NI team serve up sporting ecstasy for a small country

Morning View
Morning View

What a stunning victory for Northern Ireland.

Not only do our football heroes beat Greece, a country with a population six times larger, but they did some in some style by 3-1.

Now, for the first time, the squad is off the Euros in France.

A decade ago, Northern Ireland beat England (population almost 30 times bigger) at Windsor Park, a stunning David and Goliath moment. The following year, a David Healy hat-trick saw Our Wee Country beat Spain (population almost as large as England’s).

But while these were joyous moments for the Province, last night was the biggest soccer moment here since Northern Ireland qualified for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, which happened four years after the team had the dream-like experience of beating Spain, the hosts in the 1982 World Cup.

Among the crowd at yesterday’s match was Kate Hoey, the Labour MP and former UK-wide sports minister, who is among Northern Ireland’s most dedicated supporters. She writes opposite about how this success is all the sweeter because it triumphantly caps a long and often difficult time for the Northern Ireland team.

The smallness of this Province means that our sporting successes, when they come, are particularly special.

We have had three major golf tournament winners within the last five years, when England has had only one in the last almost 20. It was moving last night to see one of those golfing stars, Rory McIlroy, among the crowd at Windsor Park.

Rory has talked about his Irish and British identities, and symbolises a generation that increasingly coalesces behind their Northern Irishness, even if they feel other identities at the same time.

The warmest congratulations are due to Michael O’Neill and his magnificent players for a victory that has spread joy throughout this country.