‘So how was it?’
My eyes said it all - then the gravelly tone of my voice said the rest - and I was only there for three days.
Plans changed for me and seven days in France was only three - a pilgrimage from Belfast - Dublin - Brussels - Luxembourg City - sleeping in a car and then at Barbara’s Air BnB in a suburb in Lyon.
I’m of the age, but not the footballing grade, of Steve Davis & Chris Brunt, having played against both at junior level. Back then I looked for Davis’ name on the team card and wondered how many times he would nutmeg me. On the cold and wet days when Brunt was playing on the other team you hoped you weren’t on the receiving end of one of his ‘power-blaster’ free kicks. I made it as far as one of the IFA select training camps - but it wasn’t meant to be - they knew Pete Waugh needed to liven up the Amateur League.
So whenever I’ve caught a glimpse of the #gawa crew on MOTD, usually while nursing some sort of knock after playing in a not so friendly game of Amateur League football, I’ve always been so proud of the fellas from our wee country who plough their trade as professional ballers.
But how did we get to this point?
We all know that some boys are cycling, others are on epic road trips (we drove the Brussels - Lyon option), some are braving the striking trains and others are hitching a lift. But that’s not what I mean. I mean how did we get from a place where the sectarian venom on people’s lips around Windsor was so bitter, to a place where we are literally the best supporters in Europe.
Well - ask the guy cycling around Lyon, whilst playing nothing but Northern Ireland songs on the flute.
Ask the fella on the bagpipes who brought a bit of cheer to the fans.
Ask the lads who ate the McDonalds in Nice out of burgers and drank the bars out of beer - and there wasn’t a pick of trouble.
Ask the fella crowd surfing on the inflatable crocodile.
Ask all of the kids who have been to France who have had the time of their life (and a few cheeky days off school!)
Ask all the female GAWA’s who are the prettiest supporters in the world!
Ask the lads in the camper vans, the fellas cycling from Lyon to Paris (hats of Nealo!), ask the kids and partners of those who have had a pass away from home for a couple of days/weeks and will come back all the better for it.
Ask the German supporter who wouldn’t let me pass him by without singing ‘The Fire Song’.
Ask those who made banners and flags.
Ask Jimmy Nesbitt - if anyone can find him.
Ask the supporters from other countries who think we are bonkers, crazy and who can’t stop smiling when they see us.
Ask the wee woman in Lyon who lives on ‘football street’ who didn’t get any sleep cause we were singing and dancing until the wee small hours.
Ask Colin who kissed me lol
Ask Pete, Paolo and Rebecca … and the list goes on and on.
Ask the players who called home to say thanks.
Ask the wee fella from Ballymena whose dad surprised him with tickets.
And ask the IFA.
And the whole point of this is to say a huge thank you.
Thank you to the IFA.
When I launched my novel last year I wanted to write a story that was based here, but wasn’t about The Troubles. I wanted to give the reader something new, something fresh and something they could get excited about. That’s exactly what the IFA and the squad of lads from OWC have done.
Thank you for capturing the fact that sport is sport. Leave it at that. If you aren’t playing in Green and White you are our enemy - we can all unite around that common purpose. You have absolutely nailed this. It’s really difficult to change a culture. Especially one that’s in desperate need of change. Intentionality, raising the standards, setting a common purpose and a common goal that everyone can unite around, can dream about and get excited about. So hats and scarves off to the IFA and all those who ‘dared to dream’ who were bold enough to offer ‘Football for All’. And thanks, in this trigger happy culture of firing managers, for not firing Michael when the results weren’t going the right way.
The IFA don’t get everything right. But the way they have brought football here from the doldrums of the 90’s to the carnival atmosphere that happens at Windsor every time the #GAWA run out to play, is something that has to be praised from the terraces and the typewriters.
The biggest thanks are to the supporters. I dropped in and out of the party and have been reliving the scenes on Youtube and Bakebook. It was hands down the best nights craic I’ve had.
When Keith Gillespie is being crowd surfed in front of your very eyes, followed by ‘Santi Cazorla,’ and then some bloke from the radio, and a wee woman is looking on from her apartment in bemusement, you know you’re part of something special.
To the coaches. The countless coaches who spend hours standing around pitches, setting up drills, worrying over formations and how to tell the kids who have been dropped, it all is impossible with you. You are heroes. Thank You Gary and Keith, John G, Soupie, Bobby and the rest.
To the players. Blanchflower, Healy, Hughes, Davis, Gregg (and Grigg ;0), Armstrong, Jennings, Donaghy, Gillespie, Bingham, Whiteside, Doherty, McAuley and Best. Those from the past and those from the present - you have inspired the future - and that’s 90% of your job - the other 10% is enjoying what you do. We will continue to shout at you from the terraces/our lovely new home, get frustrated with misplaced passes and, if you continue to cajole us, to lift our eyes and dream even bigger dreams than the one we are currently experiencing. Keep inspiring the next generation and let’s not leave it another 30 years before we get to party like it’s 1986 again.
But I better go. I only have six hours left to decide which shirt to rip off when Grigg sticks it past Neuer - that’ll stop Ballack talking Ballacks.
And a tip of the semi prophetic hat to Gary Lightbody - It’s not a World Cup - but we are all watching Ireland - North and South - at a major tournament - singing arm in arm with each other (what about yer boy with the red banjo?!). So yes Gary, hopefully we will both make it to a World Cup - we’ll never stop dreaming.
I hope I’ve given you something fun to read when big ears and the other commentators are talking in patronising sentences about OWC before they find some tedious link back to talk about England. (BTW slap it in ye Owen.)
From my time in France the only disappointing thing is I didn’t get a selfie with The Dentist formerly known as The Nesbitt.
For those in Paris - enjoy the party.
Bye for now.
I’ll be back when I’m launching my next football related book - about a wee fella from Poland who lives in Belfast and goes to Sweden to find Zlatan. If you want to buy the missus a love story for her summer holidays - pop over and buy a copy of Half Irish - also available on iBooks and Kindle for a couple of quid.