After a disappointing season supporting Fulham, one of the only things keeping me going when it came to football was the prospect of the 2016 European Championships kicking off in France. With three home nation teams heading off to compete in France, it has to be one of the most exciting tournaments for UK based fans in years. Normally I watch as a neutral, but this year is the first in my lifetime were my country Northern Ireland have made it to a summer tournament. It is an incredible achievement for a country with the population of 1.8million as well as having a large proportion of the squad playing in and around the lower leagues in England! Yet we have continued to play above ourselves and we have loved every minute of it. The scenes in Belfast when we qualified in October were incredible and the joy that sport can bring to a nation is something to cherish.
I have always loved international football as it can bring a passion and pride that unfortunately sometimes doesn’t come with club football and any player will tell you that being selected to represent their country is an honour. Despite the unsavoury scenes that have grabbed many of the headlines in France surrounding football hooliganism, I believe that international sport can be a power for good in the world. An example of how sport can unite people across cultures and religions can be found when looking at the Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland fans. The history between both parts of Ireland has at times been difficult but one of my favourite images so far from the tournament was that of a group of NI and ROI fans all huddled together for a group photo at Belfast International Airport.
Later, after the tragic death of Darren Rodgers, a Northern Ireland fan in France, the ROI fans stood and chanted his name in a tribute during their game against Sweden. It was a touching moment for anyone linked to the Emerald Isle.
Yes, the Russians, Croatians and, at times, the English have caused the headlines to be negative, but there is much more going on in the way of unity and nations coming together to enjoy a game of football. The world has thrown a lot of sadness at us recently with the war in Syria, various terrorist attacks and the killing of Jo Cox amongst many other events so we should be celebrating any example of unity that we see. Aside from the competitiveness and the entertainment of the game, I love that sport can connect people and can make people proud of where they come from.
Getting anything from tomorrow night’s game against Germany will be a titanic task for the boys in green. I know that each player will leave nothing on the pitch and when that happens, there is always a chance that we will witness yet another shock. It’s nearly 32 years to the day that NI beat Spain 1-0 in the World Cup to top their group and progress to the knock out stages so don’t write us off just yet. We like to spring a surprise for the football world every so often and with Michael O’Neill already showing that he has the tactical brain of a football genius and with each player believing that this is the biggest game in their careers so far, we could just be ready to give you another one.