FOOTBALL IN 2017

At this time of year, I usually write about my hopes for football watching over the following year.

In truth, I never really know what is going to happen. As 2015 turned into 2016, I would not have predicted that I would be travelling to Dumfries to see Linfield playing in the Scottish Challenge Cup, or that I would be evacuated from Old Trafford because somebody forgot to remove a dummy bomb.

I’m going to try though, with my football watching hopes for the year ahead.

LINFIELD

Win the League, win the Irish Cup and win the County Antrim Shield. That’s what I want. That would bring European football, with hopefully a run, and some games against clubs in the 102 Club.

As well as playing in Europe, domestic success would also qualify us for the Scottish Challenge Cup. I absolutely loved the trip to Dumfries, so hopefully a trip to somewhere in Dumfries/Galloway or Ayrshire would be great.

Or even the Central Belt, if flights were a decent rate.

Then there is pre-season. The same criteria applies, a ground I haven’t been to, or haven’t been to for a while, and is close to Belfast. So, that criteria would be any of Loughgall, Moyola Park, Knockbreda or Annagh United.

MANCHESTER UNITED

Going to the League match against Hull at the end of January. I’m going Tuesday to Thursday, with the Hull game provisionally scheduled for the Wednesday. On the Tuesday, i’m free. Wigan play Norwich that night, so it could be a chance to see the almost mythical Will Grigg. There are no scheduled games in League One and League Two, that date might be used for rearranged games. I’ll wait until quite late before deciding wether to go to a game that night.

I’m hoping to go to the Crystal Palace game at the end of the season.

Hopefully, United will be back in the European Cup in 2017/2018, and this would allow me to go to a midweek group game. Ideally, in November/December, so I can take Manchester Christmas Market.

IRISH LEAGUE

I’ll be keeping an eye on the Championship table and the promotion race. The way the table is at the moment, it looks like Warrenpoint will be promoted, with Institute, Ballyclare and Larne battling it out for the play-off. If there is a team to be promoted via the play-offs, I wouldn’t mind it being Larne as I haven’t been there since 2005.

February 18th will see the League Cup Final between Ballymena United and Carrick Rangers at a as yet undecided venue. I might see about getting a ticket for this as a neutral. Carrick are at home to Linfield the previous weekend, so there would be a good opportunity for me to get a ticket.

In 2017, Christmas Day will fall on a Monday for the first time since 2006. That year, the Steel and Sons Cup Final was held on Saturday 23rd December as there were no top flight games on that day. I’d be tempted in going in 2017 if there was a similar arrangement.

LEAGUE OF IRELAND

Usually, I take in a day trip to Dublin and take in a League Of Ireland game while i’m there. The fixture list was announced today, and i’m still digesting it.

Bray Wanderers (close to Dublin) used to play on Saturdays (far more convenient) but they’ve now decided to play on Fridays.

There is a full fixture list on Saturday 25th March 2017 due to an international the day before. However, Linfield are away to Ballinamallard that day, so Linfield take priority. If Linfield’s match is postponed due to international call-ups, this would be tempting. The options would be Bray v Limerick, Cabinteely v Cobh, UCD v Longford or St Patrick’s Athletic v Shamrock Rovers.

There may be games moved to Saturday or Sunday due to European games in June/July. I’ll keep an eye out, though there’s no real obvious other date for me to go down.

NORTHERN IRELAND

I can’t say i’d be planning on going to Russia if we reached the World Cup, but it would be great if I could be in a situation where i’m toying with the idea.

SCOTLAND

I didn’t go to the Edinburgh Festival in 2016 but i’m planning to return in 2017. Naturally, that would take in whichever of Hearts is at home, and if I could get a bonus of another game in the Central Belt.

So, that’s my football watching hopes for 2017. I’ll be amazed if any of this goes to plan.

2016 IN PICTURES – NOVEMBER

November 2016 began with an eventful trip to Lurgan to see Linfield recover from being both two goals and two men down against Glenavon to secure an unlikely draw.

It was followed by a busy week. I was out on the road again to see Linfield take on Ballymena, before heading to The Odyssey to see Bastille in concert.

Two days later, I was at Windsor Park to see Northern Ireland take on Azerbaijan, before heading back on the road to see Linfield take on Dungannon Swifts.

I then headed to near the Royal Mail’s office to photograph a new mural of various popculture icons such as David Bowie, Christopher Walken, Kes and Adam Ant.

The following midweek, I was back at Windsor Park to see Northern Ireland take on Croatia in a friendly, before heading back to Windsor Park the following Saturday to see Linfield take on Cliftonville.

November ended with a weekend in Manchester, going to see United take on Feyenoord and West Ham, see Bury take on Millwall via Broadhurst Park, as well as capturing Street Art in Manchester and Salford Quays, and some stickers left by Feyenoord fans around the city.

Those trips to Old Trafford were my first since Jose Mourinho became United manager.

Glenavon v Linfield

Ballymena United v Linfield

Bastille live at The Odyssey

Bastille live at The Odyssey Photo Album

Northern Ireland v Azerbaijan

Northern Ireland v Azerbaijan Photo Album

Dungannon Swifts v Linfield

Down By The Royal Mail II

Down By The Royal Mail II Photo Album

Northern Ireland v Croatia

Northern Ireland v Croatia Photo Album

Linfield v Cliftonville

Manchester Street Art

Manchester Street Art Photo Album

Manchester United v Feyenoord

Manchester United v Feyenoord Photo Album

Salford Quays Street Art

Salford Quays Street Art Photo Album

Feyenoord Stickers

Feyenoord Stickers Photo Album

Bury v Millwall

Bury v Millwall Photo Album

Broadhurst Park

Manchester United v West Ham United

Manchester United v West Ham United Photo Album

2016 IN PICTURES – OCTOBER

October began with a trip to The Oval, to see Linfield take on Glentoran, play awful but grind out a 2-1 win.

The following Saturday, I went to see Northern Ireland take on San Marino, the first game at a fully redeveloped Windsor Park.

I then went home, and got a bit of sleep, before an early morning boat to Dumfries to see Linfield take on Queen of the South in the Scottish Challenge Cup.

The following Saturday, it was back to Windsor Park to see Linfield take on Ballinamallard United.

Two days later, I was Limelight bound to see Feeder in concert.

There were then two frustrating weekends as I was then Coleraine bound the following Saturday to see Linfield held to a frustrating draw, just as they were at home to Crusaders the following Saturday.

The month ended by going to see KT Tunstall in concert at Mandela Hall.

Glentoran v Linfield

Northern Ireland v San Marino

Northern Ireland v San Marino Photo Album

Queen of the South v Linfield

Linfield v Ballinamallard United

Feeder live at The Limelight

Feeder live at The Limelight Photo Album

Coleraine v Linfield

Linfield v Crusaders

KT Tunstall live at Mandela Hall

KT Tunstall live at Mandela Hall Photo Album

2016 IN PICTURES – JUNE

June 2016 was a month that was dominated by Euro 2016.

The early days of the month were spent chronicling a mural in East Belfast to commemorate Northern Ireland’s qualification, getting pictures of the final piece upon my return from France.

Oh yes, I was in France. Wasn’t that fussed about France as a country, but loved the three matches (France v Romania, Northern Ireland v Poland, Republic of Ireland v Sweden) I was at.

I also got some Street Art photos in Paris, and London, as I flew back from Gatwick due to there being no Paris-Belfast flights on a Tuesday.

Not a lot else happened in the rest of the month. That was, until, the final, when I attended two Belsonic concerts.

Belsonic? Yes, this year, it moved to June (though there were later concerts in August) and I went to see Elli Goulding and Stereophonics.

And it was at a new venue, Titanic Belfast.

There was even some domestic club football this month, as the last day of the month saw Linfield lose 1-0 at home to Cork City in the UEFA Cup.

Pride, Passion Belief

Pride, Passion, Belief Photo Album

Paris Street Art

Paris Street Art Photo Album

France v Romania

France v Romania Photo Album

Northern Ireland v Poland

Northern Ireland v Poland Photo Album

Republic of Ireland v Sweden

Republic of Ireland v Sweden Photo Album

London Street Art

London Street Art Photo Album

Ellie Goulding live at Titanic Belfast

Ellie Goulding live at Titanic Belfast Photo Album

Stereophonics live at Titanic Belfast

Stereophonics live at Titanic Belfast Photo Album

Linfield v Cork City

2016 IN PICTURES – MAY

May 2016 began for me by going to see Space. Not the planet, but the band, doing a gig at The Empire.

The following day, was the Irish Cup Final between Linfield and Glenavon, the less said about that game, the better.

The following weekend, I was in Manchester and managed to get some Street Art photos, including one of a mural of David Bowie in the Northern Quarter.

It certainly made up for not seeing any football, after the Manchester United v Bournemouth match that I travelled over for was postponed.

Towards the end of the month, I headed to Windsor Park to see Northern Ireland take on Belarus in their final home game before heading to Euro 2016.

Two days later, I headed to Dublin on a day trip, taking lots of Street Art photos and going to see Bohs take on St Patrick’s Athletic, my first visit to Dalymount Park in six years.

Space live at The Empire

Space live at The Empire Photo Album

Linfield v Glenavon

Linfield v Glenavon Photo Album

Manchester Street Art

Manchester Street Art Photo Album

Salford Quays Street Art

Salford Quays Street Art Photo Album

Northern Ireland v Belarus

Northern Ireland v Belarus Photo Album

Dublin Street Art

Dublin Street Art Photo Album

Bohemian FC v St Patrick’s Athletic

Bohemian FC v St Patrick’s Athletic Photo Album

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.