Northern Ireland’s bid to reach the 2024 European Championship will end in a comfortable defeat at Windsor Park in Belfast tonight. It was visitors Denmark who proved their worth on Friday.
It was hoped to be a big occasion, a Group H play-off of sorts, with the home side inspired by the ever-busy Windsor Park atmosphere. But it was a disappointing campaign for Michael O’Neill in his second spell in charge.
O’Neill’s side lost seven of their first nine group games, losing 4-0 to Finland during Denmark’s qualifying campaign. The two exceptions were both at lowly San Marino.
There are mitigating factors – injuries are decreasing. Last week, O’Neill canceled practice after only seven players showed up. The team has good will in the bank, having given fans unforgettable days in Lyon and Paris, thanks to their unbeaten run in Northern Ireland at Euro 2016.
That has brought a link between fans and the European Championship, so the Irish Football Association (IFA) is expected to be one of five successful partners in the race to host Euro 2028 – along with England, Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland. Belfast’s reaction will be interesting.
That is not the case.
There is some excitement and pride as Belfast hosts five matches in the world’s third-biggest sporting event, but there is also considerable opposition. The reason is that none of these five games will be played at Windsor Park. They will instead play at the yet-to-be-built Casement Park, a stadium owned by the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) in the west of the city.
Casement Park’s current rejection is just one of the arguments against him.
Belfast is the capital of a divided country, with religious, cultural and sporting elements dominating daily life. During last month’s home game against San Marino, this chant was heard at Windsor Park: “You can raise your Casement Park pit.”
Not all Northern Ireland fans sing it, and not all believe it – but many do.
The Euro 2028 announcement took place six days ago. Casement Park was an IFA candidate stadium. The Association of Northern Ireland Supporters’ Clubs (AONISC) was quick to point out supporters’ concerns in a letter to the IFA. Chief among these is the reason why Windsor Park was not chosen to host the country’s stadium.
A response from IFA CEO Patrick Nelson was published last Thursday. In it, Nelson told Windsor Park that “there is no possibility of any funding from the government for any extension”. Nelson did not say expanding Windsor Park is impossible, but there is no current process to do so. There is progress at Casement Park.
In the year It began in 2011 when the UK government funded the redevelopment of three stadia in Belfast – Windsor Park (soccer), Ravenhill (rugby union) and Casement Park (GAA). The amounts were £26.2 million, £14.7m and £61.4m respectively.
In addition to the £26.2m for Windsor Park, there was £36.2m for the domestic League of Ireland and junior football stadium. £26.2m and £36.2m for a total of £62.4m means football earns the same as the GAA. Such balance is important in the area of index fingering.
The GAA has also committed £15 million of its own money to rebuild Casement Park.
Funds for improvements to Windsor Park’s all-seater 18,500 stadium have been released, as has funds for Ravenhill. Casement Park’s situation has been slow and complicated, and protests from local residents have led to legal action. In December 2014, the High Court struck down the original plans.
New 34,500 capacity redesign It was approved in 2016, but funding has stopped and Casement Park, built in 1953 and empty since June 2013, remains untouched.
It is crowded, locked and surrounded by hoarding.
Life in Northern Ireland is often paralyzed by its corrupt politics. The ancient divisions – Catholic and Protestant, Irish Nationalist and British Unionist – are very current. The two biggest political parties, Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), used to run together in the local government seat of Stormont, but that was suspended from 2017-20 and not held from February 2022.
Stasis means that decision-making has either shifted to London or the can is simply shaken on its way.
For example, and much to the chagrin of local football fans, that £36.2 million earmarked for a smaller stadium has not been seen. It is very much needed.
It’s speculation but if Stormont has his way there could be talks about further expansion of Windsor Park, despite the fact that the stadium is owned by League of Ireland club Linfield and not the IAF. The governing body has a 51-year lease.
Meanwhile, in In 2018, the IFA began discussions with the other four partners involved in the joint bid by the United Kingdom and Ireland to host the 2030 World Cup. After the strength of Spain and Portugal to host that tournament became clear, the focus shifted to Euro 2028.
UEFA’s requirements for IFA and Northern Ireland to be part of the bid include a 30,000-plus capacity stadium. One site in Belfast that has planning permission and funding is Casement Park. Otherwise, Belfast and the IFA could not participate. And the British government did not want this.
Nelson told The Athletic on Friday: “The Casement project was part of the 2011 funding agreement and will be brought forward again in 2020 when the local government comes back – I know it’s not sitting now – with a set of ‘New Decade’ commitments. , A New Approach’ was on page two of that serious document, stating that all parties in Northern Ireland were committed to the redevelopment of Casement Park.
“It allows us (as an association) to have serious skin in the game and be part of the bid (for 2028).”
Was further expansion of Windsor Park considered?
“We love the stadium,” Nelson said. We have been playing international football since 1910. There’s a big story there. But there is no political project to invest more. There is a political project to invest elsewhere in Northern Ireland.
In the year In 2018, if the IFA had political support, could Windsor Park have been redeveloped to UEFA standards?
“I think that’s speculation,” Nelson said. “We had no political support. In the year Since 2011, the government has made a commitment to build or develop the three stadiums, and two have been built. The third is Casement. and putting £36.2 million into a sub-regional football stadium.
There is no other stadium project with political support.
GAA agree bid for Euro 2028 That organization is fundamental to Irish nationalism and Rule 42 prohibits any other sport from being played on GAA grounds. It was hostile to football.
In Ireland’s changing political landscape, however, the modern ‘Troubles’ ended with the 1998 Belfast Good Friday Agreement, which relaxed GAA Rule 42 for Ireland (combined teams with players from both countries). In the year
The GAA is a willing participant in the Euro 2028 scheme. It also ensures that Casement Park is rebuilt.
Northern Ireland fans are questioning whether the GAA will still own Casement Park after 2028 and where the ‘legacy’ value for local football lies.
In the year Twelve years after the 2011 funding agreement, costs have certainly increased. Estimates today put Casement Park at £100m, even £150m-plus, to rebuild. Unsurprisingly, one of the contractors involved, Buckingham Group, went into administration in August.
Nelson’s letter to Northern Ireland supporters But Casement Park will go ahead and on Friday the project’s lead architect, Mike Treece, spoke at a meeting in Belfast to give the update.
Tris comes from Populus, the architects behind the stadium (from Casement Park), such as the New York Yankees baseball stadium, Tottenham Hotspur’s new stadium and the Irish rugby union team and Republic football side in Dublin. and urban setting.
The presence of Trice and Fame in Belfast last week does not guarantee that it will be completed by June 2027 – UEFA’s deadline – but it does not suggest that the rebuilding has stopped. The stadium is expected to take three years to build, giving the IFA and the UK-Ireland bidding team a few months to secure the necessary funds. But time is short.
Depending on the route, there are just over two miles between Windsor Park and Casement Park in south Belfast.
Regardless of the direction, the journey crosses a divided city.
Last week The Athletics walked from Windsor to Casement along Donegal Street, Broadway Road, which links its Protestant landmarks and Presbyterian churches, along the Falls Road and Irish Republican graffiti and flags.
Broadway is half a mile long from end to end, with the Westlink dual carriageway in the middle. This serves as a dividing line between the two communities. Belfast is known for such dividing lines – the so-called ‘walls of peace’. There are approximately 99 ‘interfaces’ in the city of 350,000 people. Some would argue the 99 figure, but then they do – this is Belfast.
The original tower was built between Fountain Road and Shankill Road 50 years ago when Belfast was plunged into bloody sectarian conflict.
Casement Park is located at the top of Falls Road in Andersonstown. The people who live there are – by and large – Irish nationalists, Catholic schooled and supporters of a reunified Ireland. They follow the Republic of Ireland football team, not Northern Ireland. In Shankill Road, people are generally unionists – they want to keep the union in the UK – they go to state school and follow Northern Ireland in football.
Disaggregated education is a fact of life in Belfast. It is one clear demonstration of the parallel lives that people from the two communities lead on a daily basis.
The Shankill and Falls run close to the town centre, but there is little crossing over the footfall. In times of trouble, this was life-threatening. The problems have clogged Belfast’s arteries and this has increased traffic. As if environmental grievances needed another cover, at the end of Broadway Oneist, Israeli flags fly. At the end of the waterfall, the colors of Palestine are famous.
In the above letter, the AONISC supporters’ group indicated to the IFA that Northern Ireland fans were not comfortable walking along the Falls Road or in the Andersonstown area and there were legitimate safety concerns. This is correct, partly due to the lack of physical interaction across communities and partly based on historical animosity.
Casement Park is named after Roger Casement, a Dublin-born UK diplomat who was convicted of treason in London’s Pentonville Prison in August 1916 and who played in the Easter Rising four months earlier.
Casement is an important figure in Irish nationalism; A hero. This is not the case with mainstream Northern Ireland fans, and since the 2028 announcement, older fans have recalled the March 1988 killings of British soldiers Derek Howes and David Wood.
In Belfast In a very difficult time even by the standards of the 1980s, House and Wood attended a funeral on the Falls Road for an IRA member who had been killed by a Protestant paramilitary three days earlier at another funeral. House and Wood were taken to Casement Park, beaten, then shot nearby.
There are sights and scenes that people never go through in conflict and this was and is one of them. The past is not another country in Northern Ireland.
Windsor Park has an engaging stadium tour that informs visitors that the ground opened in 1905, held more than 60,000 for a match against England in 1960, and has a capacity of 18,434 since the 2016 refurbishment and redevelopment.
What is not mentioned is the riot in December 1948 when players from Belfast Celtic – a predominantly Catholic club from the other end of Broadway – were attacked at Windsor Park. Center forward Jimmy Jones was dragged into the mainline Protestant crowd and jumped until one of his legs was broken. Jones was a Protestant but the color of the jersey was more important.
Belfast Celtic withdrew from the Irish League after four months and never returned. They withdrew once – in 1920-21, returned in 1924-25 – due to political unrest. The club’s history shows that the current tension is nothing new. The game has been used here as political football since its inception.
Belfast and Northern Ireland have a long history of football. Founded in 1879 by Ireland’s first club – Cliftonville, now managed in the domestic top flight by former Northern Ireland international Jim McGilton – and founded in 1880 in a city center hotel, the IFA is the world’s fourth oldest football association. . The man who took the penalty, William McCrum, was born in County Armagh and played in the Irish League for years.
As you turn left from Broadway onto Fountain Street, on the left is Nanson Street, where Bill McCracken grew up. McCracken played offside for Newcastle United and changed the landscape of football when FIFA changed the rules in 1925 to make it easier for attackers. McCracken became a Newcastle scout and met George Eastham playing for Ards in the League of Ireland. Eastham also changed the geography of football with his 1963 Freedom of Movement court case.
A few meters past Nanson Street is the Irish language centre, Culturlann, and a little further on on your right is Beechmount Avenue, then and now known as ‘RPG Avenue’. RPG is shorthand for rocket propelled grenades. In the year For overseas visitors in 2028, this may be a fascinating story, but for Northern Ireland’s traditional fans, it will be unsettling at best.
Both, however, may find some interest in the Belfast City Cemetery on the long slope leading to Casement Park. In the year Elisha Scott, manager of Belfast Celtic in 1948, before that Liverpool goalkeeper from 1912 to 1934 and nicknamed ‘The Wood of the Kop’.
Not far from Scott is the grave of John Peden, whose airport is named after George Best, the man who first played for Manchester United. It was 1893 and they were then known as Newton Heath. Peden is the beginning of a long red thread connecting Belfast and Old Trafford, and Jonny Evans is the current end of it.
At the top of the falls, you reach Andersonstown Road.
A hundred yards away, past the Felons Club bar, sits Casement Park, hidden by dark wooden planks, disused floodlights towering overhead. It feels a long way from Windsor Park.
Reconciliation is a word everyone in Belfast has heard. How many have experienced it is another matter.
The city’s mausoleum contains another tower built long before the above-ground peace walls were built. The Catholic Church objected to the burial ground containing Protestants and Catholics, and an underground wall was built to separate the two. Sectarian distribution in bone.
But change is coming.
The Gaelic-speaking center on Falls Road was once a Presbyterian church and one of the exhibits on the Windsor Park tour is an old Irish kit – the first used before the 1921 partition of the island. It’s blue, ‘St Patrick’s blue’, not green.
Historical programs show how long it took the IFA to refer to the team as ‘Ireland’ rather than ‘Northern Ireland’.
What will happen now?
If Casement Park is not rebuilt or reconstruction does not begin in time, the UAA will revert to contingency planning to satisfy the organizing committee. The Euro 2020 final at London’s Wembley Stadium would have been moved to Budapest, Hungary if there had been a problem.
The same will apply in Germany for Euro 2024. If the Games cannot be held at the originally designated venue, they will be moved to one or more of the tournament’s host stadiums with the necessary infrastructure – security, commercial, media – in place. Euro 2028 will be no different, so Belfast’s five matches will be played in, for example, the English city of Birmingham or possibly Dublin.
This leaves a big hole in the auction.
Nelson and the IFA are not thinking this way.
I understand that we have had a very difficult time in Northern Ireland and everyone has a place in that journey. It’s complicated, I know, and the word ‘legacy’ can be completely defined in our country.
“I appreciate that there are people who have different views from the heart than the people IFA likes. But for me it’s a crucial moment, not just for football but for the wider civic community in Northern Ireland. A new stadium has a multiplier effect. Such capital projects can greatly benefit the economy – not just what they are intended to deliver, but the knock-on effect, the supply chain. Northern Ireland will benefit.
“For me, as for many of us, it would be a shame to lose this wonderful opportunity.”
And the anti-impeachment chants you might hear again tonight when Denmark visit Windsor Park?
“People have a right to their opinion – I’ve always been clear about that. But this is a fantastic opportunity for our country,” added Nelson.
“We have teamed up with four other associations to bring such a fantastic tournament to our shores. It is an opportunity to show what we can do for our society. This year, we celebrate 25 years since the Good Friday Agreement in Belfast. In 2028, it will be 30 years. Would 10 or 15 years ago have said we would be bringing a competition like this to our shores in Belfast?
“Focusing on the positives and the benefits, I think it’s the right thing to do. We’re adamant that we can bring colour, flair and quality to Euro 2028, and Belfast will bring that.”
(Top photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)