The Cauldron of Hate

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It’s been a while since I last blogged and instead of going through the usual apologies, I’m gonna cut straight to the chase.

Suffice to say that my head has been up my arse ever since I came back from holiday in France and it has taken a while for the operation to remove it to be a success. Wednesday night, it has to be said, was a big step in the right direction for me.

For two hours, I was able to forget about all my troubles and worries and it was good therapy to see something that made me feel inspired enough to put finger to keypad and share with you what has got to be one of THE greatest moments in my life.

I’m trying to think of moments to compare it with and I’m struggling to do so. For you see, even at the ripe old age of 33, I have not experienced births of children or marriages, nor similar life-altering events of such lofty stature which would normally be reserved for the title of “The Best Day of My Life”

But without doubt Wednesday night has certainly joined a shortlist of few.

So what happened that night that has inspired me so and got me appreciating the birds singing in the trees, the sun shining in the sky, the pretty girls in their summer clothes? (Actually that last one I have always been very appreciative of)

Well I suppose for those of you that know me - and let’s face it – if you’ve been reading my blogs you know me better than most – it will come as no surprise that this latest blog is once again football related.

But before you reach for the ‘delete’ button – hear me out. For those of you that hate my football-related blogs I make absolutely no apologies for this one. For this was a result of epic proportions. Even in comparison, Liverpool’s European Champion’s League winning exploits back in May pales into insignificance.

All I do ask of you is to please bear with me - this one is coming straight from the heart. Words are coming through my head way too fast for my poor battered hands to keep up but I have the feeling that this might just be my favourite piece of writing ever. It’s certainly the least I can do to pay homage to what I witnessed on Wednesday.

There is no other way to describe it, there is just simply no way I can make it sound any better than by stating the simple fact. Even if I was capable of waxing lyrical with all sorts of wonderfully descriptive sentences littered with beautiful artistic expressions, there would simply be no point. On this occasion, stating simple, pure undiluted fact is the only way forward…..


Now – before you think – “here he goes off on an anti-English rant” – keep the faith - it is nothing of the sort.

But make no mistake about what my home country of Northern Ireland (or “Norn Iron” as it said by the locals) achieved on Wednesday.

In football terms - it was nothing short of miraculous.
David slaying Goliath.
David slaying a whole army of Goliaths.
A whole army of Goliaths armed to the teeth with AK47’s, rocket launchers and those cool light sabers out of Star Wars.
Anyway – I think you get the picture…

Every one of those men dressed in green on Wednesday night did us proud – and I’m not just talking about the men on the pitch either. Every Northern Ireland supporter that was at that match must surely have woken up yesterday with a hangover (and a few others who weren’t at the match either will not be feeling much better either - I know one fella sitting at his desk here in Antwerp that was a “little under the weather”) but it has got to be one of the sweetest hangovers many of us have ever experienced.

Not so long ago, Windsor Park, the football stadium in South Belfast where Northern Ireland play their home games was dubbed as “The Cauldron of Hate” by none other than that most honorary of English-born Irish men, the former Republic of Ireland team manager, Jack Charlton.

Please indulge me a little walk down memory lane….

A little under two decades ago, Northern Ireland and The Republic of Ireland were drawn together in the same qualifying group. A draw that was greeted with much anticipation by both sets of supporters for obvious reasons.

When the fixture list was organised, it was deemed that Northern Ireland should play the Republic of Ireland in Belfast on the last qualifying match.

We could not wait.

Tickets were at a premium but my mate “Gaffer” and I block-booked for all the qualifiers, so our seats were guaranteed for the big game.

Playing the Republic of Ireland in Dublin, Northern Ireland were duly beaten. The better team one. There was no shame in that. Hard to take, yes but we certainly couldn’t argue with the result. At that time, Northern Ireland was very much the poor relation in Irish football.

The memories of knocking the host nation out of the 1982 world cup in Spain – even after we had a man dubiously sent off and had to battle against some shocking refereeing decisions – were slowly fading. No matter how much we wanted to hold on to the glory days of Spain ’82 and Mexico ’86, they were confined to the annals of history - whether we liked it or not.

And boy did we not like it.

To further compound our misery, the Republic of Ireland was fast becoming a force to be reckoned with in world football. Jack Charlton had galvanised a team of English and Scottish-born players (with somewhat dubious claims to Irish ancestry) – along with a few real Irish thrown in for good measure – and moulded them into a team to be reckoned with.

Add to this scenario, the politics of Ireland and Northern Ireland’s turbulent past, this was an enormous game for the Northern Ireland supporters.

And Jack Charlton knew it.

As the qualifiers came down to the crunch, it became apparent that in order for the Republic of Ireland to be certain of qualification, they would have to come to Belfast and win. Northern Ireland, alas, were languishing near the bottom of the group, our hopes of qualifying having long faded.

Still – we had more than enough to keep up our interest – we could still prevent the Republic of Ireland from qualifying.

As I write these words I realise that this all may be perceived like the rant of a narrow minded bigot but I ask you – would it be any different if it was England v Scotland or Wales? Belgium v Holland? Spain v Portugal? Argentina v Brazil?

Of course not.

Our nearest neighbours – a country that we’ve shared a less-than-easy existence with on the Island of Ireland - a team far better than ours was coming to town – and what was all the more annoying was that it was a team littered with people born in places like London, Liverpool and Glasgow. Footballers who had no hope of playing for their native countries where digging up their Irish roots and turning up to play for the Irish.

A great example of this is Tony Cascarino – the then Republic of Ireland striker. When his team qualified for the world cup in USA 1990 – he didn’t even possess an Irish passport because he didn’t have the necessary paperwork.

So of course there was intense rivalry leading up to the game. And then Jack Charlton started to play funny bugger.

Claiming that he was worried for the safety of his players and supporters travelling to Belfast to play in what he described as a ”Cauldron of Hate”, he asked for the game to be rearranged to a ‘neutral’ venue. By neutral he suggested Liverpool or Glasgow. If any of you have been to either city, it is laughable to even suggest that either city would be neutral when Ireland was playing.

But apart from being laughable, it was also an absolute disgrace and an insult to the people of Northern Ireland.

FIFA (the governing body of world football) quite rightly laughed in Jack Charlton’s face and told him to put up and shut up.

And that is where the “Cauldron of Hate” was born. We, as Northern Ireland supporters never thought of it as such but it was nice of Jack to point It out and throw petrol on what was already an explosive situation.

We tried our best to oblige, the atmosphere in the old stadium was electric and we very nearly did it – the match finishing 1-1 and the Republic scraping through thanks to some heroic goal keeping in the other match that night by the Danish goalkeeper Peter Schmeicel.

But anyway….on to more recent times.

Wednesday night to be exact.

Yes - Northern Ireland, a team ranked 116th in the world, a team who last year set the dubious world record for being the international team that had gone the longest run without scoring a goal (1298 minutes to be exact), a team made up of footballers plying their trade with such footballing powerhouses as Hull, Peterborough, Plymouth and Hearts, a team who only on Saturday recorded their first competitive win in four years….over the mighty Azerbaijan…took on the 200 plus million pounds worth of footballing talent that the English could boast – and beat them.

And make no mistake – this was no lucky win. Northern Ireland fully deserved the victory. Apart from a wonderful free-kick from the boy Beckham (nice hair David), and an opportunistic overhead kick from the lad Owen (oh – so he was on the pitch…) the only other thing that England contributed to proceedings was Shrek-a-Rooney throwing his obligatory foul-mouthed tantrum and throwing his considerable weight around, narrowily escaping a red card from the referee.

Honest to God that lad has got nothing but a wind-tunnel going between those two big ears of his.

"Are you Scotland in disguise?" taunted the Northern Ireland fans. Certainly not, for the Scots are a winning side again. But it has to be said that the fans played a huge part in our unlikely success.
They were magnificent – and like the players were up for it right from the start.
I love going to Northern Ireland matches. The stadium is tiny by international standards, with a capacity of 14,000 (which could have been sold out 10 times over for last nights match).
Windsor Park is dark, dingy, exposed and there is nearly always a gale force wind blowing around the place. It’s certainly a far cry from what the English team of superstars, with their millionaire lifestyles would be used to. – and of course this played to our advantage – but make no mistake – 13,000 Northern Ireland supporters can make a helluva lot of noise and the English team looked visibly nervous coming out onto the pitch.
The 1000 travelling English fans were drowned out by the cacophony of noise from the Green and White army but they surely couldn’t have been surprised by that - after all - at the corresponding fixture in Manchester (a game that I was at), the 7000 travelling Northern Ireland fans outsung the 60,000 English for the entire afternoon. Even though we got hammered 4-0
I had a ticket for Wednesday night’s game but unfortunately was unable to make it, my brother saddled with the far from tortuous task of trying to find a buyer for it. Oh how I wished I was there.
3 hours before kick off, I received a phone call from my brother Darren already well in the party mood in Belfast. “We’re gonna do it tonight, Jonny – bet on a 2-0 win for us – I’ll give you the money out of my winnings!!”
Darren – I should take this opportunity to confess that I didn’t follow your conviction and failed to put the bet on, as I thought it was obviously the request of a drunken fool - a drunken fool that would regret his impulsiveness when he woke up the following day after defeat, with a hangover AND have a hole in his pocket from the foolish bet. And with two minutes remaining, we very nearly did score a second – Warren Feeney’s shot going inches past the post.
I would have had some explaining to do had that one gone in…

So instead of being at the match adding my considerable vocal encouragement to the Green and White Army, I had to settle for a bar in Antwerp dressed in full Northern Ireland kit, scarf et al. Needless to say I was sweating buckets and that was before I started to watch the match.

To use a phrase coined in the BBC comedy series Little Britain, for as long as I have been in Antwerp, I have always been “The only gay in the village” and by that I mean being Northern Irish AND proud of it. I have met a few people from the same country but thanks to the politics and history of Ireland, they don’t recognise that as a country and prefer to be known as Irish.

Each to their own and I’m certainly not going to make any political statements here. I am just saying that being the way I am has set me up for a bit of criticism from certain Irish individuals in Antwerp; people who perhaps have a problem with me because of who I am or where I come from.

Most of it of course has always been good-natured banter and I can certainly give it just as much as take it but when it came to the football there was really never anything I could say in response. We have been bad - there can be no doubt about that.

I sometimes wished that I was in this situation – living abroad, surrounded by English, Scottish and Irish (do the Welsh ever travel?) – during 1982, when we enjoyed our finest ever moment in our proud 125 year history.

But Wednesday night has provided all of us Norn Iron supporters something to be proud of and put a smile on all our faces. Even my mum and my other brother – neither football fans have been in touch about the result. The whole country has been lifted by it.

For far too long, we have been berated by our own people, the press and media. In fact, for a World Cup qualifying match last season, BBC Northern Ireland decided to show only highlights of the game instead of the whole match live but chose to show a 1-hour studio debate before the highlights. The topic of the debate? “Is there any need in today’s society for a Northern Ireland football team?”

What sort of bollocks is that???

Now - after the performance of Wednesday I no longer need to….I am proud to be The Only Gay in The Village!!

Here’s to a magnificent performance from Norn Iron – players and supporters alike and good luck to England in the World Cup finals, coz we all know you’ll qualify for it anyway.

But before I go, here is an excerpt from yesterday’s Belfast Telegraph, perhaps a little tongue in cheek…

How our heroes rated Marks out of 10 for the Windsor Legends
By Paul Ferguson

Maik Taylor: Only had to make two saves during the first half and in the second period dealt with everything that came his way. Looked totally assured catching crosses and totally dominated his area. 10

Chris Baird: Wayne Rooney never got a sniff with the Southampton Reserves player keeping him quiet throughout the game. Will be disappointed to have received a booking for time wasting but I'm sure he doesn't care after this result. 10

Aaron Hughes: Led the Northern Ireland back four with great authority and soaked up any pressure that came his way. Kept calm and composed and deserves all the credit that comes his way. Quite simply, captain marvel. 10

Stephen Craigan: Sensational display from the Motherwell centre back. Outstanding in the air and easily his best performance for Northern Ireland. Owen and Rooney didn't look dangerous with the Newtownards man brilliant alongside Aaron Hughes. 10

Tony Capaldi: Struggled during the opening 20 minutes with Shaun Wright Phillips but once he settled down he grew in confidence and actually enjoying going forward alongside Stuart Elliott. Solid and terrific. 10

Keith Gillespie: Did what he had to do very well - help out Chris Baird in the right back position and go forward at every opportunity. Scared the life out of Ashley Cole at times towards the end of the first half and during the second. Back to his old self. 10

Damien Johnson: Didn't give England's midfield players any time or space on the ball and along with his young partner Steve Davis was unbelievable. Will be annoyed with a booking during the first half after a foul on Frank Lampard - but that certainly didn't mean he pulled out of any crunching tackles. 10

Steven Davis: The Ballymena man came of age last night and certainly didn't look out of place in the midfield against Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and David Beckham. He was strong in the tackle and created a number of opportunities for Healy and Quinn. Easy to see why David O'Leary gave him his Premiership chance. 10

Stuart Elliott: A brave and committed performance from the Hull City winger. Never stopped running and putting his head in to win important balls. Wasn't able to play his usual game as Luke Young marshalled him well. But gave his all as usual. Ecstatic at the end. 10

David Healy: Scored his most important goal in a green shirt when he shot past Paul Robinson on 74 minutes last night. Ran his heart out for the Northern Ireland cause despite still carrying an injury. Rio Ferdinand certainly wasn't comfortable dealing with the former Manchester United hotshot. 11

James Quinn: A moment to remember for the Peterborough United striker when he dispossessed England captain David Beckham with a crunching tackle on 62 minutes, which set up a Northern Ireland attack much to the delight of the Windsor Park faithful. Was a nuisance to the English defence all night and held the ball up very well. An immense performance. Had one shot in the second half which went just inches pastRobinson's left hand post. 10

Warren Feeney: Came on for James Quinn and simply ran at the tired England defenders. Had a chance to score in injury time but unfortunately it just went past the post. 10

Ivan Sproule: What a night for the former Institute and Omagh Town winger. Not much time to impress, however enjoyed every moment of his seven minutes on the pitch. Replaced goalscorer David Healy. 10

Michael Duff: On for Stuart Elliott in injury time as Lawrie Sanchez ran down the clock. 10


saskia said…
Loud was the cheering, great was the round of applause in the Cork pubs, when the news was announced that Northern Ireland beat England. Was as well the only bright spot in a dark night in which Ireland was beaten by France (0-1). Ah took them over 52 years to do so...and the afterparty was great anyway.