Requiem for a Stand
A history in seven key moments of the short life of the Kop at Windsor Park
20 August 1997 – Northern Ireland 1 Germany 3
When Michael Hughes lifted the ball above the sprawling Andreas Köpke and into the back of the Germany net, he couldn’t have possibly known what he had started. At the time, the goal had obvious significance. The West Ham United midfielder had given Northern Ireland a 1-0 lead over the reigning European champions with half an hour left. It was also Northern Ireland’s 500th goal and, better still, it was the first international goal scored in front of Windsor Park’s new West Stand.
It was August 1997 and Belfast was a city on the precipice of major change. Almost 30 years of the Troubles had left Northern Ireland’s capital city beleaguered, divided and downtrodden, but the peace process had at least given the country’s residents some hope of a brighter future. With the IRA’s ceasefire reinstated a month before the World Cup qualifier, the Good Friday Agreement was less than a year away.
Football was changing too. Northern Ireland played their last game in front of Windsor Park’s old Spion Kop in May of the previous year. The huge swath of open terrace that had witnessed the glorious adventures of Peter Doherty, Danny Blanchflower, George Best, Pat Jennings and Norman Whiteside watched on for one last time. St Johnstone’s George O’Boyle and Bayern Munich’s Mehmet Scholl exchanged goals in a 1-1 draw that served as a warm-up game for Germany’s successful Euro 96 campaign.
A year later and Germany were in Belfast again. The venerable terraced end had been replaced by a modern but modest seated stand. The ‘new Kop’ held just 4,000 spectators but, unlike many behind-the-goal renovations of the era, this new stand actually seemed to improve the atmosphere at Windsor Park. Unlike the old Spion Kop the new West Stand (as nobody ever called it) had a roof that improved the ground’s acoustics. The new enclosed feel helped Northern Ireland fans create the sort of positive atmosphere that had often eluded the 90-year-old ground.
The first roar of the new Kop arrived in the 60th minute when Hughes latched onto a pass from Blackpool’s James Quinn before sweeping the ball home. Oliver Bierhoff’s incredible six-minute hat-trick may have given the European Champions a 3-1 win but Hughes’s goal had started, or at least reinvented, the cult of the Kop.
20 February 2002 – Northern Ireland 0 Cyprus 0
Unfortunately the optimism of that balmy August evening didn’t last for long. Windsor Park, home of Ireland’s most successful club Linfield, is situated in the south of the city. The ground is surrounded by a sprawl of terraced streets, in what is traditionally a working class Protestant area. The snooker player Alex Higgins and the singer Ruby Murray grew up in the stadium’s shadow.
Linfield’s support is predominantly drawn from the Unionist community and the ground has been referred to as a ‘cold house’ for Nationalists. At both Linfield and Northern Ireland games, it was not uncommon to hear sectarian songs emanating from the old Spion Kop.
While the new stand brought new hope, some old attitudes remained. In February 2001, the Celtic midfielder Neil Lennon played for Northern Ireland at Windsor Park against Norway. While Norway ran out 4-0 winners, it was Lennon’s reception that made the headlines. While the majority of Windsor Park got behind the midfielder, a sizeable minority of the home support booed Lennon’s every touch. Many Northern Ireland fans support Celtic’s Glasgow rivals Rangers, two clubs divided by the same sectarian tensions that have plagued Belfast for generations. For the Lurgan-born and Catholic-raised Lennon, it was a traumatic experience. The manager Sammy McIlroy substituted him at half-time. Not for the first time in history, Northern Irish football was left shamed.
That wasn’t the end of the sordid sectarian affair. In August 2002 Lennon was set to captain Northern Ireland against Cyprus, in a friendly match at Windsor Park. On the day of the match, the Loyalist Volunteer Force sent a death threat to Lennon via a Belfast newsroom. Understandably, Lennon decided to pull out of the game and he subsequently retired from international football. The game went ahead, finishing 0-0 with the new Kop half full. The reputation of international football in Northern Ireland had reached a particularly low ebb.
18 February 2004 – Northern Ireland 1 Norway 4
In the two years that followed Neil Lennon’s departure from the international scene, a curious divide developed between the Northern Ireland team and their supporters.
On the field, the much-maligned team had hit their nadir. One appalling performance followed another as the Ulstermen established themselves as genuine international minnows. Famously, Northern Ireland went 13 games without scoring a goal.
In the stands, something of a noisy revolution was taking place. The Lennon incident served as something of a wake-up call for both Northern Ireland fans and the Irish Football Association. It would be disingenuous to suggest sectarianism at Windsor Park was eradicated overnight but a new counter-culture developed in the years that followed the Cyprus game. The self-styled Green & White Army introduced a raft of new songs that focused on supporting the team while also challenging the popularity of loyalist songs. The ironic chant of “We’re not Brazil, we’re Northern Ireland” became the Kop’s calling card, as blue Rangers scarves gave way to comedy green wigs. It was positively naff, but at least it was positive. It was a grass-roots, supporter-driven movement that sought to change attitudes with a uniquely Northern Irish brand of zaniness.
When Norway visited Belfast in February 2004 it had been almost three years since Northern Ireland had won a match and two since they had scored a goal. It was perhaps no surprise then that the Norwegians were 3-0 up at half-time in Lawrie Sanchez’s first game as manager.
However, the game’s major talking point arrived in the 57th minute. Keith Gillespie flighted over a wonderful cross from the right flank, which was met by the head of David Healy. His header crept past Thomas Myhre and into the net in front of the Kop. Normally a consolation goal in an international friendly would be met with a muted response, but Healy’s ninth goal for Northern Ireland was celebrated like a last gasp World Cup winner. It’s little wonder. The goal ended a 1299-minute wait that had stretched over 13 games and two years. The celebrations were so wild that some Northern Ireland fans missed Norway’s fourth goal that arrived less than a minute after the restart.
More significantly, it saw David Healy crowned as the new king of the Kop.
To some, Healy is a journeyman Football League striker who enjoyed moderate success with the likes of Preston North End and Leeds United. To Northern Ireland fans, Healy is something of a saint. His 36 international goals in 96 appearances over 13 years made him a national hero.
He was no flat-track bully, either. He registered goals against England, Spain and Germany. Nor was he a penalty box poacher. He beat Peter Schmeichel from 30 yards and lobbed Iker Casillas from 20. George Best might be the greatest player to come from Northern Ireland, but David Healy was Northern Ireland’s greatest ever player.
7 September 2005 - Northern Ireland 1 England 0
By the time England’s golden generation rolled into Belfast, Northern Ireland had gone some way to repairing their reputation on the international scene.
Healy’s drought-ending goal against Norway was followed a month later by the Ulstermen’s first win in 16 games, with the Preston striker scoring the only goal in a 1-0 friendly win over Estonia. Four days before the game against Sven-Göran Eriksson’s England a 2-0 win over Azerbaijan with goals from Stuart Elliott and Warren Feeney gave Northern Ireland their first competitive win since 2001.
Despite that success, Lawrie Sanchez’s men were overwhelming underdogs and with good reason. England had just defeated Wales 1-0 at the Millennium Stadium with a squad full of world-class stars such as David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney. With hindsight it’s easy to dismiss Eriksson’s team as over-hyped, but with that roster they had to be considered contenders for the following summer’s World Cup in Germany.
By comparison, Northern Ireland were a team of journeymen. Only the Aston Villa duo of Steven Davis and Aaron Hughes and the Birmingham City pair of Maik Taylor and Damien Johnson played in the Premier League.
Windsor Park was a far cry from the spacious modernity the Welsh had afforded England four days previously. The old-fashioned ground held less than 15,000, but it generated an atmosphere that few international grounds in Europe could rival. The 4,000 fans in the Kop stand created a powerful and intimidating atmosphere that unquestionably played a part in this unlikely victory.
The first guttural roar of the Kop was heard inside the first five seconds. From kick-off, England rolled the ball back to the feet of the left-back Ashley Cole. Before the Arsenal defender could move the ball on he was grabbed and wrestled to the ground by the former Willem II striker James Quinn, in a move that could best be described as unorthodox. On the face of things, it was a ridiculous challenge to make but it set the tone for the Kop and the night ahead.
The Kop’s defining moment arrived in the 74th minute, with the game scoreless. The England goalkeeper Paul Robinson hooked a high clearance into the air, only to see it drop inside the centre circle. The quick-thinking Steve Davis controlled the ball before strolling forward unopposed. With no England player within five yards, Davis stood still before clipping the ball over the heads of the defence and into the path of David Healy. Cole and Jamie Carragher had pushed up in an attempt to play Healy offside, but Rio Ferdinand and Luke Young stood their ground, leaving Northern Ireland’s record goalscorer in acres of space. Healy took one touch with his instep, allowing the ball to bounce inside the area, before rifling a shot towards goal. Robinson got a hand to the ball, but he couldn’t stop the thunderous shot from finding the far corner of the net. The Kop erupted.
Healy jumped in the air like a little boy celebrating an imaginary cup final winner in his back garden. It may as well have been Healy’s cup final. It may as well have been Healy’s back garden. The noise, emotion and colour that poured forward from the Kop is something no one who witnessed it will ever forget.
Northern Ireland held on to win 1-0. In the grand scheme of the World Cup, it meant nothing. The Ulstermen finished fourth in the group while England went on to reach the quarter-finals, but it altered the perceptions of the Northern Ireland team within Northern Ireland.
For years, Northern Ireland fans had to hide their colours or explain their reasons for actively supporting their national team.
The victory was greeted with universal praise, as politicians and celebrities who had previously considered the Northern Ireland team toxic, queued up to heap praise upon Healy and his teammates. BBC Northern Ireland cleared the schedules to show a full re-run of the match just four hours after the full-time whistle. There were newspaper supplements, DVDs, mugs and wall murals.
Four years after the Neil Lennon debacle, it was once again socially acceptable to be a Northern Ireland fan.
6 September 2005 - Northern Ireland 3 Spain 2
If the victory over England changed football in Northern Ireland, then you could perhaps argue that the victory over Spain changed world football.
Luis Aragonés’s Spain side arrived in Belfast off the back of a World Cup campaign that started brightly before they lost to France in the second round in Hanover. Although the Spaniards hadn’t yet become the all-conquering force they would develop into, their starting line-up was dotted with star names such as Raúl, Fernando Torres, Xabi Alonso, and Carles Puyol. They started their campaign with a 4-0 win over Liechtenstein, while Northern Ireland were humbled 3-0 at Windsor Park by Iceland.
Sanchez drastically altered his team, selecting the teenagers Jonny Evans and Kyle Lafferty, but it wasn’t enough to stop Xavi and David Villa scoring two fine goals either side of a close-range David Healy equaliser.
It looked as if Spain were on their way to another three points, but Sammy Clingan and David Healy had other ideas. Spain prepared for a typical ‘Irish’ set-piece as the Ulstermen filled the penalty box for a free-kick just in front of the Kop. But rather than clipping the ball into the area, Clingan choose to side-foot the ball along the ground for Healy, who smashed it through a crowded six-yard box and into the net, with just under half an hour to play. How Spain fell for such an obvious bluff is anyone’s guess.
But the best was still to come. With 10 minutes left, the substitute goalkeeper Maik Taylor launched a long kick into the Spanish half. Michel Salgado allowed the ball to bounce, which let Healy slip in behind him. Healy spotted that Casillas was five yards off his line and quickly produced a sublime lob from just outside the area to complete his hat-trick. It was an outrageous piece of skill from the Leeds United striker, who once again celebrated in front of the Kop, 364 days after his famous goal against England.
More was to come from Healy and Northern Ireland. The striker ultimately hit 13 goals in Euro 2008 qualifying including another hat-trick away to Liechtenstein and a fine brace at Windsor Park over Sweden. Northern Ireland also managed Windsor wins over Latvia and Denmark, while claiming draws in Copenhagen and Stockholm. Unfortunately they failed to qualify, finishing third in the group after frustrating defeats in Riga and Reykjavik.
Perhaps the ramifications of this result were felt more deeply in Spain. Raúl hit the post in the dying minutes at Windsor Park. It turned out to be his last game for his country, an unfitting end for one of Spain’s greatest talents. After another defeat to Sweden a month later Aragonés was forced into making a number of drastic changes. It wasn’t long before Andrés Iniesta, David Silva, Cesc Fàbregas, Marcos Senna and Joan Capdevila were introduced to the starting side. All five would play a crucial role in Spain’s eventual Euro 2008 success with Aragonés developing a system that saw Senna protect Xavi (and Iniesta) from the sort of rough-house treatment he received at Windsor Park. It echoed the system Barcelona used that saw Edmilson deployed in the protective role. Sergio Busquets would eventually redefine the position for both club and country.
That success allowed the new manager Vicente del Bosque to develop what arguably became the greatest international team of all time, lifting the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012. Their form of dominant possession-based football that both protected their defence and wore out their opponents became the most discussed and mimicked style in a generation.
Perhaps if Healy hadn’t scored that outrageous lob in front of the Kop, Aragonés wouldn’t have axed Raúl and altered his system. Perhaps he wouldn’t have found the formula that Del Bosque eventually developed. Perhaps Spain wouldn’t have won the World Cup in South Africa. Perhaps possession football wouldn’t have come to dominate the world game. Perhaps.
14 November 2012 - Northern Ireland 1 Azerbaijan 1
Six years after his hat-trick against Spain, David Healy was a shadow of his former self. Injury-thwarted stints at Fulham, Sunderland and Rangers had eventually led Healy to a deal with the League One club Bury. Even at international level Healy’s form had subsided, and he scored just two more goals after his record-breaking Euro 2008 campaign.
Northern Ireland hadn’t fared much better. There were impressive victories under Nigel Worthington over the likes of Poland and Slovenia and new man Michael O’Neill had guided the Ulstermen to a 1-1 draw with Portugal in Porto, but there was little else for the Kop to be cheerful about.
In their last home game Northern Ireland had sunk to an embarrassing 1-1 draw with Luxembourg while they trailed Azerbaijan by a goal as the game rolled into stoppage time. As a last throw of the dice O’Neill replaced defender Craig Cathcart in the 82nd minute with a rather more rotund version of David Healy.
In the sixth minute of stoppage time, Northern Ireland were awarded a free-kick just outside the area, in front of the Kop. There was only one possible outcome. Healy stepped up and side-footed the free-kick past both the wall and the goalkeeper.
It was an equaliser but it was also a final goodbye. This was Healy’s encore and everyone on the Kop knew it. It was a horrible performance in horrible conditions, but it was worth every last second just to hear another joyous rendition of “Healy! Healy!”.
29 March 2015 - Northern Ireland 2 Finland 1
While no one expected David Healy’s international career to go on forever, most expected the stand he made his own to remain in place for generations to come.
Not least the architects of the revamped Windsor Park. In 2012 the Irish Football Association unveiled government-sponsored plans to update Northern Ireland’s national stadium. The decrepit South Stand would join the old Railway Stand in the history books, while the 1980s North Stand and the 1990s West Stand (the Kop) would be incorporated into the new design. The finished article would be a modern 18,000 all-seater stadium that was designed to retain the charm of the old Windsor Park while improving spectator facilities.
Although the Kop would be refurbished it would remain an integral part of the rechristened National Stadium. Or at least that was plan until March of this year, when Mixu Paatelainen’s Finland came to Belfast for a Euro 2016 qualifier.
Since Healy’s retirement, his old strike partner Kyle Lafferty had done his best to fill his boots. After the Enniskillen-born forward left a bankrupt Rangers in 2012 his club career had turned into an unusual European adventure with stints at Sion, Palermo, Norwich City and Çaykur Rizespor. While Lafferty has always proclaimed his love for his country, his international career had been fraught with frustration. Injuries, disappointing displays and a daft red card against Portugal had made him an unpopular figure with sections of the Green & White Army.
The manager Michael O’Neill’s faith in the 6’4” forward was finally repaid in Budapest last September, when the striker scored a late winner in a 2-1 win over Hungary. In October, Lafferty netted again as the Ulstermen beat the Faroe Islands 2-0 at Windsor Park. Four days later the former Burnley striker tore the Greek defence apart, scoring the second goal in a 2-0 win over Claudio Ranieri’s men in Athens. At the age of 27, some nine years after his debut, Lafferty was finally fulfilling his early promise.
November’s 2-0 defeat to Romania in Bucharest did little to dampen the Kop’s enthusiasm for the Finland game and Lafferty was given a rapturous response upon his return home. The love-in was cemented in the 33rd minute when Lafferty scored a marvellous 15-yard volley to give Northern Ireland the lead in front of the Kop. He hit his second of the game and his fifth goal of the campaign six minutes later when he scored a towering header reminiscent of Healy’s drought-ending goal against Norway.
Just as 11 years previously, the Kop rocked in celebration, chanting the name of their country’s new hero. But this time there was no need for self-deprecation or irony. Northern Ireland fans really did have something to celebrate. With 12 points from their opening five games the Ulstermen are within touching distance of qualifying for their first major championships since Mexico ’86.
It was something of a shame that Beret Sadik scored an injury-time consolation goal for Finland, because unbeknown to the 4,000 Northern Ireland fans behind it was the last international goal the ‘new Kop’ would ever witness.
Less than 48 hours after the Green & White Army celebrated a glorious 2-1 victory over Finland, the Kop was sealed off after huge cracks appeared at the back of the old stand, with one corner of the 18-year old edifice seemingly sinking into the ground. Within a month the IFA confirmed everyone’s worst fears. The most famous stand in Northern Irish sport was to be demolished immediately.
It left Northern Ireland fans wondering what exactly caused the Kop to collapse and who was at fault. Worse still, were the fans at Northern Ireland v Finland put in danger? It could take years before we get a definitive answer to those vital questions.
In the meantime, June’s game against Romania will go ahead at Windsor Park, with the Kop’s refugees rehoused in the new East Stand. In the long term, the IFA hope that a third new stand will be at the west end of the ground as part of the redevelopment, but whether the third incarnation of the Kop can recapture the magic of the stand that witnessed all those David Healy goals is doubtful.
18 years is a short lifespan for a modern stand, but the Kop packed a rich store of memories into its two decades. Thousands of Linfield fans witnessed nine league title wins from the Kop, while fans of clubs such as Cliftonville, Crusaders, Ballymena United and Larne will all have fond memories of watching their teams in cup final action from the West Stand.
But much like its favourite son David Healy, the Kop made its name at international level. Not only did it look down upon famous victories over England, Spain, Sweden, Denmark, Poland, Russia and Finland, but it also the hosted a shift in attitudes.
While the war against sectarianism in football is far from over, the Green & White Army won its most significant battle on the Kop. Huge strides forward have been made, with Northern Ireland games at Windsor Park now almost entirely free of the blatant sectarianism the dogged the nineties.
The legacy of the Kop is one of positivity, an attitude which is often difficult to achieve in Belfast. The cult of the Kop will long outlive the stand itself.