PHOTO DIARY OF A FOOTBALL SEASON : SEPTEMBER

September’s football watching began for me in Edinburgh, seeing Linfield take on Spartans in the Scottish Challenge Cup. That was followed two days later with World Cup action, as Northern Ireland took on Czech Republic at Windsor Park.

After that, it was all about Irish League action, taking in Linfield’s matches against Glentoran, Crusaders, Ballinamallard and Cliftonville.

Spartans v Linfield

Northern Ireland v Czech Republic

Northern Ireland v Czech Republic Photo Album

Linfield v Glentoran

Crusaders v Linfield

Linfield v Ballinamallard United

Cliftonville v Linfield

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2017 IN PICTURES – SEPTEMBER

September 2017 began with a road trip, and a long one at that, to Edinburgh, to see Linfield take on Spartans in the Scottish Challenge Cup.

Two days later, it was another football match with an international feel, an actual international, as Northern Ireland took on Czech Republic at Windsor Park.

The following weekend was busy, taking in Ryan Adams at Ulster Hall and then Linfield’s match against Glentoran.

There was more football to follow, taking in Linfield’s matches against Crusaders and Ballinamallard.

The following weekend was football free but not photo free, as I was out capturing Culture Night, and Street Art painted as part of Hit The North.

The month ended with a trip to Solitude to see Linfield take on Cliftonville. The less said about which, the better.

Spartans v Linfield

Northern Ireland v Czech Republic

Northern Ireland v Czech Republic Photo Album

Ryan Adams live at Ulster Hall

Ryan Adams live at Ulster Hall

Linfield v Glentoran

Crusaders v Linfield

Linfield v Ballinamallard United

Culture Night 2017

Culture Night 2017 Photo Album

Hit The North 2017

Hit The North 2017 Photo Album

Cliftonville v Linfield

NORTHERN IRELAND 2-0 CZECH REPUBLIC 4.9.2017

Exactly one year previously, Northern Ireland faced Czech Republic in Prague in their opening World Cup Qualifier. It was a 0-0 draw, a solid foundation to build on.

That night, I was at Ulster Hall to see Squeeze in concert, checking the score on my phone inbetween songs.

Usually at this stage of a World Cup Qualifying campaign, Northern Ireland’s hopes are Up The Junction, but this time was different, fans were already Tempted to make plans for Russia.

Solid foundations are not something Northern Ireland take advantage of. A win in Slovenia and a draw against Italy at the start of Euro 2012 Qualifying were solid foundations, but that campaign turned out to be a disaster.

Those who believe in destiny will have been glad to see Germany and Czech Republic in Northern Ireland’s group. In their former guises of Czechoslovakia and West Germany, they were both in Northern Ireland’s group in the 1958 World Cup Finals.

Those who even tempted fate by thinking of the Play-Offs would have been hoping to avoid a possible meeting with France, who eliminated them in 1958.

Recent meetings didn’t suggest a lot of goals, with the last three meetings between the sides finishing 0-0.

Such a scoreline might not have pleased those who like goals, but it would have been enough for Northern Ireland to secure 2nd place, but not yet a Play-Off place.

The numbers game was simple. Six games since that night in Prague, five more clean sheets, four successive wins, three games to go, two at home and one point was needed.

If they got that point, 2nd place would be secured, but not yet a Play-Off spot.

There are nine groups in Europe and only eight Play-Off places. Someone has to miss out. All nine teams will be ranked on their record against the teams that finish 1st, 3rd, 4th and 5th in their group. The team with the worst record would miss out. That would be so typical Northern Ireland to be that 9th team. Every point was vital.

Northern Ireland made a good start to the game, having the first chance when Josh Magennis headed over from a corner. It wasn’t a clear chance, but he was still annoyed with himself, having scored twice on the previous Friday against San Marino.

Czech Republic then had a lot of possession but didn’t do a lot with it.

Stuart Dallas then broke down the left win but his cross went straight to the Czech keeper.

Northern Ireland took the lead on 28 minutes when Oliver Norwood returned a headed clearance back into the penalty area straight into the path of Jonny Evans, who got a slight enough touch to put the ball in. It was his 2nd goal for Northern Ireland, his 1st coming against Poland in 2009.

With goals like that, he could end up getting a move to Man City, or even a big club.

He would have enjoyed ending an 8 year wait, Windsor Park dreamt of ending a 32 year wait.

As half-time approached, his brother Corry wanted to get in on the act, running towards the Czech goal before being brought down.

The free-kick was centrally placed. Right foot, left foot. Hit the target and you’ve got a chance. It was left foot, Chris Brunt, round the wall and beating the keeper at his near post.

Nobody had scored three goals in a competitive game against Northern Ireland since 2013. Nothing from the Czechs so far suggested that was going to change.

The second-half saw Czech Republic have a lot of possession but not do a lot with it. All that Michael McGovern was doing was catching practice.

It wasn’t as if Northern Ireland were sticking men behind the ball. Jonny Evans even found himself in the right wing position during a counter attack.

The final whistle blew and Windsor Park celebrated but not rapturously. It wasn’t job done. It wasn’t close to job done. It was just another smell step on the journey.

The night was made even more enjoyable for me by the lack of smelly tramps around me puffing on fegs and vapes. See, it can be done. Let’s make nights like this more of a regular thing on the pitch and in the stands.

2nd place was secured, as Northern Ireland now sit 2nd out of 9 Runners-Up. They are 5 points clear of 9th place Wales. Barring a Welsh goal spree in their final games, a draw from the last two games will be enough.

It might not even be needed depending on results in other groups.

Never mind 2nd place, we’re still in contention to win the group. Just about. Germany only need one point from their last two games. It’s an absolute credit to Northern Ireland that Germany still haven’t secured qualification despite winning eight games out of eight, considering that Belgium have qualified with seven wins out of eight.

Projected FIFA Rankings suggest that Northern Ireland would be seeded if they reach the Play-Offs. That would mean avoiding Italy and the Runner-Up of the Switzerland/Portugal group.

There would be no easy games but nobody to fear. Nobody who would stand out as being desperate to get. We’ll just have to take what we get and get on with it, much as we have done over the past three years.

You could say the the newly redeveloped Windsor Park has had it’s first night of celebration as an international venue. Let’s hope for another one in November.

Photo Album

MAGAZINE ARCHIVE : NI FOOTBALL – AUTUMN 2008

It’s a new era for Irish League football, as the top flight is reduced from 16 clubs to 12, with Michael Gault and David Rainey being the cover stars.

Northern Ireland have just started their campaign to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, and there is a full page review of their opening games against Slovakia and Czech Republic, where they only got one point from those two games.

Prior to that, Northern Ireland travelled to Scotland, and this game also got reviewed, as well as supporters experience of the trip.

Aaron Hughes gets interviewed, telling NI Football that he enjoys living in London now that he plays for Fulham, having been an Aston Villa player the last time he spoke to them.

From one Northern Ireland player who used to wear claret and blue to one who does, there is an interview with Burnley striker Martin Paterson.

Iain Dowie also reviews those opening two World Cup Qualifiers, stating that Northern Ireland really missed Kyle Lafferty in those two games.

Irish League sides in Europe during the summer of 2008 also gets reviewed and analysed.

There was a story which was a load of balls. The IFA agreed a deal with Umbro to supply matchballs. In competitions, you could win a pair of Umbro boots endorsed by Peter Thompson.

Roy Walker gets a double page interview, having just been appointed as Ballymena United manager, a year after a two day stint as Glentoran manager.

Relegated on a technicality, there is a full page feature on Portadown, as they aim to return to the top flight at the first time of asking.

There is also a double page feature on Northern Ireland’s underage sides, as they prepare for a busy run of fixtures.

Tim Mouncey is interviewed, spilling the beans on his team-mates, revealing that Andy Hunter is the grumpiest player at Portadown.

Warren Feeney gets interviewed having signed for Dundee United, and his ambitious to win trophies at Tannadice.

There is also a full page feature on newly promoted Bangor, who have just made Irish League history by playing in the first game to be played on a Sunday, against Glentoran at The Oval.

There are also interviews with Peter Thompson (Stockport County) and Steven Davis (Rangers, loan move made permanent) as they begin the season at new clubs.

THE SUMMER THAT ‘FOOTBALL CAME HOME’

In football, there are some teams who, when they are due to play each other, will generate excitement and anticipation amongst football fans.

England v Germany on Sunday is one such match. When you think of England and Germany, you inevitably think of 1990, of 1996, and even, of 1966.

The added spice to Sunday’s game, is how early in the competition it is. There’s nothing better in cup football, than a heavyweight clash in the early stages of the competition, between two sides who believe they can win the competition, but know they face an opponent capable of giving them an early exit.

For me, the clash between the two sides that I remember most is the European Championship Semi-Final in 1996, the 14th anniversary of which will come the day before the sides meet in Bloemfontein.

Looking back, Euro 96 was a competition and time I remember fondly. In 1996, i’d just turned 13, and had just had my first full season watching Linfield every week with my mates, and having a laugh, which I suppose you had to do, as Trevor Anderson’s bunch of expensively assembled misfits limped into mid-table obscurity.

Euro 96 was the first European Championship which had 16 teams competing in 4 groups of 4, meaning that you wouldn’t have major nations missing out like you did in the 8 team format.

There were two matches each day, with the first one kicking-off not long after four (can’t remember if it was quarter-past or half-past), meaning a quick run home from school to watch the first game, dinner, homework (I went to a school where the teachers gave you homework in June) and then watch the evening match with friends.

A combination of growing up but still being young, what felt like endless sunny days and what felt like the charts being dominated by acts like Oasis, Blur, Pulp, Space and Suede (Despite the fact that, in reality, the two biggest selling acts of 1996 were Spice Girls and Robson & Jerome) will forever have the summer of 1996, and it’s major football tournament fondly remembered in my mind.

Perhaps it is my mind playing tricks on me by remembering this event fondly? Maybe if I was 10 years older, i’d be fondly reminiscing about the 1986 World Cup? 10 years younger, and perhaps i’d be fondly remembering the 2006 World Cup?

There’s no denying that Euro 96 is an event which benefits generously from a rewriting of history. Outside of Wembley, and group games at Old Trafford and Villa Park, a lot of the games were played in half-empty stadiums.

I suppose this rewriting of history is a good example of how the English media cover international tournaments, where it’s all about England and nobody else matters, so consumed were they with what was happening in London, they didn’t even notice the empty seats in the North of the country.

With the tournament taking place during the school year, there was never any hope of me going over to this, and I really wanted to go.

Northern Ireland’s campaign was a spectacularly heroic failure, managing to finish unbeaten away from home, but out of the qualifying positions due to home defeats to Latvia, and most devastatingly, Republic of Ireland.

Despite that, me and a friend sat in front of the TV one Sunday afternoon in December 1995 for the draw, and gasped in disbelief as England and Scotland were paired together. Switzerland and Holland didn’t even get a mention as all the hype of the tournament centred around this game.

As with every international tournament, the morning of the opening game always makes me feel like an excitable child on christmas eve, counting down the hours and minutes until kick-off.

I watched the opening game of Euro 96, England v Switzerland, in the company of a half-Swiss friend, as England stuttered to a 1-1 draw against the Swiss.

Finally, the tournament was up and running and football had truly come home.

The following Saturday, was the big one, England v Scotland. Both teams were level on one point, and knew that a win would virtually guarantee qualifivation for the Quarter-Finals.

I watched it as a neutral, not really caring who won, just enjoying the fact that two British teams were going at each other, to put one over the other and retain local pride, for their fans, unaware that they were taking part in a major international competition, as ‘putting one over the other lot’ was all that mattered.

With England leading 1-0 with 15 minutes to go, Scotland win a penalty. Gary McAllister saw his shot saved by David Seaman, the resulting corner was cleared upfield, and the England counter-attack saw Paul Gascoigne make it 2-0 for England.

From having a chance to draw level, to going two goals down (or, from almost being pegged back level to going tow goals up, in the space of a minute) in the space of a minute, that’s how football can just mess with your emotions. That’s why people love it and hate it in equal measure.

Thankfully, being neither English or Scottish, I just sat and watched non-plussed.

Come Tuesday night, England were actually out-Dutching the Dutch and allowing a way back in for Scotland, as England’s 4-0 lead, combined with Scotland’s 1-0 lead over Switzerland saw Scotland in a position where they could qualify from a group stage for the first time in their history.

It was too good to be true, and it was, as a Patrick Kluivert goal for Holland swung the race for second place in their favour.

COME ON ENGLAND!!!!!!!! COME ON SCOTLAND!!!!!! I screamed at the TV, wishing one of the two would score a goal that would send Scotland through. It didn’t come.

England advanced to a Quarter-Final against Spain, where they triumphed, whisper it, on a penalty shoot-out. It’s strange, that when the media bring up England’s record in a penalty shoot-out, they never mention this game.

Germany had been very German in their progress, ruthlessly disposing of Czech Republic and Russia before grinding out a draw against Italy, a result which saw the Italians eliminated at the group stage.

In that match against Russia, the Russian manager came up with a brilliant excuse for his teams underperforming, that the home crowd at each ground they played at was against them.

Against Germany at Old Trafford, he claimed that United fans came out to cheer for Germany in protest against Andrei Kanchelskis sour transfer to Everton the previous year.

For their remaining matches at Anfield, he claimed Liverpool fans were cheering for the opposition partly because Kanchelskis was an Everton player, but mainly, because he was an ex United player.

France, also faced a hostile crowd in their matches at Newcastle, by Geordies angry at local favourite David Ginola being left out of the French squad.

After beating Croatia at Old Trafford, Germany had set up a Semi-Final meeting with England at Wembley.

You can tell how big a football match is, by how many people are talking about it, especially people who don’t usually follow or talk about football. In class that day, even the teachers were talking about the game.

The tournament organisers had arranged for both Semi-Finals to take place on the same day, one in the afternoon, another in the evening.

The first Semi-Final was a non-event as far as the English media were concerned, a mere warm-up to the main event.

To be fair, the game between France and Czech Republic hardly inspired the BBC pundits, sat in Wembley three hours before kick-off.

To the BBC’s annoyance, the game at Old Trafford went to extra-time, then penalties, then sudden death penalties, which the Czechs eventually won.

From there, it was a case of well done Czech Republic, almost dismissively, as their prize was to be runners-up to England in the Euro 96 Final.

The Germans couldn’t win, could they?

In truth, it would be very ungerman if they didn’t win. They always seem to have a knack of beating host nations and media darling teams.

It’s why I have a sneaky admiration for the German football team. Supporting Man United and Linfield, you get used to supporting “The bad guys”, the team everybody loves to see lose, which would perhaps explain my admiration for Germany.

The match kicked-off with clear skies over London. As the teams walked out in daylight, they knew that by the time the match would finish and that the sun would set, and the sky turn dark. For one of them, the sun would set on Euro 96.

I watched the game with friends, with excitement, not really caring who won, but just wanting it to be a memorable occasion.

England started on the front foot, and scored within three minutes. Alan Shearer, who else.

With 80,000 roaring them on at Wembley, and millions more in front of their TV, most teams would have crumbled under the wave of England pressure. Not Germany.

It was quite ironic that the scorer of the German equaliser be Steffan Kuntz (pronounced Koontz) whose name had made him the butt of David Baddiel and Frank Skinner’s jokes, should score the equaliser against the team riding on a crest of a wave soundtracked by Baddiel and Skinner.

At 90 minutes, it was 1-1, cue anything between 1 and 30 minutes of extra-time. Euro 96 was the first tournament to have the ‘Golden Goal’ rule in extra-time. It was basically goal the winner. A rule, from the school playground, was now being used to decide a European Championship Semi-final.

The two Quarter-Finals that used this were dour encounters, with both teams settling for a penalty shoot-out when the final whistle blew at 90 minutes, and shut up shop for half an hour, to make sure they got to penalties, and to conserve their energy for the shoot-out.

This one was different, as both teams went for it, to try and end it there and then. Both teams tried, but were just unable to.

As Gascoigne was unable to reach out enough to divert a cross-shot into the net, it was hard not to think about how all those England fans who’d mocked Carlton Palmer were thinking, as if it was his long legs reaching out for that cross, history would have been rewritten.

As the game went to penalties, there was an inevitability about the outcome.

Despite England scoring all of their penalties, the Germans did likewise. To expect the Germans to even miss just one penalty appeared to be asking too much. When England missed, the Germans were never going to let them out of jail.

We sat in front of the TV, just drained by the 120 minutes of football we had just witnessed. It was games like that which was he we had kickabouts in the street (and sometimes climbing into a local school), dreaming that we migth play in (and win) a match of that magnitude. None of us ever did.

In school the next day, was the same as the previous day, as the football dominated the conversation. The day before it was excitement of the match ahead, today, it was analysis and reaction of the match just passed.

At the end of that week, another school year was done and dusted, and a long summer awaited.

Was 1996 the summer that football came home?

Maybe not, it was just a line in a song which caught the mood of a period in time. But, my word, what a period in time.