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.