DARING TO DREAM
Why ALLY McKENZIE is starting to believe Northern Ireland could qualify for a major tournament
Northern Ireland’s Euro challenge
FIVE years before my birth was the last time Northern Ireland were in a major tournament (1986) and since then there hasn’t been much to celebrate.
Well, just that win against England, that victory against Spain and countless other one-off games that have come and gone down the years, filling the void and momentarily disguising the fact that we just aren’t good enough to mingle with the world’s best in major tournaments.
At the beginning of the new Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, there was faint talk, whispers behind closed doors that with third place guaranteeing a play-off, there might just be a chance of qualification.
But even the most optimistic among us couldn’t possibly let ourselves dream. The pessimist in us saw a team being led into the new campaign by a manager (Michael O’Neill) with a very low win percentage and a team of good, but not great, players, very few of which came from the Premier League, the rest mostly journeymen in the Championship, League One and Scottish Premier League.
It’s funny what a couple of good results early in a campaign can do. Coming from behind to win away at Hungary (2-1), a home victory against the Faroe Islands (2-0), a win in Greece (2-0) and we are waiting for the self-destruct button to be slammed and for this whole dream to implode. In the aftermath of the Romania defeat (2-0), it threatened to happen.
However, there was a moment during the home win against Finland (2-1) at the end of March when our mental maths were on par with Carol Vorderman’s, daring to do the sums, adding the hypothetical points together from games to come, the dream of qualification becoming a reality.
Supporting a team that gloriously underachieves, one struggles to be truly optimistic. We remained grounded.
And then Kyle Lafferty banged in his second and news crept in of Greece and Hungary’s draw (0-0) and we were google translating ‘A campervan for two weeks in France please’.
Suddenly the taste of success, like a sip from our first ever pint of beer, is unfamiliar but something we know we will gladly get used to.
At the time of writing, the Euro Qualifiers have reached the halfway point and while Eng- land have all but booked their ferry across to France, the rest of the home nations are in healthy but not rock-solid positions.
Wales, led by the talismanic Bale, look like they could take on the best on their day while Scotland and the Republic of Ireland are surely going to cancel the other out in a bid for third place behind Germany and Poland.
The teams are in their healthiest positions during qualification for years but we are all afraid to celebrate the fact.
And that’s the thing about being a football supporter – we are a superstitious bunch who believe that by speaking out loud, we are putting the blink on our team.We don’t let ourselves dream big for fear of crashing back to earth with an away defeat to the Faroe Islands.
But isn’t the beauty of the beautiful game found in the small shards of hope that we cling on to, the belief that we’ll see our team in a major tournament in our lifetime?
We aren’t asking for a big fanfare, a royal procession or even our own birthday cake, just an invitation to the party. And by the way, it’s ‘Un camping-car pendant deux semaines en France se il vous plaît’. I hope so, anyway...