The News Letter’s GRAEME COUSINS takes a tour of the National Stadium as Northern Ireland begin their Euro 2020 qualifying campaign with two home games
Keen to show off the magnificent new home of the Northern Ireland national team, in 2017 the Irish FA began allowing football fans unprecedented access to the significantly upgraded stadium.
And it has been a major success story with the guided tours of the stadium – also home to Linfield FC – now ranked by TripAdvisor as the second best visitor experience in terms of things to do in Belfast.
When the tours began in 2017 there were 7,127 visitors to the stadium, in 2018 there were 8,500 and the target for this year is 11,000.
The tour includes a visit pitchside as well as access to the tunnel, changing rooms, press conference area, hospitality lounges – pretty much everywhere that regular matchday fans don’t get to go.
One of the key components of the tour is the Education and Heritage Centre which tells the story of Northern Irish football using a variety of media including many experiences you can physically immerse yourself in – including taking penalties against a virtual Pat Jennings and trying to stop a mazy dribble from a CGI version of Keith Gillespie.
While the trophy count is minimal – the British Home Championship being the NI team’s only international silverware of note – the number of fascinating artefacts from the 1880s to the present day more than make up for the bare trophy cabinet.
The tours of the stadium are managed by east Belfast man and Cliftonville star Stephen Garrett.
He said: “As far as I know there weren’t any scheduled tours of the old Windsor Park, unless they were on an ad hoc basis.”
Explaining how he got involved in the role, he said: “I’ve a career history of volunteer management and in business development which worked well for going for the role internally.
“We have 21 volunteer tour guides aged from their mid twenties up to 80.”
One of those volunteers is 68-year-old Allen Patton from Richhill who took this Tuesday’s tour.
He said: “I came home after the Euros in France and I looked up the IFA website and saw they wanted tour guides.
“I thought I’d be too nervous for that, but I got an interview, went along and they could see passion I had.
“I got the job and then had to start brushing up on my knowledge. I’d always been a fan of Northern Ireland.
“I think the first match I went to was about 60 years ago, against Scotland, I’ve had been eight.
“Like most supporters I knew bits and pieces of the history of Northern Ireland, Windsor Park and the Irish League, but I had to do a lot of research to fill in the rest.
“I did a lot of reading up using the likes of Google and Wikipedia, then you start taking the tours and stories get passed on by word of mouth.
“The first thing I ask people on the tours is if they’re in a hurry. The tours take two hours, but sometimes people will start sharing memories and the time flies by.”
Allen, who is a former Glenavon player, said: “I only played about 20 games for the club, but then the way I look at it, that’s 20 games more than a lot of people.”
He added: “I love it here inside the National Stadium.
“I’ve always loved coming to Windsor Park but I never dreamed I would ever feel at home here.”
The National Stadium project, which was completed in October 2016, gave Windsor Park a new capacity of 18,600 seats.
The stadium features four hospitality lounges – named after Northern Ireland football legends Pat Jennings, Danny Blanchflower, George Best and Billy Bingham – as well as 10 corporate boxes.
It features an education and heritage centre and a store selling Northern Ireland merchandise.
The ground is also now the Irish FA’s headquarters and also houses the offices of both the Northern Ireland Football League (NIFL) and Linfield FC.
Tours cost £8.50 for adults, £5.50 for children and £6.50 concession. Family passes cost £25.
For more information see www.irishfa.com/tours
Getting to see more than just ‘good room’
When we first moved into our 1920’s semi-detached house in east Belfast we weren’t keen to show guests anywhere other than the good room and allow them use of the toilet.
Then we got an extension, a new kitchen and some aesthetic work done to the house and now every visitor is offered a guided tour.
The same could be said for Windsor Park where, since its makeover, fans have been offered access all areas to the new surrounds.
Northern Ireland fans and Irish League supporters will of course have treasured memories of the ground down the years since it hosted its first game between Linfield and Glentoran in 1905, but truth be told, it had become something of a relic.
Like many the most I’d seen of Windsor Park had been the ‘good room’ and the toilets, but having taken the tour this week I felt privileged to stand in the players’ tunnel, take a seat in the George Best lounge where the high and mighty congregate, and touch the peg where the legendary Steven Davis’ shirt is hung.
While getting pitchside was a big moment – including an impromptu pic with Northern Ireland’s leading goalscorer David Healy who was there on Linfield duties – the museum was the part of the tour that really impressed me.
Through its artefacts, storyboards and interactive areas the Education and Heritage Centre reflects the passion of the fans, the amazing feats of NI’s players and the rich history of the Irish League.
Scoring a penalty past a computer generated Pat Jennings was a highlight, but I reckon he hadn’t been programmed to deal with the Panenka – a cheeky chip down the centre of the goal.
One of the interesting pieces of trivia I learnt on the tour had absolutely nothing to do with football.
Every now and again a hawk gets let off inside the ground to stop seagulls and pigeons from nesting in the stadium’s upper reaches.
Forget VAR technology, Windsor Park has its own hawk-eye.