If you’ve been paying any attention to football-related news this summer, or at least have friends who indirectly keep you updated, you’ll know it’s been a pretty big summer for the football teams of the home nations.
For Wales it’s not over yet, as they look forward to their first ever semi-final in their first tournament since 1958, after beating Belgium on Friday night.
Before that, they narrowly beat Northern Ireland 1-0 in one of the more underrated games in the last 16; a game that was set up thanks to a last minute Robbie Brady winner for the Republic of Ireland against Italy.
The Republic went on to give hosts France a bit of a scare as they also narrowly went down 2-1.
And of course we can’t forget England, who fell to what’s been called possibly their most embarrassing defeat ever against Iceland, who have 10% of their 300,000 population supporting them in attendance at Euro 2016. One thing’s for sure; none of us will be forgetting this tournament in a hurry.
Both sets of Irish fans have been honoured by the mayor of Paris for their unique, passionate contribution to the competition; Northern Irish fans in particular are responsible for popularising what’s been called the theme song of the tournament, “Will Grigg’s on Fire”, ironically about a player who didn’t even get on the pitch in any of the team’s four matches (wouldn’t have been fair on the opposition’s defence I suppose). It was said Northern Ireland were the only team whose fans have fans – though to be fair those Iceland fans are pretty unique too.
For our wee country, Norn Iron, to go out in the last 16 would have been expected going into the tournament; indeed we were delighted to even get there. The main disappointment I felt following the game against Wales wasn’t that we had went out, or that we hadn’t done as well as we could’ve hoped for; it was that the journey had now come to an end. The dream was over. But what a dream it had been while it lasted.
We went into the first game of our qualifying campaign, against Hungary almost two years ago (I’ve linked to it a few times before but hell, why not), having not won an away match since 2010. I remember that game like it was yesterday; Hungary going 1-0 up and thinking “here we go again”, then two goals from McGinn and Lafferty that came from nowhere in the last 10 minutes. Our form leading up to that match hadn’t been good; there was nothing to suggest what would come. Before we knew it we had won our first three qualifying games, two of them away from home, and the dream had begun.
Then, seeing us beat Ukraine on the big stage was unforgettable; the culmination of everything leading up to that point. We had proved we could win in France, with all eyes on us, rather than just make up the numbers and say we were “happy to be here” (I’m naturally a competitive guy so that would never have worked for me, haha). We had desire. We came to win. It was the most emotional football game I’ve ever watched, and the greatest result I’ve ever experienced. Unfortunately the only people I could share it with at the time were England fans who, through no fault of their own, were utterly incapable of comprehending what it meant to all of us back home.
The rest is now history. But every Northern Ireland fan will dare to dream once again when the World Cup qualifying campaign begins in September. I can say I’ve seen my country play – and win – at the European Championships; now I want to see them do the only thing that could possibly top it. I want to see them at a World Cup; and at this point confidence is high that we can make it to Russia in 2018. Should we somehow manage that, trust me: you’ve only seen the start of what our passionate fans can bring to the table. We’ll celebrate again like it’s our first, and our last.
Until next time, Norn Iron. You’ve done me proud.