How peace on the streets changed the spirit in the stands for Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland fans used to be embarrassed by the atmosphere in their ground – even writing to visiting players to apologise – but those days are largely gone

By Jonathan Drennan for Behind the Lines, part of the Guardian Sport Network

In November 1993 I rushed on to a cold playground in Belfast before school filled with excitement. The Republic of Ireland had drawn with Northern Ireland, which meant that qualification to the warmer climes of the USA 1994 World Cup was guaranteed. It wasn’t the country I was born in, and there was bile in the crowd that night, but that didn’t really matter a great deal to my six-year-old self. One of the Irish teams had reached the biggest stage in world football.

My father was from Dublin and I visited my family there regularly. A child’s naivety had shielded me from the reality of living in East Belfast surrounded by Union flags and classmates who chided me for the treachery of supporting a team from over the border, one hour away. I was only interested in the game, completely oblivious to the politics that surrounded it.

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