed-down by fears of sectarianism among some fans and unwelcoming atmosphere at home matches. This was a particular worry in the later years of the troubles and the late 1990s, some of which I remember from personal experience, some of what happened back then is exaggerated, but a lot didn’t need to be. Among the worst examples were when Northern Ireland’s former captain Neil Lennon stepped-down from the team after abuse from his own fans. This atmosphere inspired the work of Belfast playwright Marie Jones, in “A night in November” penned and first performed in late 1994. Set between the horrific loyalist massacres of Greysteele and Loughinisland the play follows Kenneth McAllister an upwardly mobile Belfast protestant, on his journey to New York to cheer-on Jacky Charlton’s army in 1994 World Cup. Among the Republic’s fans he remarks  :

“I thought back to Windsor Park…I thought of those angry men and their Trick or Treat and their cold staring eyes and their hard bitter faces and I thought… what a pity, what a shame that they can’t allow themselves to be part of this”.

For many, in particular in the Catholic community, this new era in Irish sport was something they very much wanted a part of. The southern team had left the North behind in lower leagues. Not only had many believed it sectarian by association, but as success on the pitch continued to elude the Northern team many simply opted-out of paying much attention to the team at all. Some local players choose instead to play for republic’s team (although the majority did not) as the national team seemed just another football team to ignore, just like Linfield or Crusaders. Last month Derry-born Dublin sports journalist Conan Doherty’s described his allegiance to Republic’s team in contrast to his indifference to his more local one:
“…it’s not some sort of political boycott and it’s definitely not because I don’t like them. I simply don’t care.” 

But something was changing, in 2014 James Erskine’s film “Shooting for Socrates”  told the David and Goliath tale of Northern Ireland’s trip to the Mexico world cup in 1986 to face the mighty Brazil.  It certainly has none of the darkly comic wit or sharp observation of “A night in November” but its tales of Jackie Fullerton et al in the heat of Mexico 1986 served as a reminder to anyone who’s seen it, that even in the darker days of the troubles, Northern Ireland had had their own days in the sun, and now their time could come again.

But by the time I watched “Shooting for Socrates” it was becoming harder and harder to ignore the Northern Ireland team as they had just qualified for the European Championship. Having been to away matches only recently it was clear that there was less and less for anyone to find problematic in supporting the team, that the green and white army was indeed becoming ‘a shared space’. I was confident that more and more of Northern Ireland would get behind the team but I knew the spotlight would be on our fans too. The motto of the Northern Ireland fans was “dare to dream” but as WB Yeats reminds us that “In dreams begin responsibilities” and as the dreams would give way to realities the scrutiny of fans behaviour in a social media age would be intense. Worries over hooliganism didn’t prove unfounded as stories from English and Russian thugs in Marseilles flooded the media.

There’s no point in going over the stories of how well the Irish fans in France behaved, I’m sure you’ve heard them all by now, and I’m sure you will again. Suffice to say the stories of camaraderie between fans are real. When my brother texted to say he’d seen me in the crowd at the Wales match he almost added in disbelief ‘did I really see a lad a republic jersey next to you?!’ I don’t know which one he meant, there were a few of them near me.

Paris is in my experience is often far from welcoming to travelling sports fans, but in giving Northern and Republic of Ireland fans the Medal of the city “La Grand Vermail” Paris city hall did what Belfast city hall was sadly unable to do, award both teams and their fans. As Paris’ Mayor Anne Hidalgo said they “are an example to fans worldwide”.

Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal have their trophy, Wales upstaged England to be crowned the best home nation and Iceland were truly the underdog story of the year. But Northern Ireland’s fans helped win their team back their reputation and earned a place alongside their illustrious neighbours. They won the right to tell the world a new story about themselves , the nights in November seemed long gone during those days June. As I sat in the Stade de Nice awaiting the first encounter with Poland I remember saying to myself “Good evening Europe! We’re not Brazil, we’re Northern Ireland…and we’re back!”

  • Redstar

    Whilst Norn Ireland are not my team I enjoyed this well written article. Good luck to you and your team.

  • the rich get richer

    There were too many teams and it went on too long .

    Excuse me , I am getting old and have sort of outgrown football ( It does happen in the end )

  • Paul Hagan

    Thanks, I appreciate that

  • Declan Doyle

    Excellent article and sums up beautifully the journey taken by NI football fans over the years. They and the atmosphere they created is transformed from where it was just ten years ago. It was also fitting that the Paris Mayors office decided to include them in the award, even if it was an after thought it was well earned and we’ll deserved. Hopefully in time we will someday have one all-Ireland team similar to other sports such as Rugby, then all irish men and women where ever they come from can unite under one banner watching g the beautiful game.

  • JohnTheOptimist

    Awards for sporting behaviour by the fans shouldn’t obscure the fact that neither N. Ireland nor the Republic of Ireland did very well. Both had a single victory in four games. N. Ireland’s victory was against the worst team there. The Republic of Ireland’s victory was against Italy, who had already won their group and played their reserve team. Both finished 3rd in their group and wouldn’t have qualified for the next stage in previous tournaments. Their performances were pretty mediocre in comparison with Wales and Iceland. I don’t blame the respective managers in the slightest for this. Both did well to get as far as they did. The sad reality is that Ireland (both parts) doesn’t have any remotely world-class players at present. I think the last world-class player from the island of Ireland was Roy Keane, and that was 20 years ago.

    Rather than basking in glory because their fans didn’t riot, it would be a lot more productive to examine why there is such a dearth of soccer talent in Ireland at present. Wales with half the population of the island of Ireland has far more Premiership-class and world-class players. I think it has something to do with the total failure to establish decent soccer leagues in either jurisdiction. The Irish League and the League of Ireland have the worst standard of players in Europe. They are on a par with Malta. Even tiny Cyprus got a team through to the latter stages of the Champions League a few years ago. Neither the Irish League nor the League of Ireland has ever produced a team that achieved anything of note (ok, Glentoran got a draw with Benfica a few centuries ago, but nothing since).

    Back in the 60s and 70s this was partly compensated for by the fact that both jurisdictions had easy access to the English League. Back then, nearly every English League Division One team had a player or two from N. ireland or the Republic of Ireland. Often they were the star player of the team; I’m thinking of Danny Blanchflower, Jimmy McIlroy, Harry Gregg, George Best, Pat Jennings, Charlie Hurley, Liam Brady, AndyMcEvoy, Johnny Giles. The Man Utd team that won the European Cup in 1968 had (I think) 3 Irishmen on the team (from both parts). The Arsenal team that won the FA Cup in 1979 had 6 Irishmen on the team (3 from each part). All this dried up with the coming of the Premiership and the influx of players from Europe. Now there is little place in the top English teams for players from the island of Ireland, when players can easily be imported from France, Portugal, Slovakia, Serbia, Poland, Sweden and a host of others. Scotland is suffering a somewhat similar problem to Ireland in this repeat. Wales seems to be doing better, presumably because its teams play in the English League, with one in the Premiership.

    I can’t see this problem being rectified until there is an all-Ireland league with about 10 teams in the top level, instead of the present crazy situation of both leagues appearing to have about 200 teams, with attendances so small that when you see the matches on tv there are more officials in attendance than spectators. The census published in the Republic this week showed the all-Ireland population heading for 7 million. This should be enough to support a half-decent league. If fans wanted it, both jurisdictions could continue to have separate international teams.

    While typing this I just heard that one of the top Dublin teams (Bohs, I think, but I could be wrong) have last 0-6 to relegated Newcastle. But, at least their fans didn’t riot, so I expect they’ll get medal for that.

  • Zig70

    Don’t we already have an all Ireland team?

  • Colm Heaney

    Another reason (maybe more so in the south) is that footbal/soccer has to compete with the gaa. In some parts soccer isn’t even the 3rd most popular sport.

  • hgreen

    I don’t think a single league is the answer. Take a look at Scotland who are even worse than us.

    A major problem is the availability of qualified coaches both here and in Britain. In 2014 Spain had almost 15x as many UEFA A and pro qualified coaches compared to England, Gremany 7x. Not sure about the figures for Ireland but I’m sure it won’t be good.

    It’s not rocket science to work out that more qualified coaches will produce more high performing players.

  • hgreen

    Oh it’s popular alright it’s just not organised as well as the GAA.

  • Old Mortality

    Don’t forget the pitches. How are young players going to develop passing skills and confidence in possession when they are obliged to play on muddy quagmires more often than not

  • Old Mortality

    It’s going to be increasingly the case that the more talented individuals will prefer football or rugby to ‘the ga’. Not only do they get paid, they can also compete internationally and even play abroad.

  • Jollyraj

    To be fair I think it’s already the case.

  • JohnTheOptimist

    If David McNarry is to be believed, Tyrone GAA will be playing abroad this afternoon – in Clones. Presumably, Tyrone v Donegal also qualifies as ‘international’. More seriously, I remember my uncle telling me after the 1966 World Cup, and the massive publicity it received at the time, that the GAA was finished. Didn’t happen.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Funnily enough I would have said that was a major strength, the ability to play in a mud trench is not something many teams can boast.

    During the championships I was doing a rain dance before every game…

  • John

    What exactly is the problem in these videos here other than a bit of immaturity??

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    I just showed the footage to a non northern Irish person, they don’t see the problem either, could you please expand and tell us all how this is worse than any other group of supporters?

  • submariner

    I agree but NI fans still have a problem with sectarianism within their ranks.

  • Am Ghobsmacht


    I’d imagine this is true to an extent as is the case with most things from NI , the question is how to gauge the magnitude.

    I’m obviously biased and see the vast majority of ‘bounceys’ as banter, whereas other people can’t fathom the possibility that such dancing DOESN’T mean something grisly.

    A video mentioned above (the airport) was funny and the nature of the exchanges could be gauged by their response to the Welshman’s retort I.e. an outburst of laughter.

    If NI fans are so sectarian then there must undoubtedly be a plethora of unvarnished material on YouTube (or LAD), certainly something more indicting than the two videos posted above.

  • submariner

    I didnt claim All ni fans were sectarian but they do have a large minority of what one would describe as Billy boys, the ones who continually disrespect their anthem by yelling No Surrender and singing sectarian songs at away matches or in supporters clubs

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Sorry, i didn’t mean to imply that you meant all fans.

  • submariner
  • Paul Hagan

    You might have to explain that bit about “Partioning the team from its support” to me a bit further Ciaran, I’m not certain I understood but it was certainly not meant as a “cheap shot” at anyone. My point was one of admiration for the RoI team.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    A positive post, Paul. The one thing I would comment on is that this rehabilitation and revival of Northern Ireland fandom is no new thing. Indeed the GAWA was awarded a UEFA-sponsored European fan award back in 2006 –
    The only thing that was missing was qualifying for a major tournament (and we really weren’t far off a couple of times in the David Healy era, when we were beating the likes of England and Spain at Windsor Park).

    Euro 2016 was for me the world finally seeing what those lucky enough to have attended games have known for a long time – and showing up the nay-sayers. I have enjoyed the pleasure of our fans and the discomfort of the haters in equal measure – and am continuing to do so on this thread. It’s a triumph of real fandom and of positivity over sectarianism – brilliant and something we can all be happy about.

  • Declan Doyle

    All Ireland soccer team? Do we?

  • Zig70

    Essentially yes, the Irish team has players and support from both jurisdictions.

  • Declan Doyle

    Ok ya cool 😉

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    I haven’t watched the videos but i suspect I know what you’re getting at.

    Needless to say these chaps might no share my views on a new flag and anthem…

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    The first ‘ditty’? Screamed at Scottish Catholics?
    Could you explain that please?

    I saw ‘the bouncey’ first, now a northern Ireland thing. If you can only think ‘Robert Hamil’ then I refer you to your answer to John.

    The independence jib – football banter. Don’t be so sensitive.

    GSTQ – agreed, it’s one of my main bugbears.

    One of you’re own – inappropriate, agreed.
    If you look at how many fans weren’t singing and how prevalent the Glasgow accents were during that recital then that should speak equal volumes.

    The Irish games in Glasgow bring out the worst in some of the Glaswegians in part due to the old firm games.

    A friend of mine (born a catholic in Galway, raised in the East End of Glasgow) told me how he was labelled as ‘a dirty proddy b*stard’ by some Scottish youths on the Ireland side of the fan line during a game (he was in the Scottish section).
    It doesn’t make sense but there you have it.

    You don’t like Norn Iron and go to lengths th portray them in the worst possible light, i do like Norn Iron and go to lengths to defend the aspects that can be defended (i’ve no time for the little Britain aspect of ‘OWC’ ).

    I wouldn’t expect you to send your children there in the conditions that you depict but given the relish with which you strive to sink the boot in I wouldn’t expect you to send them to NI games even if they did have a new flag, a decent anthem, neutral stadium and banter that met with your approval.

    And please stop saying ‘backside’.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    The majority of Celtic fans may get behind the Scottish team but a fair whack do not. During my years in Glasgow I saw that a significant number of them regard themselves as more Irish than Scottish e.g. the wee sectarian bams that i referenced earlier and numerous people whom i’ve met over the years, i don’t see rangers fans being any less ‘patriotic’ than the Celtic fans.

    I was asking you to explain ‘ditty’.

    You’re next retort is simply sarcasm and deflection.

    It would be transference if that’s what I said, but what I instead highlighted was that a/ a significant number of NI fans did not partake in the Jimmy saville singing

    B/ there is a heavy prescence of glaswegian accents.

    If neither of these assertions are true then by all means state this and rip my observation apart.
    If they are true then kindly acknowledge this.

    They have indeed earned your ire which is why I asked you truthfully would you allow your kids to go to a more sanitised and PC version of the games. You did not answer so i’d wager ‘no’ but happily stand to be corrected as I could cite this as a reference to other unionists about how some minor and sensible changes would bring about an upturn in Catholic support for the Ifa so by all means tell me I’m wrong.

    As for Robert Hamil and the bouncey, once again a nationalist who has no time for the NI team is categorically telling NI fans what THEY mean.

    I had no idea that thon YouTube clip of greenisland (?) Primary school singing ‘not Brazil’ and doing a wee bouncey were foamy mouthed bigots, thank you Mr non-norn iron fan for telling norn iron fans what THEY are thinking.

    Funny how we’re all mad shameless overt bigots for bonfires and everything else but on the topic of the bouncey where there is widespread condemnation and denial regarding this baseless assertion we’re simply too scared to admit the truth that somehow YOU know.

    You said it yourself, it’s all out there because we want it out there, but somehow Robert Hamil and the bouncey is not ‘out there’ these days, a quick peruse of (shameless) rangers sites will even show complete denials of this link.

    But hey, you know best.

    P.S. Ditty!

  • the keep

    You dont like the Northern Irish team thats fair enough but please stop lying its very tiring.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    And a significant number didn’t yet you talk as if the entire northern ireland fan base is some sort of loyalist Borg collective.

    As for your kids not going to an NI game other than for a darby match well it was just pointless then wasn’t it?

    The OP clearly highlighted negative and positive aspects of NI fans and their history and perceptions.
    You talk as if he mentioned only the positives.

    I have a high regard for Celtic fans in general because I judge them by the majority of fans that i’ve engaged with over the years in Glasgow when I worked in Parkhead.

    Were I to adopt your attitude of singling out the worst of the worst of the fans then i’d be focusing on some very very unsavoury events that i witnessed over the years from that quarter and churning out some bitter memories of things like what I saw in George square the night the were defeated in Seville, but I know that most Celtic fans don’t go around trying to pummel people whilst screaming “die! I want you to die!” and as such i don’t focus on such dark episodes.

    There is plenty of low hanging fruit in the world of football and NI certainly has its fair share but that calls for a level head, not hysterical ‘trial by YouTube’.

    Who’s pretending that it isn’t mainly mono religious or mono cultural?

    Many acknowledge that it is and ergo want to change it.

    And now it seems that any efforts to change it are now regarded as dishonest and false?!

    You sound like you actually want NI fans to be bigoted Neanderthals to justify your vitriol for them.

  • Tochais Siorai

    The All Ireland league is a complete no brainer. It won’t solve all the problems, the coaching at underage leaves a lot to be desired at times but it will improve the standard.

    In defence of Bohs, that was essentially their reserve team which lost to Newcastle as they had a Dublin Derby with Shams the day before.

  • Tochais Siorai

    It’s only a very small percentage of the elite that this applies to. Also, bear in mind that rugby and soccer doesn’t have the blanket coverage that the GAA has in rural Ireland so many kids who would have potential as pro Soccer or Rugby players either don’t play those games at all or start them too late. Aussie Rules is probably a bigger issue to the GAA than Rugby or Soccer in many areas at the moment.

  • the keep

    Lets take a look at some of the more interesting characters from Northern Ireland that support the Irish Republic and their behavior.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Well you mentioned ‘Scottish Celtic fans’ and i responded in kind.

    I personally carry many Irish stereotypes, this was unbeknownst to me untill I ventured abroad and had it held up to my face and was shown exactly how Irish I am and it’s similar with many northern Irish protestant ex-pats. You tend to lose the ‘golden orange delusion’ that Ulster-ish ISN’T Irish.

    It’s difficult to tell who it annoys more, Irish nationalists or British nationalists/big ‘u’ unionists.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    And which stereotype did I project?

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    You were the first to use the said fans in your prosecution of norn iron fans.

    I simply followed that course and gave an example of how NOT to judge a group of fans by their lowest common denominator.

    As our conversation had already traversed hiberno-glasweguan territory it made sense to use Celtic fans as an example regardless if you support them or not.

    I could perhaps use Zagreb’s Bad Blue Boys as a further example but they have much less of a place in Irish and Scottish life, so i ran with Celtic.

    Once again you’ve seen a boogeyman, if you were a unionist you’d be denounced as a flegger for that level of paranoia.

    I do have a red(ish) beard, a selection of big belt buckles, my Granda was a pig farmer and i sat “aye, surely” (the Ulster equivalent).

    Not that any of this matters.

  • John

    My God I’m almost embarrassed for you. Saville song was nothing to do with religion you idiot it’s just winding up opposition fans by using the most vile human ever to exist. You really are a sensitive soul. As for the independence song … catch a grip its a wum song ffs it’s all about getting under there skin with a bit of immature craic. Most of my Catholic friends are diehard NI fans and they are more than happy to attend and have the craic. But thats the thing, they’re just normal Catholics, not MOPE’s who run a mile to be offended. Maybe you should look at yourselves and yourself in particular if you want to experience bigotry.

  • John

    P.s. I’m not particularly offended by James Mclean song I’ve been to many Man Utd matches all over England and heard a lot worse. It’s just how it is unfor.

  • John

    Most teams that are up for the craic have a bouncer tune … I suppose Borrusia Dortmund fans are mega bigots too?? It has nothing to do with Robert Hamil. I have been to nearly every home NI match since mid 90’s and I can tell you it has nothing to do with this Robert Hamil. Again, look up FAI coo John Delaneys antics … ‘oh sure but he was only having a bit of craic’ I hear you say.