I’m old fashioned enough to support England casually as the big team, when the tiddlers have been eliminated in the qualifiers. Those Irish – unionists among them, I know – who put England last rather than support England second are sad bastards as far as I’m concerned. But I have to say that Northern Ireland qualifying twice in my life time has given me more pleasure than the entire England record, bar watching the disputed England victory in 1966 in the company of a German-supporting Scottish nationalist in a kilt.
In 1982 I happened to be in Buenos Aires for the Falklands war. The armistice had just been signed on the islands and the BBC reporting team were giving a party to thank the many Hispanics of all nations who had helped us, including a bunch of Anglo-Argentine admirals who had treated the whole conflict as a sort of mediaeval joust – or a World Cup football match come to think of it, only with Argentina on the losing side for once. At the party, an extra excuse for downing gallons of the cheap but excellent local Baron B champagne that evening was the prospect of watching an Hispanic team Spain the WC hosts, thrashing a tiny (leave it!) British team in the World Cup.
And so of course, I ended on the floor screaming after peering through the mists of a terrible TV picture to pick out Gerry Armstrong running the length of the Barca pitch to score the only goal. The TV picture quality was wretched because Argentine TV was boycotting the relay of matches involving British teams, even though the entire football-mad nation, war or no war,was glued to the misty picture from Uruguay TV across the 100 mile stretch of the River Plate. If anything that added to the magic of the moment.
Who in their right minds would swap low expectations exceeded for high hopes dashed every time?
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London