And so, we know at last the Irish Football Association's opinion on where they see Northern Ireland international matches being played in the long-term. They shall remain at the home of Linfield FC at Windsor Park.
The South Belfast venue has played host to some of my most memorable nights in football. My favourite was the historic Healy strike against England in 2005 (wasn't everyone's?!). But for me, his consolation header against Norway a year previous in a 4-1 defeat was just as special, ending 1298 minutes without a goal. Windsor rocked, quite literally. Those who have experienced the Railway Stand will know what I'm talking about. It is now closed, leaving Northern Ireland matches a whole section of fans down. The place is an accident waiting to happen!
Good on the IFA for making it clear what's going to happen. Windsor Park will see a re-vamp. Lets bring this fine old ground into the Twenty-First century. Let's have a national stadium that will surpass even that of the great Huddersfield Town, and the likes, who ply their trade in the lower leagues of English football.
Of course, I'm not oblivious to the fact this decision will once again see the political aspect brought into play once again. Northern nationalists will say it should be moved out of the predominately loyalist area it is currently in down by Sandy Row. It's a fair point.
As Jim Bowan would say, "Let's have a look at what we could have won"...
Option 1.) A brand spanking new stadium at the city centre location of Ormeau Park - in close proximity to Central train station and an excellent Metro system. Surely, the best way to get more Northern nationalists to switch back to the 'one true Ireland' and attend NI matches is to stick the thing on their doorstep! But then again, I wouldn't hold my breath...
Option 2.) The Maze. A good idea at the start. We talked of rugby, football and gaelic games being played here. We would all meet up once a year, hold hands in the centre spot and proclaim our shared sporting future. We'd see Ulster one week, Norn Iron the next and of course the mighty County Down GAA!! But once we all pulled ourselves from cloud nine (or cookoo land for most people) reality had one long lingering bite. Political football's, political rugby ball's, and even political hurley's were brandished around like a Graham Poll yellow card, ultimately pinning several nails into the proposed site in Lisburn. Yes indeed Gerry, let's build a 'shrine to the hunger strikers'. It really must have been a slow news day for the Sinn Fein propaganda team on the Falls Road. Foot in mouth disease finally putting an end to moving our national stadium out of Belfast.
Option 3.) The Blanchflower Stadium in east Belfast. 10 minutes on the metro from the city centre. Overlooking our favourite son's airport (no, not Eamon Holmes!). The new stadium would also be in full view of our picturesque Harland & Wolff cranes. A real gem of a location. It was a winner in my book - and plus Glentoran would be it's long-term residents ;)
However, it isn't to be... for now. Tradition rather than extradition reigns surprime as it usually does in local football. But we are seeing increasing signs of change. Glentoran vs Bangor was the first ever Irish league game to take place on a Sunday in the country. It's a decision that was brought about through the IFA's dropping of the dreaded 'Never on a Sunday' rule. So, there's hope for the future of football in Northern Ireland.
After alot of consideration on this issue I feel keeping national football at Windsor Park is a good decision by the IFA. It is one of the most progressive associations in current times. For example, the Football For All campaign is being used as a model for other aspiring nations with political issues. The Sea of Green initiative (where fans are encouraged to dress-up in as much green as possible) is without doubt catching on, especially in middle-class Catholic circles. I know this first hand. I know of quite a few Catholic's who wouldn't miss a game at Windsor - home AND away. Any excuse to don the green and white of the super 'Norn Iron'! What can I say, North Down know how to breed them.
People can bad-mouth Windsor Park all they like (and believe me I've done it many's a Boxing Day). But in all fairness we (the Green And White Army) are trying to attract open-minded supporters, there's no sense in attracting you're die-in-the-wool republicans. At the end of the day these people interperate anything progresive to do with 'Our Wee Country' as another blow to 'Irish Freedom'. Let's have more fan versions of your Sammy Clingan's, Gerry Armstrong's of the world. Guy's who just love their football and support their local heroes. Real football people.
I want to see Windsor Park continue it's cross-community initatives, but for Healy's Sake let's have our wee stadium re-built, re-vamped and something all of us can be proud of. Scrapping that slave-like contract with Linfield would be a good foundation in furthering association football in Northern Ireland...