This week’s NLP programme column below, looking at the recent misfortune to befall Northern Ireland in getting to Russia 2018.
My bucket list of stadiums to journey to grew by one over the weekend after sitting down to watch the Northern Ireland v Switzerland World Cup qualifier.
Belfast’s Windsor Park stood as a fortress of unchecked, brimming support for the Green and White Army as they looked to book their place in Russia.
An impassioned chorus of God Save the Queen was fed by a surge of positivity for where head coach Michael O’Neill has carried this team to.
I won’t claim to have ever sung my heart out at Wembley for an England game and I’m not a stickler for showing ultra-patriotism at a national match, but I’d be open to it if there was a precedent set by Wembley.
If I treasure Non-League for the individuals you are able to meet and strike up conversation with, I treasure being an Englishman for the opportunity of the collective support of 88,000 fans inside one stadium.
‘And the fans are going wild’ is something I can’t say I have heard since Wembley’s makeover to become the ‘New Wembley’.
But wild was the one word that comes to mind when watching the Northern Ireland game on TV and the main camera shaking through the vibrations created by 18,000 fans exulting the emotion of the whole nation.
And plenty of emotion there has been for Northern Ireland, not least at the final hurdle where enthusiasm turned into vitriol at the hands of the referee.
Things had gone so well for Northern Ireland. Three defeats in ten matches comprising reigning World Champions Germany, Czech Republic and Norway is a record not to be sniffed at for this nation of under 2 million.
Introduce Romanian Ovidiu Hategan, the FIFA assigned referee for the first-leg who awarded Switzerland a penalty for the most unintentional of handballs. If at one end of the scale was Diego Maradona’s ‘hand of God’ goal at the Azteca Stadium in 1986, the complete opposite was Corry Evans’ ghost handball – it actually hit his back – which handed Switzerland a 1-0 lead in the contest.
The return leg at St Jakob-Park in Basel ended in stalemate despite desperate efforts by Chris Brunt and Jonny Evans.
There are lessons to be learnt in sport during every competitive match and for O’Neill he will know after that plans years in the making and 18 months putting into practice can crumble like a house of cards. And the biggest gripe is that it doesn’t necessarily come by your own hands.
An appalling decision but this was a qualification campaign that shouldn’t be lost on memories prone to recency.
Take a look at Wales and the credit the late Gary Speed rightly receives for turning their fortunes around. Chris Coleman is now at leisure with a team challenging to regularly reach major international competitions.
Michael O’Neill has time to continue his endeavours with an underdog well worth cheering if he decides Windsor Park is the place where his future lies. And Iceland, of course.
Updated 20:19 - 20 Nov 2017 by Steve Ringrose