Euro 2016

O'Neill hopes N. Irish recapture the spirit of '82

Fans in good cheer before Northern Ireland's 0-1 loss to Poland in Nice. They were no doubt hoping for a rebound against Ukraine yesterday.
Fans in good cheer before Northern Ireland's 0-1 loss to Poland in Nice. They were no doubt hoping for a rebound against Ukraine yesterday.PHOTO: REUTERS

BELFAST • It was just a few days shy of his 13th birthday, but Michael O'Neill was old enough to recognise that the goal he was celebrating meant more than just victory.

It was June 25, 1982, and the World Cup was taking place in Spain. O'Neill, the current coach of the Northern Ireland national team, was in front of his parents' television transfixed as Gerry Armstrong scored the only goal in a 1-0 group-stage victory against the hosts. It was the nation's most significant win since they reached the 1958 World Cup quarter-finals - and a divided country erupted in wild celebrations.

"It was an unbelievable night," O'Neill said, "and everyone forgot about the other stuff."

The "other stuff", euphemistically known as the Troubles, was a near three-decade sectarian conflict between Northern Ireland's Roman Catholic and Protestant communities that led to hundreds of deaths at the hands of the British government and rival terrorist groups on both sides.

"It didn't matter what religion they were. They were totally behind us," said Armstrong. "Everybody who was Irish supported us. We did what the politicians couldn't do. We united the country."

O'Neill is trying to repeat that earlier team's success as he leads Northern Ireland in their first European Championship appearance.

They are the second-smallest nation by population at the tournament after Iceland, while the Northern Ireland Football League Premiership is only semi-professional, leaving him with only a tiny pool of players.

"We are a country with less than 40 professional players to choose from," he said.

Most are drawn from the lower reaches of the English and Scottish league system.

Player recruitment is complicated further by Northern Ireland's history. Fifa, the sport's world governing body, has a unique eligibility provision that allows players born in Northern Ireland to play for the Republic of Ireland if they choose.

So despite the 1982 team's containing several Catholic players - notably Armstrong and Martin O'Neill, who is coaching Ireland at Euro 2016 - representing Northern Ireland remains problematic for some players.

Two members of the Ireland squad competing in France - Shane Duffy and James McClean - were born in Northern Ireland and played for their youth teams before switching to the Republic for their senior debuts.

McClean's decision led to him receiving several death threats. Representing Northern Ireland, with their historically pro-British supporter base, had become too difficult, he explained.

"You are looking around as a Catholic and seeing all the Union Jacks and listening to the fans' songs, and I just didn't feel at home at all," he said at the time.

Yet Northern Ireland today, O'Neill and others said, is almost unrecognisable. The Good Friday Agreement that brought peace has been in place for nearly two decades.

The Irish Football Association, the governing body for football in Northern Ireland, now runs youth tournaments every Saturday that bring together children from Catholic and Protestant areas.

"We have a very mixed squad, in terms of religious backgrounds and where they come from," O'Neill said of the national team. "Northern Ireland is a different place to the Northern Ireland I grew up in. This team are a reflection of that."

Many have the same opinion.

Said former striker David Healy, now coach of the country's biggest club, Linfield: "People made a deal of it years ago, that it used to be only Protestant players selected and Protestant fans watching.

"The fans, they'll forgive you anything on the pitch if you are 100 per cent committed."

Northern Ireland dropped their opener 0-1 to Poland, and while they looked to regroup against Ukraine yesterday, it is their final group game against world champions Germany that revives memories of their memorable triumph 34 years ago.

"If we go into that last game and we are still in it, anything can happen," O'Neill said. "I hope the whole country will be behind us."

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 17, 2016, with the headline 'O'Neill hopes N. Irish recapture the spirit of '82'. Print Edition | Subscribe