2016 IN PICTURES – MARCH

March began for me at Solitude, to see Linfield take on Cliftonville in the Irish Cup, and get their first win there for four years.

The following week, Glentoran were the opponents, but the result was the same, a 3-0 win for Linfield.

After that, it was Solitude again, with Linfield only managing a 2-0 win this time.

Over the Easter Weekend, I went to see Northern Ireland take on Wales in Cardiff, and decided to make a trip of it between Bristol and Cardiff, getting some Street Art photos, and see Bristol Rovers take on Cambridge United.

Upon my return, I headed to Windsor Park to see Northern Ireland take on Slovenia.

The next day, I headed to Warrenpoint to see Linfield take on Warrenpoint, ending a busy Easter period of football watching.

Cliftonville v Linfield

Linfield v Glentoran

Cliftonville v Linfield

Bristol Street Art

Bristol Street Art Photo Album 1

Bristol Street Art Photo Album 2

Cardiff Street Art

Cardiff Street Art Photo Album

Wales v Northern Ireland

Wales v Northern Ireland Photo Album

Bristol Rovers v Cambridge United

Bristol Rovers v Cambridge United Photo Album

Northern Ireland v Slovenia

Northern Ireland v Slovenia Photo Album

Warrenpoint Town v Linfield

NORTHERN IRELAND 0-3 CROATIA 15.11.2016

In a year of milestones and firsts, Northern Ireland ended 2016 with another first, a first ever meeting against Croatia, meaning that Macedonia, Bosnia, Andorra, Gibraltar, Kazakhstan and Kosovo are now the only UEFA members that Northern Ireland have never played.

It was a game that had been a long time coming. The sides were supposed to meet at Windsor Park in March 1998 in what was Lawrie McMenemy’s first game in charge. That game got scrapped for some reason and Northern Ireland ended up playing against Slovakia instead. Ironically, Northern Ireland wore red and white squares against the Slovaks.

There were rumours of a game in 2009 while Davor Suker, now President of the Croatian FA, hinted at a future friendly when visiting Belfast to present an award to David Healy in 2014, before a meeting finally became a reality.

It was an indication of how far Northern Ireland have come that they can attract opposition of this level to Belfast.

Already two points clear in their World Cup Qualifying group, it would be a major surprise if they didn’t end up in Russia in June 2018, no disrespect to Ukraine, Turkey and Iceland.

Assuming they do, it will be their tenth tournament out of twelve they’ve tried to qualify for. The only ones they’ve missed out on have been when the year ends in 0, so don’t be putting money on them to win Euro 2020.

Despite their qualifying ratio, their record in finals isn’t that great, only reaching the Quarter-Finals once since France 98. Despite that, and the fact they’d be missing stars such as Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, this would still represent a major test for Northern Ireland to see where they are at.

Northern Ireland were hoping to make it a Croatian double of sorts, as Croatia legend Robert Prosinecki is the manager of Azerbaijan.

Unsurprisingly, Michael O’Neill made some changes for this game, giving starts to Liam Boyce, Alan Mannus and Matthew Lunds. Mannus would be familiar with Mario Mandzukic, who scored in both legs of Dynamo Zagreb’s European Cup tie against Linfield in 2008.

Northern Ireland had the first attacking moment of the game when Josh Magennis cross was fired across goal, with nobody running in to take advantage of it.

It was Croatia who got the first goal when Alan Mannus could hold on to a fierce shot and the ball was eventually scrambled in by Mario Mandzukic, though it looked like a handball by him as it went in.

Northern Ireland held their own but Croatia’s class was there to see, and they made it 2-0 when Duje Cop finished from close range after a corner was flicked on.

The match was a non event, not that surprising for a friendly in mid November. Fans were treated to a spectacular long range strike from Andrej Kramarić, drawing applause from the home fans as well.

Northern Ireland kept going, but their best opportunity came when Kyle Lafftery won possession from a defender, but couldn’t get enough height to lob it over the keeper.

Despite a late flurry, Northern Ireland couldn’t make any of their set pieces count, as they chased a goal to finish off the year.

It finished 3-0. A disappointing end to a year that Northern Ireland got to the knockout stages of the European Championship and made a good start to their World Cup Qualifying group.

This match won’t live long in the memory, but 2016 most certainly will for Northern Ireland supporters.

Photo Album

NORTHERN IRELAND 4-0 SAN MARINO 8.10.2016

Exactly a year to the day since a victory over Greece secured Northern Ireland’s qualification for Euro 2016, Northern Ireland were back in competitive action at Windsor Park, to face San Marino in a World Cup Qualifier.

This match was the first game to be held at Windsor Park since the redevelopment was completed.

The delay caused by the subsidence of The Kop meant that Northern Ireland’s opening home qualifier would be the first game at the redeveloped venue. The fact that Romania opened the Railway Stand last year having opened the North Stand in 1984 suggested that Germany would be this evening’s opponents having opened the original seated Kop, but FIFA’s fixture algorithm decided otherwise.

What this fixture lacked in glamour, it more than made up for in winnability. Though, we’re Northern Ireland, this is the sort of game we usually drop points in. Or so the cliche goes.

Something changed during Euro 2016 Qualifying, as Northern Ireland stepped up when expected to win against Finland (home), Greece (home) and Faroe Islands (home and away).

Despite that, the memories of two points from four games against Azerbaijan and Luxembourg in 2014 World Cup Qualifying still lingers.

Once you get the taste of something, you want more of it. Having seen their team reach a major finals for the first time in thirty years, Northern Ireland fans got a taste of tournament football, and want to recreate the memories of France in Russia.

The campaign got off to a reasonable start, a 0-0 draw away to Czech Republic being a solid foundation, no pun intended considering most of the pre-match build up focused on construction.

Unsurprisingly, Northern Ireland went straight on the attack. And finished it on the attack. And were on the attack in the moments inbetween.

For all of Northern Ireland’s attacking play, it mostly ended in frustration, the most frustrating when Stuart Dallas couldn’t finish from a Niall McGinn cross.

San Marino even ventured into Northern Ireland’s half, winning a corner and an attacking free-kick, the executions were too poor to trouble Michael McGovern.

The breakthrough came when Josh Magennis was hauled down in the penalty area, the penalty finished, rather appropriately, by Steven Davis, on the anniversary of his double strike against Greece.

There was a sense of frustration amongst the fans that Northern Ireland fans that it was only 1-0 at half-time. Perhaps they were saving all the goals for The Kop?

The task got a lot easier when Mirko Palazzi got sent-off for a foul on Michael McGovern. What was also helping Northern Ireland was the fact that San Marino’s keeper was punching every shot he faced, not always effectively.

Stuart Dallas fired wide from close range while Steven Davis fired over when played through. Conor Washington fired over from a goalkeeping parry.

Despite being dominant, Northern Ireland needed a second goal, just to sure of the points. They found out the hard way against Luxembourg in 2012 when a speculative shot and a lucky deflection turned a deserved win into a frustrating draw.

Josh Magennis thought he had scored the first goal in front of The Kop but it was disallowed for offside. Niall McGinn also had a goal disallowed after a fumble by the San Marino keeper, a decision pundits describe as “the sort of decision goalkeepers get”.

It was left to Kyle Lafferty to be the History Man, who started the game on the bench after not seeing any game time for Norwich this season.

Quite apt, as he scored Northern Ireland’s last goal in front of the old Kop, and flicked home a cross to make it 2-0.

Jamie Ward, for some reason wearing socks that were a different shade of green than the rest of the team, finished home from close range after a Kyle Lafferty flick on to make it 3-0.

In injury time, Steven Davis found enough time and space in the penalty area to flick the ball to Kyle Lafferty to put it into an empty net to make it 4-0. It was the last kick of the game.

It left Northern Ireland 3rd in the group with four points, two behind joint leaders Germany and Azerbaijan, the two sides Northern Ireland face next.

Up next is Germany, before Azerbaijan (November 2016) and Norway (March 2017) visit Windsor Park.

Even if we lose in Germany, those two home games are more than winnable. If we did, ten points from five games would be an excellent return at the halfway stage of the group.

Still a long way to go, so I wouldn’t be checking those Roubles.

Photo Album

THERE WE WERE, NOW HERE WE ARE : JOB DONE

So, here we are. It’s been a long journey, but the redevelopment of Windsor Park is finally complete.

On Saturday, Northern Ireland played San Marino in a World Cup Qualifier, since the completion of the redevelopment of the stadium, winning 4-0.

October 2016 - Barrier seperating entrances to South Stand and Kop.

October 2016 – Barrier seperating entrances to South Stand and Kop.

October 2016 - Entrance to The Kop.

October 2016 – Entrance to The Kop.

October 2016 - The Kop concourse

October 2016 – The Kop concourse

October 2016 - Seats in The Kop.

October 2016 – Seats in The Kop.

October 2016 - The Kop.

October 2016 – The Kop.

October 2016 - Seats in The Kop.

October 2016 – Seats in The Kop.

October 2016 - Back row of The Kop.

October 2016 – Back row of The Kop.

October 2016 - View from the back row of The Kop.

October 2016 – View from the back row of The Kop.

October 2016 - The Kop and South Stand.

October 2016 – The Kop and South Stand.

October 2016 - Windsor Park.

October 2016 – Windsor Park.

October 2016 - View from front row of The Kop.

October 2016 – View from front row of The Kop.

October 2016 - North Stand

October 2016 – North Stand

October 2016 - South Stand

October 2016 – South Stand

October 2016 - The Kop.

October 2016 – The Kop.

October 2016 - The Kop/North Stand junction.

October 2016 – The Kop/North Stand junction.

It’s important to note, that the whole project isn’t complete, just the Windsor Park part of it. There is still Midgely Park and Olympia Leisure Centre to be completed. Before you ask, no, i’m not doing a blog about a leisure centre being built.

Whisper it, but I might even do a similar blog about proposed redevelopments at Solitude and The Oval.

I can’t help but wonder what Archilbald Leitch would make of the current incarnation of his masterpiece.

THERE WE WERE, NOW HERE WE ARE : SEPTEMBER – OCTOBER 2016

September 2016 would prove to be the last full month of construction work.

The month began with Rangers visiting Windsor Park to take on Linfield in Jamie Mulgrew’s Testimonial, winning 7-0.

September 2016 - Turnstiles at far end of North Stand.

September 2016 – Turnstiles at far end of North Stand.

September 2016 - The Kop.

September 2016 – The Kop.

September 2016 - North Stand/The Kop junction.

September 2016 – North Stand/The Kop junction.

A delay in getting an alcohol licence meant that there were no bar facilities available when Linfield played Portadown on 10th September, with the club hoping to have them available when they faced Ards two weeks later.

September 2016 - Arm Railing added to The Kop.

September 2016 – Arm Railing added to The Kop.

September saw the announcement that Windsor Park would host two games later in October 2016 in a Women’s Under 19 tournament featuring France, England and USA as preparation for the Under 19 European Championship in 2017.

September 2016 - The Kop/North Stand junction

September 2016 – The Kop/North Stand junction

September 2016 - Far entrance of North Stand.

September 2016 – Far entrance of North Stand.

September 2016 - Street Lighting being erected at North Stand/Kop junction.

September 2016 – Street Lighting being erected at North Stand/Kop junction.

Premier Seat holders got the news they were waiting for on the day of the County Antrim Shield tie against Donegal Celtic, when it was announced that both corporate lounges were open, and they could avail of teas and biscuits if they wished.

The end of the month would be busy for Windsor Park, with Visit Belfast holding their AGM at the stadium.

Fans of Women’s Football would see their Irish Cup Final between Linfield and Cliftonville held at Windsor Park, which Linfield won 2-1.

The following day, Linfield’s match against Ards allowed fans to experience bar facilities at the rebuilt stadium for the first time.

September 2016 - More lighting added to North Stand/The Kop junction.

September 2016 – More lighting added to North Stand/The Kop junction.

September 2016 - Supporter's Bar at Windsor Park, location at junction of South Stand and Kop.

September 2016 – Supporter’s Bar at Windsor Park, location at junction of South Stand and Kop.

As preparation for the Northern Ireland v San Marino game continued, Sunday Life reported that FIFA President Gianni Infantino would be a special guest at that game.

With the stadium redevelopment nearing completion, supporters who require accessible access and seating were offered the opportunity to get a tour of the accessible facilities.

Another milestone was announced in late September 2016, when it was confirmed that Croatia would be the first team to play a friendly since the redevelopment was completed, in November 2016.

September 2016 - Barriers erected at far North Stand entrance.

September 2016 – Barriers erected at far North Stand entrance.

September 2016 - The Kop.

September 2016 – The Kop.

October 2016 - Adding the finishing touches

October 2016 – Adding the finishing touches

October 2016 - Adding some final touches.

October 2016 – Adding some final touches.

As the big day approached, the IFA announced a Lap Of Legends with celebrities such as Carl Frampton, James Nesbitt and Bethany Firth, before the match against San Marino.

October 2016 - Surface work.

October 2016 – Surface work.

October 2016 - Surface work.

October 2016 – Surface work.

October 2016 - Surface work continuing.

October 2016 – Surface work continuing.

Naturally, there would be a lot of media coverage surrounding the completion of the redevelopment, such as this article by Ivan Little on his memories of the stadium.

Not everybody was enthused by the redevelopment work, with local residents claiming the redevelopment has inconvenienced them and they have not seen any of the economic benefits they were promised.

THERE WE WERE, NOW HERE WE ARE : AUGUST 2016

Tonight is the big night, when Northern Ireland play San Marino at Windsor Park, the first game at the stadium since redevelopment was completed.

It’s possible that you’re reading this on your phone at Windsor Park.

In tonight’s blog we go back to August, the month when the new football season traditionally starts.

With the NIFL now based in offices at Windsor Park, they took the opportunity to hold the official press launch for the 2016-2017 season at Windsor Park.

Two days later, the stadium redevelopment had another milstone moment when Linfield’s new club shop was opened by manager David Healy, with players Paul Smyth and Stephen Fallon also in attendance.

August 2016 – North Stand/Kop Junction.

August 2016 – The Kop.

Lovers of food and drink rejoiced in August when it was announced that a contractor was in place to operate the match day bars and catering.

The bad news was, it wouldn’t start until 1st September.

August 2016 – The Kop, now filled with seats.

Also launched at Windsor Park in August was the 2017 Under 19 Women’s European Championship, with the final being at Windsor Park.

2017 could be a busy summer for Windsor Park, with Carl Frampton once again expressive his desire to have a fight at Windsor Park.

August 2016 – The Kop

August 2016 – Junction of North Stand/The Kop.

August 2016 – Seats in the North Stand/Kop junction now filled in.

In the middle of the month, Linfield began decorating the interior, with artwork of legends and iconic moments being added to the club’s offices.

August 2016 – Entrance at Olympia Parade.

August 2016 – The Kop

The end of August 2016 saw the first Women’s game since the redevelopment, with Linfield Ladies game against Mid Ulster Ladies being staged there, due to Linfield being presented with the league title after the game. Remember when the Men’s team used to win league titles?

August 2016 – Turnstiles being added to far end of North Stand.

August 2016 – North Stand/The Kop junction.

THERE WE WERE, NOW HERE WE ARE : JULY 2016

Northern Ireland might have been out of Euro 2016 by the start of July 2016, but this month saw supporters being given the opportunity to purchase their Block Bookings for the 2018 World Cup Qualifiers.

Supporters who began the Euro 2016 Qualifiers in The Kop would return there if they wish, though supporters who signed up at the start of the Euro 2016 Qualifiers being put on a waiting list to see if they can be accommodated once the final capacity of The Kop is confirmed.

July 2016 – North Stand/The Kop junction.

July 2016 – The Kop.

July 2016 – The Kop, as seen from Olympia Leisure Centre.

July 2016 – The Kop, as seen from Olympia Drive.

July 2016 – The Kop.

July 2016 – The Kop.

July 2016 – The Kop/North Stand junction

July 2016 – The Kop

In the middle of July 2016, another milestone was reached, when all the seating in The Kop was completed.

At the end of the month, there was speculation that the finished stadium could be hosting it’s first non-football event, with Carl Frampton stating he wanted to stage a fight there in 2017.

July 2016 – North Stand/Kop junction

July 2016 – North Stand/Kop junction

July 2016 – The Kop

THERE WE WERE, NOW HERE WE ARE : JUNE 2016

As the Northern Ireland team headed to France for the European Championship, work continued on the stadium redevelopment, with a turnstile being added to the Railway Stand, and the pitch getting relayed.

June 2016 – Turnstiles now added to Railway Stand.

June 2016 – The Kop.

As the team arrived in France, a major milestone of the redevelopment was rached in early June when the first seats were installed in The Kop.

On the opening night of Euro 2016, Windsor Park hosted a bike stunt show, Nitro Circus.

June 2016 – The Kop

June 2016 – The Kop/North Stand junction

June 2016 – The Kop, as seen from Olympia Leisure Centre

June 2016 – The Kop.

At the end of the 2015-2016 season, it looked like Linfield fans had seen the last of the North Stand, but they were back in there for their first game of the 2016-2017 season, a UEFA Cup tie against Cork City.

On the day of that match between Linfield and Cork, the NIFL opened their offices at Windsor Park, naming them after Mervyn Brown, former Secretary of the Irish League.

June 2016 – Smoking and Vaping Area. No, really. Fuck sake.

June 2016 – North Stand Turnstiles

June 2016 – North Stand concourse

June 2016 – Work ongoing at North Stand/The Kop junction.

June 2016 – More seats now added in The Kop.

June 2016 – The Kop/North Stand junction.

THERE WE WERE, NOW HERE WE ARE : MAY 2016

May 2016 began with two cup finals at Windsor Park, first of all, the Intermediate Cup Final between Ards and Institute on Bank Holiday Monday.

Sandwiched inbetween was the first Linfield AGM at the newly renovated stadium, in one of the lounges in the South Stand.

The second of those finals was the 2016 Irish Cup Final between Linfield and Glenavon, attended by 11,500 people, the biggest attendance at an Irish Cup Final since 2006, which was won 2-0 by Glenavon.

It was a match that marked the retirement of Jackie Fullerton.

May 2016 – The Kop.

May 2016 – The Kop.

May 2016 – Concourse added to North Stand.

May 2016 – Signage for Linfield Superstore outside Railway Stand.

May 2016 – The Kop.

May 2016 – The Kop

May 2016 – Former away supporters entrance at Boucher Road.

After the 2016 Northern Ireland Assembly Election, the number of government departments was reduced from twelve to nine. The department in charge of the Windsor Park Redevelopment, DCAL, will now form part of a new department, called Department for Communities.

On 25th May 2016, the Minister for this department was confirmed, Paul Frew, a DUP MLA for Lagan Valley.

Two days after his appointment, he was there in person to check it out, attending the Northern Ireland v Belarus friendly. By this point. the terracing in The Kop was completed, and a scoreboard was placed at the junction of The Kop and North Stand. This scoreboard would only be used for this match

At the other end of the North Stand, the junction of North Stand and Railway Stand was used for the first time in that match.

May 2016 – The Kop

May 2016 – The Kop

May 2016 – Signage in South Stand is now numbered entrances rather than lettered entrances.

May 2016 – The Kop

May 2016 – The Kop

May 2016 – The Kop

THERE WE WERE, NOW HERE WE ARE : APRIL 2016

The opening weekend of April 2016 saw Windsor Park host both Irish Cup Semi-Finals, one on a Friday and the other on a Saturday.

April 2016 – Ambulance parking space painted at junction of North Stand and Railway Stand.

April 2016 – The Kop.

April 2016 – Work on the North Stand/Railway Stand junction.

April 2016 – The Kop

The middle of April 2016 saw arrangements confirmed for the 2016 Irish Cup Final, with Glenavon fans being allocated the South Stand, and Linfield fans in the North Stand.

If you were that way inclined, there was also the option of corporate hospitality.

April 16th 2016 was to be a special day for Linfield supporters, as they were able to make use of the South Stand for the first time, in a league match against Coleraine.

Michael O’Neill wasn’t just offering advice in the dressing rooms at Windsor Park, he was offering advice in the functions rooms, being the guest at a Business Breakfast hosted by the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce.

April 2016 – Railway Stand almost completed.

April 2016 – South Stand.

April 2016 – The Kop.

Late April 2016 saw the announcement that Linfield had sold out their allocation for North Stand Upper for the Irish Cup Final, and were getting tickets made available for North Stand Lower.

April 2016 – The Kop.

April 2016 – Railway Stand/North Stand junction.

April 2016 – The Kop.

April 2016 – Railway Stand/North Stand junction.

April 2016 – Entrance to The Kop.

April 2016 – North Stand/Kop junction.

April 2016 – The Kop.