Michael McGovern’s heroics in goal in Paris lead to jubilation in Belfast

Northern Ireland's Michael McGovern

Directly behind the stage where 15,000 Northern Ireland fans watched their team contain Germany to a 1-0 victory is a centre where they will count the region’s votes on Friday morning in the EU referendum.

Like David Cameron later this week, the Northern Ireland faithful who gathered at the side of Belfast Lough also had an agonising wait to see if holding off the Germans and ending up with three points and zero goal difference would be enough to keep the Green and White Army like the UK still in Europe. Thanks to Turkey’s 2-0 victory over Czech Republic in Group D later in the day, it was enough – Michael O’Neill’s men are on the march to the last 16.

Fans leaving the Titanic Quarter right beside the production hall where the interior scenes of The Game of Thrones is shot were grateful to one man for preventing a goalmouth bloodbath worthy of the epic fantasy series. They had all flocked to the gates under the shadow of the two giant yellow cranes that mark Belfast’s skyline to praise one man – goalkeeper Michael McGovern.

Betty Adair from Newtonabbey on the northern outskirts of Belfast, said McGovern’s nine crucial, often point-blank saves from the German attack reminded her of Pat Jennings. “I thought it was going to be 3-0 the way the Germans were playing but Michael McGovern was amazing. He has kept us in it, I can’t believe he stopped them so many times. He was like big Pat Jennings out there,” she said.

Davy Wilson, who had travelled over to London to support his native team, also drew comparisons with Northern Ireland’s legendary keeper from the 1970s and 80s. “You can’t blame McGovern even for the goal because it was the defenders who got in his way. Michael showed absolute and total commitment. I’m old enough to have seen big Pat in the nets and that performance tonight was of the same quality Jennings would show in front of goal. He was outstanding and the reason why we’re still in the tournament… just,” the 54-year-old said.

McGovern was born in 1982, the same year Northern Ireland qualified for the World Cup in Spain. One of the heroes of that campaign 34 years ago was Billy Hamilton, whose cross fed into Gerry Armstrong for him to score the winner against Spain in Valencia. Hamilton appeared on Tuesday evening out of the VIP tent to wave to the throng of green and white gathered down on Belfast Lough.

Hamilton also played in both the 1983 and 1984 games for Northern Ireland when they defeated the mighty West German team twice but still failed to qualify for the last European Championship tournament in France. The appearance of Hamilton in front of thousands in Belfast was not, though, a portent for the long since united German team that history was going to repeat itself. Even the most ardent supporter at the Belfast event admitted that O’Neill’s side had been spared much worse.

Defeat, however, did not dampen the spirits of the crowds gathered close to the where the Titanic was first launched into the water. As the final whistle blew green flares exploded and streaked across the city’s dockland skyline while the production company that runs the Belsonic rock concerts which normally take place in the Titanic Quarter blared out the Monty Python anthem: “Always Look On The Bright Side of Life”.

Life and death were on the minds of fans when on the 64th minute every one of the 15,000 strong support burst into applause to remember Robert ‘Archie’ Rainey, the Northern Ireland fan who died of a heart attack watching the win over Ukraine in Lyon last week.

The Stereophonics are playing here next Wednesday, by which time their beloved Wales will have played in the knockout stages. Their fans among the Green and White Army now also have the same reason for jubilation.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Henry McDonald at the Titanic Quarter in Belfast, for The Guardian on Wednesday 22nd June 2016 10.00 Europe/London

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