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08th Sep 2015

Mark Chapman on a unique night of sporting camaraderie in Northern Ireland…

Mark Chapman

In the last minute of the 1968 Challenge Cup Final, Don Fox stepped up to take a kick in front of the posts to win the Cup for Wakefield against Leeds.

He missed and sank on to the sodden turf as the final whistle blew. Eddie Waring up on the Wembley gantry, in a naturalistic and human piece of commentary, simply said: “The poor lad.”

It was a description that Fox could never escape but it is a line that often creeps in to my head at sporting events. When you are a neutral and not caught in the rabid passion of your own team’s success or failure, it is hard not to feel sorry when you witness a sportsman or woman drop an almighty bollock. They rarely do it on purpose.

Waring’s line came into my head again at Windsor Park, as I watched Michael McGovern drop a cross straight at the feet of Hungary’s Richard Guzmics to gift the visitors the lead.

It was the moment that could have shattered Northern Ireland’s hopes of making Euro 2016. If Hungary had held on then they would have been within a point of Michael O’Neill’s men with two games left to play.

Fortunately Kyle Lafferty scored in injury time to rescue a 1-1 draw and keep the gap between the two countries at four points. In the 17 minutes between the two goals, I kept watching McGovern and simply thinking ‘poor lad.’

What impressed me most in those 17 minutes were the fans. In truth they impressed all night, but not once after his mistake did they get on the goalkeeper’s back.

We have all witnessed how fans react when someone makes a mistake. It ranges from downright abuse to sarcasm.

I remember Samit Patel dropping a skier (as in a high ball, not Franz Klammer) in a one day international. Ironically he was stationed in front of an advertising board for SpecSavers when he did it. For the remainder of his time in the field, he received ‘ironic’ cheers every time he stopped the ball.

And we have all witnessed footballers make individual errors and then be berated by their own fans for the rest of the game, but that didn’t happen on Monday. The Northern Ireland fans treated McGovern with warmth. They weren’t going to have a pop because they were all in it together. In fact warmth and understanding pervaded through the whole evening.


Pre-match, it felt like I had been invited to a family wedding. Men, women and children dancing with nervous anticipation to Sweet Caroline and Amarillo. All it needed was Peter Kay to slide across the turf on his knees.

They had waited a long time for this and they were going to enjoy it. O’Neill had asked them to be patient. They were. He had asked them to be supportive and understanding. They were. He asked them not to panic. They didn’t.

Well actually they did in that last 15 minutes when they were a goal down and reduced to 10 men but that’s understandable. And they sang and they bounced and they danced and they stood up behind the goal in a seated area and the stewards let them. It was that kind of night.

Now I am not naive enough to think that this happens all the time and maybe the next time England rock up to Windsor Park the atmosphere might not be as a convivial, but it was refreshing to be part of. Manager, players and fans all in sync. You don’t see it as often as you should.

When the final whistle went the Northern Ireland players congregated in the centre circle and hugged each other. Michael McGovern walked from his goal in front of the home fans. And he kept walking.

He went past his teammates and towards the dressing rooms in the opposite corner of the stadium. A lad alone with his thoughts. A poor lad alone with his thoughts. Some of the backroom staff spotted him. They ran over. He was not going to leave the stadium on his own.

He was brought back to his team mates and joined in the applause of the players towards the fans. The fans, who had all stayed – nobody was going early – applauded back. Manager, backroom staff, players and fans thanking each other. Working as one. Nobody was going to be left feeling like a poor lad at Windsor Park last night.