Last night I watched with admiration and amazement as a country with a population smaller than Belfast and managed by a dentist played the England national football team off the park. Iceland play with calmness,courage and self belief that is now paying off on the biggest stage of all in European football. Looking back, was it really such a big deal that we beat England in 2005? (‘Hey everyone, we beat England!’…. ‘Well, a lot of people have beaten England’)If you needed evidence of where value is placed in football is completely messed up look no further than last nights game. Looking objectively at the game you couldn’t tell who were the players earning millions at top Premiership clubs and who were the part timers who combine football training with making promotional videos for their country’s Eurovision song contest entry*. With Wayne Rooney’s annual salary he could probably buy Iceland outright and make everyone in the country wear Swan Lake Ballet outfits for the rest of their lives, though there are probably people in Iceland quirky enough to to this anyway. Iceland advance to the quarter finals to take on France and who knows what will happen there. I have no doubt that Iceland will give the French a game as equals and will play like a team who feel like they deserve to be there. England now go home…again. The English pundits may as well show re-runs of what they said in the same situation two years ago and four years ago and six years ago and beyond. #atleastimnotenglish
Meanwhile in Northern Ireland the squad returned triumphantly to the Titanic Quarter to be welcomed by the best fans in the world. The crowds of adoring fans were chanting ‘Will Griggs on Fire’ and ‘Let’s all do the Bouncy’. Yet looking at the Iceland team I can’t help but compare and think we don’t really have much to do the bouncy about. Our record in Euro 2016 read one win and three defeats. Yes, one of those defeats was against the footballing powerhouse that is Germany and Northern Ireland were so unlucky not to be advancing through against Wales but our team didn’t exactly set the tournament alight with a beautiful style of football. We played like a ‘wee’ country: we were nervous and cautious with our play. We advanced through to the Knockout stages as we were one of the best third placed teams. This is the equivalent of a guy without an ID and the wrong shoes getting into a nightclub by begging at the front door and eventually getting in with a frustrated eye roll from the bouncers. Not exactly crashing the party. Not exactly a Gerry Armstrong moment.
Compare this to Iceland. I recall a few years ago Northern Ireland got beaten by Iceland 3-0 at Windsor Park. The Ulster press was vicious in the aftermath. So much so that our then manager, Lawrie Sanchez, nearly quit. In typical Northern Ireland style of the time our team rallied and in the ashes of a defeat against Iceland we managed to beat Spain a few days later. I wish we could bottle the mentality of that Northern Ireland team against Spain that night, it is what Iceland are currently drinking. I didn’t see much of it from Northern Ireland throughout the Euro 2016 games. Where was the grit? Where was the getting in people’s faces? Where was the ‘I don’t give a stuff who you are’ attitude that was present during the qualifiers? If Northern Ireland are going to do anything in international football in the next 30 years they have to find it again. We have to copy Iceland. We can’t just be content with what happened at Euro 2016, we have to evolve. I don’t want to be telling my grand children about the day Gareth McCauley and Niall McGinn beat Ukraine in what was really just another qualifier for the actual knock out tournament and how we sang this song about Will Grigg. I want greater stories, I want to be Iceland, I want to be better than Iceland and why aren’t we? I want another moment in the sun. Where smirks are wiped off faces, where Gary Linker and BBC pundits are humbled and the Northern Ireland team is treated with respect instead of being that plucky guy who is good banter but ultimately no real threat to the stability of world football. We are the football equivalent of Kevin Hart.
If the Northern Ireland team is to have any chance of achieving this they have to change their attitude. Iceland have shown us that being a ‘wee’ country is no longer an excuse. If you are looking for excuses Iceland have plenty of them. No professional league, the weather isn’t good, the pitches are always frozen, they are too busy listening to Bjork and Sigur Ros to care about Football. Yet they don’t use any. They restructured what they had to create a national team they can be proud of. They set up indoor football pitches which the IFA should really look into. They focused on producing young players with confidence, strength, self esteem and a good technical knowledge of the basics of the game. Compare this to the brutal nature of our Irish League, where most players ankle ligaments are destroyed before their 19th birthday. We can’t just wait for the footballing gods to gift us with another George Best. We have to nurture what we have now. If we had a league that catered for our national team by encouraging technically good football it would lead to producing players that feel confident on the world stage. Something has to change and change fast. No more self-deprecation, no more embarrassment. This will be hard to do because in many ways this is what being Northern Irish is. Making fun of ourselves, having a laugh and even if we lose, sure it was great craic.
Like the rest of the fans of the Green and White Army I was eager to see the team do well. But a few small tweaks to our mentality and how we develop players and we could have done so much better. Iceland are having their moment, it won’t last forever. Small nations go up and down the FIFA world rankings more times than Jim McDonald makes a comeback on Coronation Street. Hopefully Northern Ireland’s experiences in the Euros can be used as a platform to bigger and better things. While the thought of going to Russia in 2018 really doesn’t appeal I want us to be the Iceland of Euro 2020. If this is to happen Northern Ireland need to lose the ‘wee country’ attitude and play like we deserve to be there.
*The Iceland Goalkeeper Hannes Þór Halldórsson has only been a pro for 3 years. He is also a film director and produced Iceland’s Eurovision Song Contest 2012 entrance video. What a wee legend.