Northern Ireland: 'It was magical to be back' - Fans' perspective on Windsor Park return
After months of empty stadiums, 600 supporters created a small piece of history by becoming the first fans back in a UK ground for an international match after the Covid-19 pandemic brought football, as we know it, to an end.
Northern Ireland fell to a 1-0 defeat against Austria at Windsor Park on Sunday night, however that was only part of the story as the artificial crowd noise was replaced by the voice and gusto of the Green and White Army, albeit a small section.
Gordon Nicholl attended the game with his son Zach after being two of the lucky supporters to get a ticket out of the ballot of season ticket holders.
Securing a ticket for the Austria game ruled Gordon out of attending the Euro 2020 play-off final against Slovakia at Windsor Park in November but he said the Nations League game “was one for the history books”.
After attending Northern Ireland games for more than 30 years with his father, Gordon said he was delighted to be back at Windsor Park.
“From a fans’ point of view it was great to be back in,” he said.
“It was a big deal and I was keen to go down and be part of it.
“People will look back in years from now and wonder why there were only 600 people at that game, then it will dawn on people that it was the pandemic.
“I think they could look at increasing it because it was safe, enjoyable and good fun, other than the result of course.”
‘Unlike any game I’ve seen before’
Windsor Park was also the location for the first match in the UK with spectators when 500 fans attended the Irish Cup final at the end of July.
On Sunday, the usual droves of spectators flooding over the railway bridge and towards the famous ground were absent, and Gordon, who also supports Linfield, said “it was very well organised”.
“We were walking over the railway bridge as normal and it was quiet. Even if you are watching Linfield on a Saturday there are still people around,” he said.
“We got to the gate and there were half a dozen people in front of us. Our tickets were checked electronically, we got our temperatures taken and were met with hand sanitiser as we went in.
“Everyone seemed to be doing as instructed. There were a lot of reminders to keep your masks on, and for the more part I reckon people did.
The food and drinks stalls were closed for the match, and Gordon said those in attendance “were very well behaved” and stayed in their designated seats.
The famed atmosphere at Windsor Park – think England, Spain or Greece – may not have been as thunderous as we have become accustomed to, however Gordon said those in attendance “had a good effort” at recreating the iconic roar.
“People tried to get it going, which is difficult on a Sunday night at the best of times,” he added.
“It echoed around the stadium and we had a good effort at it. There was still the Kop leading it, but everyone was in different seats, it wasn’t like they were in their usual spots.
“We were delighted to be back to give our support, and hopefully it did come across and help the players.
“I do think it was safe enough to allow at least double that for the Slovakia game. If we can make that sort of racket with 600 then I think we could make it really good with two or three times that.”
It was very unique
Gordon added that nine-year-old Zach was more disappointed with the result than his father, having grown up in the Michael O’Neill era which means “he hasn’t seen them lose too many times”.
Despite the unique nature of the experience and the “bizarre” ease of getting in and out of the stadium, he admits he would “rather have it the normal way”.
“There was a different sort of anticipation. A lot of people went down with my mindset, wondering what it was going to be like,” added Gordon.
“Once you get in, the pitch is the same, the players are the same and the lights are on – it is the same spectacle you are looking at.
“I probably only got the buzz at that point. I didn’t get that walking in because we were on our own. People just didn’t know what to expect so it was very unique.
“Just to see them the team play and shout our support, it was almost hard to believe because it has been a long time. It was really magical to be back in again.”
© The Fan Experience Company 2020