Are you fed up with watching England? Tired of moaning about wins not being good enough? Are you confident that England will still win, even without you watching? Then why not give Northern Ireland a whirl?
When I was just a young buck, I was invited to attend an open day at Queens University in Belfast, Northern Ireland. It was April and I made the unfortunate assumption that it was no longer winter anywhere in the British Isles. How wrong I was. When my plane landed at Belfast International Airport at 6am, it was snowing. In April. I took a bus into Belfast itself and found myself freezing cold and alone. The open day didn’t start until midday and there were no shops in which I could take refuge – it was still early in the morning.
Eventually, I found what I was looking for. I wandered into the Botanic Gardens in the hope that there might be a café to shelter me, but what I found was better. I found the Palm House. A massive greenhouse built in order to cultivate all manor of tropical foliage in chilly Belfast. I took shelter in the Palm House for a good few hours, went to the open day, and then didn’t go to Queens.
Although my day in Belfast wasn’t exactly a resounding success, it was the day that my appreciation for Northern Ireland’s international football team was born.
While trudging through the snow, shivering with cold, I realised that I had a lot in common with Northern Ireland. I was stranded in the wilderness of Belfast with no way of escaping the cold, they remain stranded down in 70th place in the FIFA world rankings. We both wander aimlessly, scouring the landscape for a way out, a place to hide. Often, we don’t escape.
Sometimes, though, we stumble upon the Belfast Botanic Gardens and into the warmth and humidity of the Palm House, and when we do, it’s brilliant.
What I think I’m going to call ‘Palm House moments’ are the reason I like watching Northern Ireland more than I like watching England, or any of the other home nations. I still support England, I still want England to win, but I’m pretty comfortable in the knowledge that we’re mostly going to qualify for major tournaments without much difficulty. England, despite all their our failings, are a pretty good team. We are usually better than our opposition, even if we do make hard work of winning sometimes, and we don’t often lose qualifiers.
Northern Ireland, on the other hand, are cast as underdogs more often than not. Games against big name opposition like Serbia and Italy are always going to be difficult, but even smaller nations like Slovenia and Estonia provide a big challenge. Every player in green is required to give everything he has for as long as he is on the pitch if Northern Ireland are to get a result. Really great results don’t come along all that often, but when they do stumble into the Palm House, Northern Ireland do it in style.
A pinpoint diagonal ball from Sammy Clingan picked out Nial McGinn and he found Davis who crashed the ball home from 25 yards. Pat McCourt then weaved some magic to add a third before scoring a ridiculously audacious chip after a trademark elusive run into the box.
Take their 1-0 win over England in 2005. That was the only qualifier that England ever lost under Sven-Goran Eriksson. More recently, there was the 3-2 win over Spain in the qualifiers for Euro 2008, the tournament that Spain would go on to win. They beat a side containing such world-beaters as Xabi Alonso, Xavi, Fernando Torres and David Villa. As I said, when Palm house moments come, they come in style.
Northern Ireland’s most recent Palm House moment was a thing of pure joy. Having been pretty soundly beaten in the Home Nations tournament, been held to an uninspiring 0-0 draw at home by Slovenia and beaten 2-1 by an undeserving Serbia side in an empty stadium, they welcomed the Faroe Islands to Windsor Park.
The Faroes aren’t a big name to match the likes of England and Spain, but after their disappointing outings in the Home Nations games, Northern Ireland sorely needed a win. Things seemed to go perfectly with Aaron Hughes scoring his first international goal early in proceedings before Steven Davis added a second in the second half. A pinpoint diagonal ball from Sammy Clingan picked out Nial McGinn and he found Davis who crashed the ball home from 25 yards. Paddy McCourt, (aka Diego Derry, then weaved some magic to add a third before scoring a ridiculously audacious chip after a trademark elusive run into the box.
That goal put the icing on the cake of the Palm House moment and underlined why watching Northern Ireland is so enjoyable. They don’t have the big names to match those in the England side, they don’t go into every game as favourites, in fact they don’t go into many games as favourites, and they don’t win that often. When they do, though, it’s like I’m watching myself stumble out of the freezing wind and snow into the Palm House. The joy, the relief, the genuine delight at being out of the cold, and the surprising panache with which they claim their victory and make their escape, that sort of thing is why football is worth watching, and that’s why I’ll be watching Northern Ireland take on Estonia this Friday night instead of England vs Montenegro.
It’s a Palm House moment just waiting to happen.
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