RICHARD BULLICK: Football fans still having a ball

Michael O'Neill permanently leaves Northern Ireland job

Michael O'Neill led Northern Ireland to the Euro 2016 finals, where they beat Ukraine five years ago this week.

Richard Bullick


Richard Bullick


Sports Columnist

The build-up to Friday evening’s big Euro 2020 battle between England and Scotland has inevitably evoked memories of the corresponding game 25 years ago.

It doesn’t seem like that far back in the mists of time but the realisation that current England player Jude Bellingham wasn’t born until more than seven years later makes one feel old!

Coming three decades after that famous World Cup win, England had high hopes of another trophy triumph on home soil and the hype built as the hosts progressed to the last four.

However, just like six years earlier at the Italia ’90 World Cup, England went out on penalties to familiar rivals, now just Germany without the West, at the semi-final stage.

This time, Gareth Southgate was the unfortunate fellow not to convert his spot-kick, taking an unwanted place in folklore alongside World Cup culprits Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle.

By incredible coincidence, Southgate is the England manager for this next opportunity to play at home in a major tournament and again Three Lions followers are dreaming big.

England did very well under the impressive Southgate at the 2018 World Cup, they have excitingly talented players in their squad and got off to a good start by beating Croatia.

The tournament being delayed by 12 months due to the pandemic means it is a neat quarter of a century since Euro ’96 and so much has changed in the intervening period.

Of course, Wembley has been rebuilt meantime, the Covid-19 pandemic means that there aren’t full stadiums this month and this tournament is being hosted by multiple countries.

In his show on BBC Five Live, our own Colin Murray hosted a fairly light-hearted but thought-provoking debate regarding whether football was better in 1981 than now or vice versa.

This columnist can’t remember back to 1981 but, in essence, this could be boiled down to a choice between rose-tinted nostalgia for yesteryear and celebrating supposed progress.

In that regard, it is hard to beat the wonder of childhood and, as has been said here before, our earliest sporting memories will always hold a special place and remain very vivid.

Welsh comedian Elis James summed it up brilliantly by saying ‘football is always there but doesn’t hold the place it did when you were a little kid and there was nothing else’.

After such a long gap of 58 years from their previous appearance at a major tournament, Wales were the surprise package at Euro 2016, memorably reaching the semi-finals.

Quipping about the average age of Welsh fans buying Panini stickers being 40, James admits that he ‘shouldn’t be as star-struck (by footballers) as a grown man’ of that age.

However, sport provides escapism whatever age we are and, although our circumstances can change considerably between these four-yearly events, they have a familiar feel.

Whether we’re talking World Cups in whatever sport, the Euros, Olympics, Commonwealths or Lions tours, we frame them by a mixture of what happened and where we were in life.

As children, we can converse easily with adults based upon a shared love of sport and following it also expands our knowledge of geography, culture and so forth when very young.

Our responsibilities, priorities and circumstances then evolve as the years go by but the excitement around major sporting events can almost let us experience second childhoods.

Although this writer would readily admit to not being the biggest football fan, there are plenty of flashbacks from tournaments through the years going right back to the 1986 World Cup.

As a captivated small boy back then, it would have been hard to imagine Northern Ireland not being at another major finals for a further three decades until the expanded Euro 2016.

A primary school child back when Bingham’s Boys were in Mexico, this time I was trying to get a meeting I was chairing for Sport NI wrapped up quickly to watch Michael O’Neill’s men.

It’s hard to believe the ‘Kings of Lyon’ victory over Ukraine was five years ago this week and who knows when Norn Iron will next be back at a big international football tournament.

Neither Irish side qualified for the delayed Euro 2020 but our celtic cousins Wales and Scotland are both there, the latter after a 23-year gap since the 1998 World Cup in France.

Naturally, there’s huge excitement in Scotland in spite of losing their opening game to the Czech Republic, a result that makes the Wembley battle with England even more important.

Just getting there is a big deal for Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, Scotland or Wales in the context of any given tournament but England’s goals are rather different.

Whether reasonably or otherwise, England are routinely expected by their media and fans to be credible contenders to go all the way in World Cups and European Championships.

So, there’s huge hype in advance, with vast acres of coverage inevitably followed by prolonged post-mortems when England eventually fall flat again on the big stage.

The fact England generally romp through qualification unchallenged leads to great expectations for the tournaments themselves, however misplaced on some occasions.

Some England sides simply haven’t been good enough to be regarded as world-beaters while others have unquestionably underachieved considering the talent available.

David Beckham’s supposed golden generation certainly didn’t deliver but his sending-off at France 1998 and damaged metatarsal saga four years later are part of footballing folklore.

Whatever our constitutional preferences, those in the other home nations tend to watch England campaigns with a degree of voyeuristic curiosity rather than any affinity.

Apart from footballing rivalries, English jingoism makes us love to hate them, so we’ll probably be rubber-necking with undisguised glee if and when it all goes wrong again.

In fairness, Southgate himself seems a good guy, skipper Harry Kane has Irish roots and a lot of people here follow English clubs but imagine what we’d have to put up with if they win!

At the very least, because England gave themselves a safety net by beating Croatia, nobody need feel guilty about cheering for an upset tonight as the Scots need the win much more.

Hopefully all three British sides can get through to the knockout stages to help maintain the interest of those of us who probably wouldn’t watch wall-to-wall football for its own sake.

Euro 2016 benefited from having the two sets of Irish fans in France in what were very different times pre-pandemic, with the GAWA and their Republic counterparts adding colour.

Many venues at this tournament are operating with reduced capacities and of course Dublin had to give up being one of the hosts cities due to their continued coronavirus restrictions.

There are reports this morning (Friday) that the final may yet be taken away from Wembley if quarantine restrictions on visiting dignitaries aren’t relaxed by the UK Government.

Whether compromise can be found, or who blinks first, remains to be seen but this story is a reminder of how these European Championships aren’t taking place in normal times.

As always though, the main focus continues to be on the football and what happens on the field these next few weeks will remain imprinted forever on the mind of fans, young and old.

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