Northern Ireland’s doomed bid to reach the 2024 European Championship will have a suitably downbeat conclusion at Windsor Park in Belfast tonight. Denmark, who ensured their qualification on Friday, are the visitors.
It had been hoped this would be a major occasion, a Group H play-off of sorts, with the home side inspired as before by the raucous Windsor Park atmosphere. But it has been a hugely disappointing campaign for Michael O’Neill in his second spell as manager.
While Denmark were qualifying, O’Neill’s team were losing 4-0 in Finland, making it seven defeats in the first nine group games. The two exceptions were both against lowly San Marino.
There have been mitigating factors — injuries have been decimating. Last week, O’Neill cancelled training as only seven players were available. He has goodwill in the bank due to Northern Ireland’s out-of-nowhere qualification under him for Euro 2016, when his squad gave fans unforgettable days in Lyon and Paris.
That brought a connection between supporters and the European Championship, so when the Irish Football Association (IFA) was one of five successful partners in the bid to stage Euro 2028 — alongside England, Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland — it was expected that Belfast’s reaction would be euphoric.
That is not the case.
There has been some happiness and pride that Belfast will be staging five matches in the third-largest sports tournament in the world, but there has also been loud dissent. The reason is that none of those five games will be at Windsor Park. They will instead be played at an as-yet-unbuilt redeveloped Casement Park, a stadium in the west of the city owned by the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA).
The fact Casement Park is currently derelict is only one of the arguments placed against it.
Belfast is the divided capital of a divided country and the religious, cultural and sporting divisions dominating daily life have been voiced loudly. Last month, during the home game with San Marino, this chant was heard at Windsor Park: “You can shove your Casement Park up your hole.”
Not all Northern Ireland fans present sang it, and not all believe it — but many do.
The Euro 2028 announcement had happened six days earlier. Casement Park was the IFA’s nominated stadium. The Amalgamation of Northern Ireland Supporters Clubs (AONISC) quickly pointed out fans’ concerns in a letter to the IFA. Foremost among these is why Windsor Park has not been chosen as the country’s host stadium.
Last Thursday the reply from Patrick Nelson, the IFA’s chief executive, was published. In it, Nelson said “there is no current funding opportunity from government for any extension” of Windsor Park. Nelson did not say that an expansion of Windsor Park was impossible, but that there was no current process to make it happen. With Casement Park, there is a process.
It began in 2011 when the UK government dedicated funds for the redevelopment of three stadia in Belfast — Windsor Park (football), Ravenhill (rugby union) and Casement Park (GAA). The sums respectively were £26.2million, £14.7m and £61.4m.
In addition to the £26.2m for Windsor Park was £36.2m for local Irish League and junior football stadia. The £26.2m plus £36.2m total of £62.4m meant football received approximately the same as GAA. Such balance matters in a finger-pointing environment.
The GAA also pledged £15million of its own money to help reconstruct Casement Park.
The funds for Windsor Park’s upgrade to what is an all-seater 18,500 stadium were released, as was the money for Ravenhill. Casement Park’s situation was delayed and complicated by objections from local residents resulting in legal action. In December 2014, the High Court knocked back the original plans.
A new 34,500-capacity re-design was accepted in 2016, but funding has stalled and Casement Park, built in 1953 and empty since June 2013, remains untouched.
It is overgrown, padlocked and surrounded by hoardings.
Life in Northern Ireland is frequently paralysed by its broken politics. The ancient divides — Catholic and Protestant, Irish Nationalist and British Unionist — are fiercely current. Its two largest political parties, Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), have worked together in the seat of local government at Stormont, but that was suspended from 2017-20 and has not sat since February 2022.
The stasis means decision-making is either relocated to London or the can is simply kicked down the road.
For example, and much to the annoyance of local football fans, that £36.2million earmarked for smaller stadia has not been seen. It is needed desperately.
It is speculation but, were Stormont functioning as it should, there may have been conversations regarding Windsor Park’s further expansion, although even then there is the issue that the stadium is owned by the Irish League club Linfield, not the IFA. The governing body has a 51-year lease.
Meanwhile, in 2018 the IFA started discussions with the four other partners involved in a joint UK-Ireland bid to stage the 2030 World Cup. Once the strength of Spain and Portugal’s challenge to stage that tournament became clear, the focus switched to Euro 2028 instead.
For the IFA, and Northern Ireland, to be part of that bid, UEFA’s requirements included a plus-30,000 capacity stadium. The one venue in Belfast with planning permission and funding in place was Casement Park. Otherwise, Belfast and the IFA could not be involved. And the UK government did not want that.
Nelson told The Athletic on Friday: “The Casement project had been part of the 2011 funding agreement and it was re-committed to in 2020 when the local government returned — I know it’s not sitting now — with a set of commitments called ‘New Decade, New Approach’. The rebuilding of Casement was on page two of that hefty document, saying all parties in Northern Ireland were committed to Casement Park being rebuilt.
“For us (as an association), it allowed us 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 there since 1910. There’s huge history there. But there is no political project to invest in it further. There is a political project to invest in other grounds in Northern Ireland.”
In 2018, had the IFA had political backing, could Windsor Park have been redeveloped to UEFA requirements?
“I think that’s hypothetical,” Nelson said. “We didn’t have political backing. All the way from 2011 onwards, there’s been a commitment from the government to build or redevelop the three stadia, two of which have been done. The third is Casement. And to put £36.2million into sub-regional football stadia.
“There isn’t any other stadium project out there with political backing.”
The GAA was agreeable to the overall Euro 2028 bid. That organisation is fundamental to Irish Nationalism and its Rule 42 forbids any other sport from being played on GAA premises. It was hostile towards soccer.
In a changing Irish political landscape, though, as a negotiated end to the modern ‘Troubles’ arrived in the shape of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement of 1998, the GAA relaxed Rule 42 to enable Ireland (a combined team with players from both nations) to face England in a rugby union match in Dublin’s Croke Park in February 2007. The following month, the Republic of Ireland football team played a European Championship qualifier at Croke Park against Wales.
The GAA is a willing participant in the Euro 2028 plan. It will also ensure Casement Park gets rebuilt.
Northern Ireland fans note the GAA will still own Casement Park after 2028 and ask where the ‘legacy’ value for local football is in that.
Twelve years on from the 2011 funding agreement, costs have of course multiplied. Estimates today say Casement Park will cost £100million-plus, even £150m-plus, to rebuild. Unhelpfully, one of the contractors involved, Buckingham Group, went into administration in August.
Nelson’s letter to Northern Ireland supporters implied, however, that Casement Park will proceed and on Friday Mike Trice, the lead architect on the project, addressed a meeting in Belfast to give an update.
Trice is from Populous, the architects behind grounds such as the New York Yankees’ baseball stadium, Tottenham Hotspur’s new stadium and Lansdowne Road in Dublin, home of Ireland’s rugby union team and the Republic’s football side, with its comparable (to Casement Park) scale and urban setting.
The presence of Trice and Populous in Belfast last week does not guarantee completion in June 2027 — UEFA’s deadline — but neither does it suggest the rebuild is on hold. It is thought the stadium will take three years to construct, so that gives the IFA and the UK-Ireland bid team a few months still to get their hands on the necessary funds. But it is a narrow time frame.
Depending on the route, there are just over two miles between Windsor Park in south Belfast and Casement Park to the west.
Whatever the direction you take, the journey is across a divided city.
Last week, The Athletic walked from Windsor to Casement via Broadway, a street that connects Donegall Avenue, its Protestant symbols and Presbyterian churches, with the Falls Road and its Irish Republican murals and flags.
Broadway is half a mile long from end to end and in the middle is a dual carriageway, the Westlink. This acts as a demarcation line between the two communities. Belfast is known for such dividing lines — ‘peace walls’ as they are known. There are an estimated 99 ‘interfaces’ in a city of around 350,000 people. Some dispute the 99 figure, but then they would — this is Belfast.
The first wall was constructed between the Falls Road and the Shankill Road over 50 years ago as Belfast descended into the bloody sectarian strife known as The Troubles.
Casement Park lies at the top of the Falls Road, in Andersonstown. The people who live there are — in broad terms — Irish nationalists, Catholic school-educated and supporters of a re-unified Ireland. They follow the Republic of Ireland football team, not the Northern Ireland one. On the Shankill Road, people are generally Unionists — they want to maintain the union within the UK — are state school-educated and, in football, follow Northern Ireland.
Segregated education is a fact of Belfast life. It is one obvious illustration of the parallel lives people from the two communities lead on a daily basis.
The Shankill and Falls run close to one another near the city centre, but the crossover in footfall is minimal. During The Troubles, this would have been life-threatening. The Troubles hardened Belfast’s arteries and that includes traffic. As if local grievances required another layer, at the Unionist end of Broadway, there are Israeli flags flying; at the Falls end, Palestinian colours are prominent.
In the letter mentioned above, the AONISC supporters’ group pointed out to the IFA that Northern Ireland fans are not prone to walking up the Falls Road or around Andersonstown and that there were legitimate worries about safety. This is valid, based partly on the lack of cross-community physical interaction today and partly on historic enmity.
Casement Park is named after Roger Casement, a Dublin-born UK diplomat hanged for treason in London’s Pentonville prison in August 1916 for his role in the Easter Rising four months earlier.
Casement is an important figure in Irish Nationalism; a hero. That is not his status with core Northern Ireland fans, and, since the 2028 announcement, older supporters have recalled the murders in March 1988 of British soldiers Derek Howes and David Wood.
During a fraught time even by Belfast’s 1980s standards, Howes and Wood drove into a funeral on the Falls Road for an IRA member murdered three days previously by a Protestant paramilitary at another funeral. Howes and Wood were taken to Casement Park, beaten, then shot nearby.
There are sights and scenes people never get over in a 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 which informs visitors that the ground was opened in 1905, held over 60,000 for a match against England in 1960 and, since 2016’s upgrade and redevelopment, has a capacity of 18,434.
Unmentioned is the riot in December 1948, when players from Belfast Celtic — a largely Catholic-supported club from the other end of Broadway — were attacked at Windsor Park. Centre-forward Jimmy Jones was dragged into the mainly Protestant crowd and jumped on until one of his legs fractured. Jones was a Protestant but the colour of his jersey mattered more.
Belfast Celtic withdrew from the Irish League four months later and never returned. They had withdrawn once before — in 1920-21, returning in 1924-25 — due to political violence finding its way onto the pitch. The club’s history shows current tensions are nothing new. The game has been used as a political football here since it began.
Belfast, and Northern Ireland beyond, have a long tradition of football. The first club in Ireland formed there in 1879 — Cliftonville, now managed in the domestic top flight by former Northern Ireland international Jim Magilton — and the IFA, established in a city centre hotel in 1880, is the fourth-oldest football association in the world. The man who came up with the penalty kick, William McCrum, was born in County Armagh and played for years in the Irish League.
As you turn left off Broadway onto the Falls Road, on the left is Nansen Street, which is where Bill McCracken grew up. McCracken is the man who altered the geography of football by being so adept at playing offside for Newcastle United, FIFA changed the law in 1925 to make it easier for attackers. McCracken then became a Newcastle scout and discovered George Eastham playing for Ards in the Irish League. Eastham, too, changed football’s geography via his landmark 1963 freedom of movement court case.
A few yards past Nansen Street is the Irish language centre, the Culturlann, and a little further along to your right is Beechmount Avenue, known then and now as ‘RPG Avenue’. RPG is shorthand for rocket-propelled grenades. For foreign visitors come 2028, this might be intriguing history but, for traditional Northern Ireland fans, it would be at best unsettling.
Both, however, may find some interest in Belfast City Cemetery further up the long slope leading to Casement Park. There lies Elisha Scott, who was manager of Belfast Celtic on that infamous day in 1948 but, before then, Liverpool goalkeeper from 1912 to 1934 and a man dubbed the ‘darling of the Kop’.
Not far from Scott is the grave of John Peden, who was the first man from a city whose airport is named after George Best to play for Manchester United. It was 1893 and they were known then as Newton Heath. Peden is the beginning of a long red thread connecting Belfast and Old Trafford, with Jonny Evans being its current end.
At the top of the Falls, you reach Andersonstown Road.
One hundred yards on, past the Felons Club bar, sits Casement Park, hidden by dark wooden boards, its unused floodlights high above. It feels a great distance from Windsor Park.
Reconciliation is a word everyone in Belfast has heard. How many have experienced it is another matter.
The City Cemetery also contains another wall, constructed long before the overground peace walls were erected. The Catholic church objected to the burial ground containing Protestants as well as Catholics, so an underground wall was built to separate the two. Sectarian division in the bones.
But change can come.
The Gaelic-speaking centre on the Falls Road was once a Presbyterian church and one of the exhibits on the Windsor Park tour there is an old Ireland kit — the original one used before the 1921 Partition of the island. It is blue, ‘St Patrick’s Blue’, not green.
Historic programmes also reveal just how long the IFA clung on to calling its team ‘Ireland’ rather than ‘Northern Ireland’.
What happens now?
If Casement Park is not rebuilt, or its rebuild doesn’t begin in time to satisfy the organising committee, UEFA will revert to contingency planning. The Euro 2020 final played at London’s Wembley Stadium would have been switched to Budapest in Hungary had there been any problems, for instance.
The same will apply in Germany for Euro 2024. If games cannot be staged at the originally allotted ground, they will be moved to one or more of the tournament’s other host stadia with the necessary infrastructure — security, commercial, media — in place. Euro 2028 will be no different, so Belfast’s five matches would be played in, for example, the English city of Birmingham or perhaps Dublin.
This would leave a large hole in the bid’s delivery.
Nelson and the IFA are not thinking this way.
“I understand,” he said, “that we have been through a very difficult time in Northern Ireland and that everyone has their own personal place on that journey. It’s complex, I know that, and the term ‘legacy’ can be quite nuanced in our country.
“I do appreciate there are people with genuine, heart-felt views that are different from the ones the IFA is espousing. But for me it’s quite a pivotal moment, not only for football but for wider civic society in Northern Ireland. A new stadium has a multiplier effect. Capital projects like this can really benefit the economy enormously — not only just the thing they’re meant to deliver but the knock-on effect, the supply chain. Northern Ireland will benefit.
“For me, for many of us, it would be a real shame to miss this fantastic opportunity.”
And the anti-Casement chants which may be heard again tonight when Denmark visit Windsor Park?
“People have a right to express their views — I’ve always been clear on that. But this is a fantastic opportunity for our country,” Nelson added.
“We have banded together with four other associations to bring such a brilliant tournament to our shores. It’s an opportunity to show what we can do positively for our society. This year, we are 25 years on from the Belfast Good Friday Agreement. In 2028, it will be 30 years. Ten or 15 years ago, would anyone have said we can bring a tournament like this to our shores, to Belfast?
“Focusing on the positives and the benefits, I think it’s the right thing to do. We are adamant we can bring colour, vibrancy, quality to Euro 2028, and Belfast will bring that.”
(Top photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)