EURO 2016 QUALIFIERS: Lifelong NI supporter Gary McAllister hopes to end 30 years of hurt

Fans are hoping for Euro glory on Thursday night
Fans are hoping for Euro glory on Thursday night

Supporters’ chief Gary McAllister is hoping to end 30 years of hurt at Windsor Park on Thursday night.

McAllister has endured three decades of emotional turmoil following Northern Ireland’s fortunes on the pitch.

Kyle Lafferty laps up the applause after his equaliser against Hungary

Kyle Lafferty laps up the applause after his equaliser against Hungary

The halcyon days of the Eighties seem a lifetime ago, a hazy dot on an horizon of memories for the Green and White Army.

From Gerry Armstrong’s giant-slaying act against World Cup hosts Spain in 1982, to Pat Jennings’ tearful farewell in Mexico four years later.

All distant memories.

Lifelong fan McAllister used to envy the older generation of Northern Ireland supporters who sampled those dizzy heights.

The 38-year-old – chairman of the Amalgamation of Official Northern Ireland Supporters’ Clubs – admits the past 30 years have been a roller coaster of highs and lows following his country’s footballing exploits.

Northern Ireland have failed to qualify for major tournament since Mexico ‘86, but their recent history has been punctuated with some stellar results, including wins against England, Spain and Sweden.

McAllister is now hoping he and the thousands of other supporters will have something tangible to celebrate – notably qualification for next summer’s Euro finals.

“I can remember following Northern Ireland as a schoolboy in 1990, and being envious of the older fans who experienced two World Cups during the Eighties,” said McAllister.

“I remember thinking I would never get to enjoy something like that. I thought that opportunity would never come around.

“We went close to qualifying for the 2008 European Championship, and to a lesser extent the World Cup the following campaign.

“I just hope we can get over the line in these qualifiers. To reach next summer’s Euros would be fantastic, not just for Northern Ireland football but for the country in general.

“It would lift everyone, and would give young people something to aspire towards. We have had a number of former Irish league players who are now in the Northern Ireland team, including Gareth McAuley, Stuart Dallas and Niall McGinn.

“There is a real feel-good factor at the minute. But there is also some nervous tension too.”

Northern Ireland require one win from their final two qualifiers – against Greece and Finland – to guarantee qualification.

Two draws would also suffice, but McAllister hopes Michael O’Neill’s side can finish the job at Windsor Park on Thursday.

“The closer you get to the goal, the further away it seems to be,” he added.

“But we are in the box seat. We are top of the group with two games left, and every other team in the group would swap places with Northern Ireland.

“This campaign has been fantastic, and now we are so close to qualifying. Fans always talk fondly about Spain and Mexico, but it would be nice to have a new memory to cherish.”

Northern Ireland fans have rarely had it so good, sitting on the cusp of qualification while a new multi-million pounds stadium continues to gather momentum at Windsor Park.

“It is a very exciting time to be a fan,” McAllister said.

“The new stadium will be fantastic when it is completed. It is great that there are 1500 more tickets sold for the Greece game.

“Hopefully the fans who are maybe sampling Windsor for the first time will enjoy it and come back for more.

“The Northern Ireland fans are superb – the best in the world. They have supported the team through the highs and lows, and hopefully we are on the cusp of something special again.

“We haven’t qualified for a major finals since 1986, but we have enjoyed some big results against the likes of England, Spain, Sweden, Denmark and Poland. We have also endured some lows.

“But we always stick by the team – it is always an adventure following Northern Ireland, and hopefully that journey continues to France next summer.”