Northern Ireland fans mark 50 years since Troubles exile from Windsor Park

Northern Ireland football fans will gather in Newry on Thursday to mark 50 years since spiralling Troubles violence prevented international matches being played in Belfast.

By Mark Rainey
Wednesday, 16th February 2022, 5:51 pm
Updated Wednesday, 16th February 2022, 7:23 pm
Press report of Northern Ireland's 'emotional' return to Windsor Park in 1975
Press report of Northern Ireland's 'emotional' return to Windsor Park in 1975

During what would prove to be the bloodiest year of the terrorist campaigns, the Northern Ireland team was forced to stage its ‘home’ games in England from February 16, 1972 onwards for security reasons.

The decision to prevent our international rivals from travelling to Windsor Park and would last until April 1975 when Yugoslavia arrived in Belfast to a heroes’ welcome.

The run of 18 consecutive ‘home’ games away began in Yorkshire when Northern Ireland hosted Spain for a European Championship qualifier at Hull City’s Boothferry Park ground.

Northern Ireland football memorabillia which will be on display for an evening with Sammy McIlroy and Sammy Nelson in Newry on Thursday evening (17 Feb).

Around 20,000 people attended that game and watched a talented Spanish side take a first half lead, only to be pegged back by a goal from Third Division Port Vale striker Sammy Morgan on his debut – assisted by a certain George Best.

Sammy McIlroy also made his debut during that first home match on the road.

The other grounds to host the games were at Sheffield Wednesday, Everton, Fulham and Coventry City.

It was Yugoslavia – a county rife with ethnic tensions that would ultimately lead to widespread violence and war – that would travel to Belfast in April 1975 to restore a degree of normality to the local football scene.

Brian Hamilton scores the only goal at Windsor Park as Northern Ireland celebrate return to Windsor Park with a win against Yugoslavia

England would follow within weeks, being held to a 0-0 draw in a British Home Championship game.

To mark the 50th anniversary of those ground-breaking encounters, Bessbrook Northern Ireland Supporters Club is hosting an evening with Sammy McIlroy and long-serving Arsenal and NI full-back Sammy Nelson on behalf of the Amalgamation of Official NI Supporters Clubs (AONISC) and Irish FA Foundation.

On display will be an impressive array of memorabilia – charting the history of a team that has repeatedly punched well above its weight, qualifying for three World Cup finals and the European Championship finals in 2016.

AONISC chairman Gary McAllister said it is important to mark what was a “sad and difficult period” for international football, as well as appreciating the current stability.

He said: “Whilst this was a very sad and difficult period for our international side, it is a significant part of the history of the Northern Ireland team.

“Ultimately, Northern Ireland football prevailed. We take many things for granted today, but that wasn’t always so.”

The event takes place at Newry Hockey Club at 8pm on February 17.

Doors open at 7pm and admission is free.

• Twelve months into Northern Ireland’s exile from Windsor Park the lack of home advantage was having an impact, leading striker Derek Dougan to urge any NI fans in the Coventry area to support the team in a World Cup qualifier against Portugal.

In his News Letter column in March 1973, he wrote: “This is a begging letter to addressed to anyone able to get to Coventry City’s ground on the evening of Wednesday 28 March.

“We want to re-create the atmosphere of Windsor Park at Highfield Road.”

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