Standing up for the Ulstermen…

DAVID Gordon is proud to stand up for the Ulstermen, and takes Robin Livingstone to task for his rather bitter dig at Northern Irish football the other day. Leaving aside the politics of supporting the ‘national’ team, the truth of the matter is that Windsor Park internationals have changed immeasurably since the bad old days – which reached a nadir in 2001. It’s time people gave the IFA and NI fans the credit they deserve for turning things around.

Stand up for the Ulstermen

As Northern Ireland take on the might of England, David Gordon says credit should be given to football officials and fans for tackling sectarianism

By David Gordon

MY name is David and I’m a Northern Ireland fan. There, I’ve said it. Not that I feel in the slightest bit embarrassed about it, you understand.

But if you believe some people, I should be thoroughly ashamed of myself for even looking up Northern Ireland’s scores on Ceefax, let alone actually going to a game.

These people will tell you that the matches are still hotbeds of sectarian abuse and hatred, the fans all unreconstructed bigots.

But this viewpoint is badly wrong, and it’s time to put the record straight.

The fact is that the atmosphere at the games has improved remarkably in just a few years.

Critics would point out that there was plenty of room for improvement.

They’d be right.

In 2001, Northern Ireland’s reputation hit an all-time low when a section of supporters booed one of our own players, Neil Lennon, just because his club side was Glasgow Celtic.

Like many others, I had stopped going to the matches by then and had no intention of going back.

But I’ve been to every one of the World Cup qualifiers at Windsor Park in the last couple of years and all the friendly games as well.

And I’ve brought my young son each time.

Last Saturday, we even had the unusual experience of seeing Northern Ireland win.

During all these matches, I haven’t heard one rendition of “Billy Boys” or any of the other old sectarian standards.

That’s quite a change.

But still the entirely negative image persists in some quarters.

A few days ago, for example, the Daily Ireland columnist Robin Livingstone declared that he wanted England to give Northern Ireland “a trouncing, a rout, a spanking, a tanking, an embarrassment”.

Mr Livingstone has every right to cheer on Sven’s millionaire all-stars, if that works for him. But his description of international nights at Windsor Park should not go unchallenged.

He wrote: “I’ve been there a few times and I have to say I’d feel more at home in the cheap seats at a Balkan derby.

“It’s like the eleventh night but without a bonfire for entertainment.”

That jibe is not just outdated and inaccurate.

It’s also very unfair on those who have worked hard to turn things around.

The improved atmosphere at Northern Ireland home games didn’t happen by accident.

It involved a concerted effort, involving supporters and the Irish FA.

The IFA gets a lot of stick for its running of the game here.

Some of it is no doubt deserved.

But the work of people like its community relations officer Michael Boyd doesn’t receive the credit it merits.

As part of its anti-sectarian work, the IFA developed dialogue with supporters’ groups, including groups who run websites.

A host of ideas sprang up, and they went far beyond the anti-sectarianism and anti-racism posters that were placed round Windsor Park.

New songs were written, to replace the old chants. Thus, the timeless classic “We’re not Brazil, We’re Northern Ireland” was born.

“Away in a Manger” was re-drafted in tribute to striker David Healy. (“The stars in the bright sky looked down where Healy etc”)

A large group of fans have block-booked seats in what was the old Spion Kop and lead the singing just like a choir, with the help of one guy with a loud speaker.

I’m told they have deliberately drowned out sectarian chants.

There’s even samba bands and face painting for the kids at the ground these days too.

And overall the mood is generally one of very good humour.

That’s not to say that everything is perfect.

I’m sure the crowd has a proportion of knuckleheads who still could turn nasty.

The same could be said for football crowds the world over.

The last time I looked, sectarianism was still a problem in wider society in Northern Ireland.

You can’t expect football matches here to be Corrymeela on tour, when people are still at each other’s throats on the streets day in, day out.

There are still the occasional throwbacks to the bad old days at the matches, not least the minority of supporters who still like to interject “No surrender” into “God Save the Queen”.

I would love to see “Danny Boy” becoming Northern Ireland’s theme song.

Anyone who has been to the Millennium Stadium and heard the Welsh crowd sing their national anthem will know the inspirational impact a really good song can make.

Leaving all politics aside, “God Save the Queen” is not exactly uplifting.

Maybe we could at least have “Danny Boy” as well on a trial basis to see how it goes?

But that’s for another day.

Tonight, the song of the hour will be “Green and White Army” – over and over and over again.

Everyone agrees Northern Ireland are facing a hiding from England.

But we’ll still raise the roof.

Like true fans everywhere, we don’t just sing when we’re winning.

Which is probably just as well.

  • Heavy Traffic

    Why does every criticism have to be derided as coming from the pen of a bitter bigot? I’ve tried to articulate mine in an honest manner; in the same way that you insist that you have always opposed sectarianism, please try and allow me to put mine without being dismissed as something I’m not.

    Mike and Realist, I live in a dengerous area, so I would rather not identify myself. I hope that you can appreciate that.

    I criticise the IFA because for years and years they pointedly ignored the sectarianism rampant in the local game and at the ‘national stadium’. I don’t believe that I have missed the vast majority of the work of FFA – what is there apart from banners at grounds and free tickets for schoolchildren? I have seen no attempts to address the key issues that keep half the footballing public away from Windsor Park.

    Please do not insult me by insinuating that my desire to enjoy Wednesday’s victory was not genuine. You ask for my credentials as regards anti-sectarian initiatives. What are yours? Where were all the decent Northern Ireland fans when the Kop and the old stand were chanting their filth?

    You were silent.

    I do not yearn for the singing of the ‘Billy Boys’. That is just crass. I would get hammered for suggesting that the DUP want the IRA to keep going, wouldn’t I? And to say that the use of the word ‘loyal’ has no political dimension is just utterly laughable.

    When will you understand that for many people the ‘Northern Ireland’ flag represents the old sectarian state and loyalist terror?

    Realist, I would love to know just when and how those vast numbers raised their voices against using support for Northern Ireland as an extension of loyalism? I suspect that if you did, you’d have had the same trouble I had in the South Stand throughout the “bad old years”.

    You seem to think that I have stopped “cheeping”. I have never stopped opposing sectarianism in all its forms. Just because I am sceptical about the attempts of the IFA and others does not make me the mirror image of the element that you so vehemently insist is long gone from Windsor Park.

  • Dec

    Realist

    Appreciate the response. I’m not sure that the GAA is a fair comparison, though. I wouldn’t be bothered if Linfield played GSTQ at their home games. At the Wales game in Cardiff when GSTQ was played and the Welsh fans booed, I cringed (watching on TV). It made the team look like mini-England IMO.

  • DanDaMan

    Folks, apologies for the less than eloquent post last time, was under the influence (still celebrating 😉 ) and simply annoyed at doubtful begrudgery vis a vis OWC.

    However the core sentiment remains the same. While I recognise legitimite gripes you may have HT, you did pepper your wanton dismissal of the IFA’s efforts with factual inaccuracies and conjecture. Thanks to Mike and Realist for making the point that I seemingly couldnt articulate into type last night in relation to the so called “spide army” and their apparently only being forced away recently by heftier ticket prices etc. (and yea, BOLLOCKS comes to mind again)
    As for your work to combat sectarianism HT, for that you deserve praise, though I sense your general “naff all” attitude toward and in built scepticism of the IFA would govern your ability to seek answers to your own questions concerning just what exactly has been done by the IFA apart from the creation of a few banners in its opposition to sectarianism. If you had dug a little deeper, then you would have discovered a lot more. (Indeed, you might wish to read the intro article of this very thread for a few ideas).

    Interestingly, a nationalist friend of mine and I were once discussing the idea of “Our Wee Country”, and he voiced the same disdain for the phrase as yourself. My defence of it is this: as I’m sure you’re aware, mutual support of a football/any other sports team can create, if not only for the 90+ minutes you’re in the ground, a tremendous bond and commonality amongst supporters. Indeed, we regard those boys in green and white as ‘our boys’. Up to here you might agree, but would doubtless ask who is the 1st person plural entity that claims possession of them? Who is the ‘we’ that says ‘our’. The answer is simple, ANYONE WHO WISHES TO SUPPORT NORTHERN IREAND. If anything, the ‘our’ could be seen as being more inclusive, the counter-argument to which is that such inclusivity is directly proportionate to the overall inclusivity of the support, which in your mind is not very inclusive at all. My response, its more inclusive, with a much greater capacity for inclusivity than you give credit for, and can only stand to get better.
    Should you be a nationalist, the you’ll argue that the “wee country” shouldn’t be quite so “wee”, but that leads into a seperate (though related) argument, which as suggested before, might just lie at the core of your inability to support NI. Fact remains though, it is as “wee” as it is, and its enjoyable if nothing else, to welcome geographical and footballing underdog status, thus making a victory or at least a good performance against a larger nation that bit more satisfying.

    P.S. I know you didnt call us black bastards, I got a little carried away, apologies.

  • DanDaMan

    Just a thought vis a vis the anthem situation, how would people feel about a more neutral NI-only anthem being played in addition to GSTQ, following the example of the Irish Rugby Football Union and its decision to offset the potential alienation of northern Unionist supporters of the all-Ireland rugby team by commissioning the playing of “Ireland’s Call” in addition to the Republic’s national anthem?

  • Dec

    Dan

    The Irish National anthem is only played at Rugby matches when the Head of State (President McAleese) is in attendance. If she’s not there you only get Ireland’s Call (does that dirge ever end?) so your question should be how would people feel if a neutral anthem was used at Windsor with GSTQ only being played whenever Her Majesty took up a seat in the Railway Stand. People would feel pretty good about that, I’d say.

  • Mike

    “Why does every criticism have to be derided as coming from the pen of a bitter bigot?”
    Not every criticism. But when people move the goalposts as you have done, it does seem that way. Look at your claim about ticket prices – demonstrated to be nonsense. Yet you’ve hardly even commented on or acknowledged this – just moved back on the attack.
    “Mike and Realist, I live in a dengerous area, so I would rather not identify myself. I hope that you can appreciate that.”
    Fair enough.
    “I criticise the IFA because for years and years they pointedly ignored the sectarianism rampant in the local game and at the ‘national stadium’.”
    Indeed they did. I could quote you articles from OWC fanzine from the late 90s demanding the IFA get off their arses and do something about it.
    “I don’t believe that I have missed the vast majority of the work of FFA – what is there apart from banners at grounds and free tickets for schoolchildren?”
    Support for those who are trying to transform the atmosphere from among the NI support. And FFA doesn’t just involve anti-sectarianism – it also involves getting groups like women and girls, the Chinese community, asylum seekers, and the disabled involved in football.

    “You ask for my credentials as regards anti-sectarian initiatives. What are yours?”
    I was 16 when the West (Kop) stand was opened. At that stage I was co-editor of a NI fanzine (not OWC) and campaigning against sectarian singing through that. We continued to do so and after the Neil Lennon booing incident for example we stood on the streets of the Village outside Windsor selling our fanzine with pictures of Lennon on the front wearing a NI shirt and a Celtic shirt, urging full support for him.
    “Where were all the decent Northern Ireland fans when the Kop and the old stand were chanting their filth?
    You were silent.”
    Not a genuine question then – your mind’s made up. But since you ask, many were speaking out, and I believe thanks to the internet and OWC fanzine (and the building of the West Stand) these efforts could be co-ordinated and concentrated. As I say, OWC fanzine as well as my own (and another one, We’ll Support You Evermore) were strident in demanding the IFA get off their arses and help the decent fans out.
    “I do not yearn for the singing of the ‘Billy Boys’. That is just crass. I would get hammered for suggesting that the DUP want the IRA to keep going, wouldn’t I?”
    For some of them, it’s probably true though.
    “And to say that the use of the word ‘loyal’ has no political dimension is just utterly laughable.”
    I know one person who has a ‘Bangor Loyal’ flag and it doesn’t mean that to him. Admittendly it’s something that comes out of the culture of the unionist community but ‘Loyal’ has taken on a peculiar meaning as a shorthand for ‘fan club’ or supporters’ (as a noun rather than an adjective).
    “When will you understand that for many people the ‘Northern Ireland’ flag represents the old sectarian state and loyalist terror?”
    The NI flag no more represents loyalist terror than the RoI Tricolour represents republican terror. And for those who use it at NI matches it simply represents NI and the NI team.

  • slug

    Mike – for your efforts I salute you. Having put its house in order the NI fans can look back on last wednesday with 100% satisfaction. I hope you keep the good ways going. (A constant effort in a society like ours where there will always be fools.)

  • Mike

    Dec

    “Let me be clear first of all that Wednesday was a brilliat result and I hope there’s more to come however regarding your last remark on how NI football has come a long way, many feel that it has a bit of a way to go yet. Just because you don’t hear terrace jeers refering to ‘fenian b******s’ any more doesn’t mean the job is done.”

    I accept that, I did also say “NI football is moving on”. But it’s not just getting rid of jeers. It’s about showing people NI matches aren’t a place to express their Protestantism/unionism/loyalism.

    “A lot of the NI fans posting on this site get irritated by people mentioning the rampant sectarianism that once was part and parcel of NI nights at Windsor Park, pointing out it doesn’t happen anymore. Well, its just it went on for decades before that so is it any wonder people might bring it up? Remembering the past is something we all partake in, often to the detriment of the present and future.”

    Yes but as far as I’m concerned you lose the right to comaplin about what happended in the past if you can’t ackowledge the work done to change the situation.

    “My issue with the IFA is this: does the Northern Ireland football team belong to everyone in a divided society? Or does it belong to one tradition only with their symbols and anthems being accepted?”

    My first point is – look at the NI kit. A jersey of Irish emerald green, with a celtic cross bage on it bearing four shamrocks. All Irish/’nationalist’ symbolism there and I’m perfectly happy with that. And by the way I don’t think the NI team can belong to everyone in this society, simply because there are people in this society like Robin Livingstone who despise the very idea of NI.

    “If the answer is to question 1 is yes then why on earth is GSTQ played at every home match”

    I would say it’s played ‘because it always has been’. I would change it. A NI anthem for a NI team, I say, and I’ve been arguing that case for years.

    “Incidentally, that whole OUR WEE COUNTRY stuff (as well as being depressingly parochial and lacking in ambition)really does comes across as YOUR WEE COUNTRY, WE ARE THE PEOPLE etc but perhaps that was the intention.”

    This strikes me as wanting to be offended, or at least feeling that someone’s out to offend you, on some subconscious level. There’s no reason at all to see the ‘our’ as exclusive of anyone, I’ve always seen it simply as representative of NI supporters and team. And it couldn’t be furtehr removed from ‘We Are the People’ – you should see the derision those sorts get on OWC!

    I’ll expalin the origins of the term if that’s any help. Back in 1996, NI travelled to Nuremburg to play newly-crowned European champions Germany – much like last week many were predicitng a tanking (even though we had a long unbeaten run against them and had drawn with them just before Euro 96). NI actually took the lead and managed to hold the European champions to a 1-1 draw on their home turf. After the match, with the players celebrating in front of the NI travelling contingent, Barry Hunter cut in behind one of his team-mates being interviewed and shouted gleefully “What about our wee country!”. THat kind of sums it up for many of us. We may come from a small country with comparitively meagre footballing resources but on our day we can show the spirit to take on the best in the world.

    (As a footnote, I adopted Hunter’s cry as the title of my fanzine column when we launched our fanzine a few months later. A while later the leading NI fanzine, ‘There’s a Wee Spot in Europe’, was renamed ‘Our Wee Country’. Great minds;) )

  • nmc

    To be honest, as a NI RC I find it difficult to get behind the Northern Ireland team. I want to know, is there a Northern Ireland fan out there that can see why? Or am I being sectarian? I don’t feel that catholics are made welcome at NI games, and think that anyone who doesn’t see why is blinkered. However, it’s always good to see England lose… So congratulations to the boys, hell of a job.

  • Dec

    Mike

    Thanks for the response. Though I think the NI team should belong to everyone in society and strive to do so. That way, people who reject it as non-inclusive lose their argument. Of course many will support ROI (as I do) but for positive reasons as opposed to negative feelings towards NI.

  • Realist

    nmc,

    “To be honest, as a NI RC I find it difficult to get behind the Northern Ireland team. I want to know, is there a Northern Ireland fan out there that can see why? Or am I being sectarian? I don’t feel that catholics are made welcome at NI games, and think that anyone who doesn’t see why is blinkered. However, it’s always good to see England lose… So congratulations to the boys, hell of a job.”

    Could you explain to us why you don’t feel Catholics are made welcome at NI games?

    Then, I might be able to comment on whether or not you are being sectarian and/or I am being blinkered.

    Heavy Traffic,

    “I criticise the IFA because for years and years they pointedly ignored the sectarianism rampant in the local game and at the ‘national stadium’.”

    I accept that…why then now that they and the fans are seriously trying to addresss the problem do you not give them your wholehearted support?

  • NMC

    Realist,

    I wouldn’t feel welcome because of a number of things. A few years ago (2002 is not that long ago) Neil Lennon, a good player, was booed off the pitch because of his religion. There are still a huge number of flag wavers at the match, and I know that there are plenty of people who go to Northern Ireland matches who would gladly administer a good kicking to any one like me who should attend – if they knew where I came from. I’m not saying that I’m right, I’m asking. Do you see my point, or am I completely wrong?

  • Realist

    NMC,

    I’m not sure if your making a piont, but I can understand your reservations.

    I want to deal the points you raise:

    1/ Regarding Neil Lennon, he was not abused on account of his religion…he should not have been abused on any account.

    He played for Northern Ireland on many occassions as a club player with Crewe Alexandra and Leicester City, without any problems.

    As you know, the hate fest that is the Old Firm is the source of many problems in this part of the world…the incidents happened when Neil signed for Glasgow Celtic.

    You will be aware of the similar abuse that Rangers players, past and present, have received during ROI matches at Landsdowne Road.

    At the game against Norway, Neil was abused by around 300 people accomodated in the West Stand at Windsor Park…some of these people had travelled over from Scotland to vent their Old Firm bile at Neil.

    The vast majority of Northern Ireland fans rallied behind Neil at this time and showed their support for him and abhorance of the the “Billy Boys”.

    Neil publicly acknowledged the support he received from most Northern Ireland fans at the time.

    Regarding the telephoned death threat to Neil, the IFA or Northern Ireland supporters can in no way be held accountable for this…has anyone ever been arrested or charged?

    Roman Catholics play for Northern Ireland at all levels routinely…they are not abused on account of their religion. The current Manager and Assistant Manager (a Falls Road man) are Roman Catholics.

    I travel the world supporting the team…those “diehard” supporters include Roman Catholics. They are never bothered about their religion…they simply form a part of “The Green & White Army”.

    They don’t make a whole song and dance about their religion, they simply support the players representing their locality.

    To the vast majority of Northern Ireland supporters, the religion (or lack of it) of our players is not important – what is important is that whoever pulls on the famous emerald green shirt wears it with pride.

    On your next point, I know of plenty of people who would like to give me and some other “handwringers” a good kicking too.

    Thank God that more and more people are committing themselves to leaving the politics and religion at the turnstiles. Even the dyed in the wool “loyalists” are rallying behind the call to give sectarianism the boot at Northern Ireland games.

    You may not be aware, but only last week a young Catholic/Nationalist from the Springfield Road was guest of the Shankill NISC at the England game…he had recently lost his brother in a tragic accident.

    Before going, he said he was scared…after going, he said he cannot wait to go back!

    You are not required to bring a placard stating your religion…you can come along with a green & white scarf. You do not have to fill in any forms declaring your religion.

    Regarding flag wavers, I don’t quite understand what you mean…there are lots of flagwavers at any football match I have ever attended.

    If you mean lots of Northern Ireland flags, I find nothing odd about that at all.

    Fans wave a variety of flags…including a Green & White Fermanagh GAA flag which I spotted recently.

    Read the accounts of other Roman Catholics who have been to watch in recent times…I posted an article by a member of the IRSP who attended the recent game against Germany.

    I sat with a friend from the ROI during the Azerbaijan game two weeks ago…although his love is for the ROI, he thought that the atmosphere was fantastic and was wholesome in his praise of the changes he experienced since his last visit.

    There are potential troublemakers lurking in all football grounds…I believe the GAA has even had a few problems in this regard recently.

    We are ensuring that those who still think that following Northern Ireland is an extension of their religion/politics are being drowned out.

    The battlecries of the Green & White Army is no longer The Sash or the Billy Boys…it’s We’re Not Brazil, We’re Northern Ireland, or Away In A Manger.

    It’s your team too…if you want it to be!

  • MIke

    Very good post Realist.

    Dec

    “I think the NI team should belong to everyone in society and strive to do so. That way, people who reject it as non-inclusive lose their argument.”

    Yes, I agree, though not at the cost of it failing to be a NI team. I certainly think GSTQ should be changed and when I was looking forward to the match in Cardiff last year I shared your embarrassment about it being played there. Maybe as DanDaMan said a rugby type solution could be found.

    “Of course many will support ROI (as I do) but for positive reasons as opposed to negative feelings towards NI.”

    Sure, I’m happy to recognise that. For many it probably feels natural to do so.

    slug – thanks for your kind comments.

  • DanDaMan

    Dec,

    Cheers for that, I was unaware of the specifics. (Had to laugh at the idea of her Maj in the railway stand! Though it would be fun to hear her shout “who are ya!!” at the opposing team 😉 )

    I have long held the view that GSTQ should be reserved for occasions where the entire United Kingdom is in representation as, essentially, a Monarch rules over a Kingdom. Each nation within, to preserve individuality within unity could commission its own individual anthem for individual purposes (including England). By my reckoning Northern Ireland could perhaps use “Danny Boy”, or even make a competition out of creating a new one.
    Incidentally, I’m sure others have also noticed that England fans sing GTSQ at the start of the second half, and even on arbitary occasions during the match, essentially as one of their songs. My view is that a National Anthem (whether GSTQ or not) should have a certain special feel/aura, and importance, which serves to be diminished by over-usage.

    Granted I didnt actually hear the England fans singing GSTQ at the start of the second half last week, I only saw them standing with scarves aloft followed by a polite applause, but then again, I don’t think the England fans heard themselves either! 😉

  • DanDaMan

    NORTHERN IRELAND 1
    Healy 74

    ENGLAND 0

    just in case anyone had forgotten :0)

  • darthrumsfeld

    “”No Surrender” flags were seen among the crowd and a group dressed up in loyalist band uniform….not to mention the singing of “Billy Boys” as described by Aaron aboive…”

    er… the “loyalist bandsmen” your jaundiced eye spotted were in fact the Regimental band of the Irish Guards who provided the half time musical entertainment,and then went on to the terraces, and would I suspect be almost entirely southerners and for all I know or care Roman Catholics. Funny that they could get behind the team and you can’t. Oh but no doubt the presence of some members of the British army is another excuse to whip up the bile.

    Noone sang the Billy Boys. There were no “No surrender” flags -whatever they are. No reasonable or objective Irish person could find anything objectionable in the way we conducted ourselves on Wednesday night. So obviously a lot will. But then they’ll be bigots, won’t they Ollie?

  • Realist

    “loyalist bandsmen”

    A classic example of the lies and distortions our detractors will go to to blacken Northern Ireland fans.

    I heard one chap on Talkback claim they were a “flute band”…they (The Irish Guards Regimental Band) play pipes and drums….not a flute in sight.

  • Mike

    I note Mr Chromaill seems to have disappeared. Shoot and scoot, eh?