Subscriber OnlySoccer

Johnny Watterson: Are green and orange equal in NI soccer or is one of them just not worth it?

O’Neill rightly pointed out that God Save The Queen doesn’t represent team’s diversity

While admiring the chutzpah of Michael O'Neill, the former Northern Ireland football team manager, for calling it as it is, he has got to be careful for what he wishes for. They could dump Ireland's Call on his old team's lap. Emoji insert of Edvard Munch's 'The Scream'.

O’Neill rightly pointed out in an ITV documentary called Game Of Two Halves (set to be aired at 8pm on Tuesday) that God Save The Queen (GSTQ) doesn’t entirely represent the NI team’s diversity and when the anthem is played, it is playing for only some of the squad. For any sports team, that is a problem.

When the first few bars of the visitors’ anthem booms the opposition players belt out the words like a Welsh choir, veins bulging on their necks, arms respectfully across their chests and facing the national flag.

It being Northern Ireland means it's an incendiary thing to suggest for the most successful football manager they have had for the last 30 years.


O’Neill’s difficulty is that while his thoughts are what is best for the players, their motivations, the edge they need for international football and ultimately the performance they can give, in NI it is always going to be a race out to the political extremes to grab a pitchfork.

It doesn’t matter that O’Neill said he felt the anthem had “disadvantaged” his teams and explained how he had devised a compromise approach based on mutual respect.

It doesn’t matter that O’Neill, who accepted an MBE from the Queen at Buckingham Palace in 2017 for services to football and to the community in NI said: “I could see how other countries would either sing their anthem or display real patriotism, a real togetherness, real emotion during the anthem and we never really got that.”

It doesn’t matter that O’Neill explained: “When I came in I could see that a lot of the players from nationalist backgrounds would stand with their heads down. So we made sure that the players linked, first of all, it was very important. And that the players were requested that, whilst they may not sing the anthem they would respect it and they would stand with their heads not bowed.”

That was a remarkable achievement by the manager and the Irish Football Association (IFA).

But for the pro GSTQ groups and unionist activists like Jamie Bryson, O'Neill's remarks landed on their desks like another piece in a long line of unionist betrayal. Then followed a bout of chumming the water.

“The entire ‘process’ is predicated upon the premise that unionism must give, and nationalism must get,” Tweeted Bryson. “Now they are coming for the national anthem. No one should be surprised, nationalism’s demands are – and will continue to be – insatiable.”

Bryson can be a drama queen. But there are a lot of people in NI who would support that view. Then there are others who see Windsor Park in a European or World Cup qualifying match as shared space, where mutual respect is and must be a requisite, yet players are subjected to an anthem that is alienating to them because of their real life experiences of where they grew up. That's the way it has always been.

Rugby team

In 1988 the Scotland rugby team moved from 'always been' and stopped using GSTQ as their pre-match anthem, switching instead to Flower of Scotland. The question for NI is whether 'always been' is a good enough reason anymore.

At Croke Park 'always been' was parked in 2007 and England rugby players sang GSTQ for the first time on an alien field. The Garda band played the music on a ground where 14 civilians had been killed by British forces. It was elemental, a historic moment, the GAA saying to the rest of Ireland we have now decided to peacefully move on.

In the first 1987 Rugby World Cup, the Irish team compromised with a cassette tape Old Wesley prop Phil Orr had brought with him. They put it on for the national anthem and The Rose of Tralee blasted out over the tannoy system. All good, although, Willie Anderson, in his book Crossing The Line characterised the episode as a shitshow.

Now, when the Irish rugby team competes outside the Republic of Ireland, Ireland’s Call is played as the national anthem. Only in Dublin matches is Amhrán na bhFiann played along with Ireland’s Call.

The IFA, which has made giant strides towards respecting different traditions, has a choice. They can side with what is probably a majority of unionist voices and do nothing, or, they can buy into O’Neill’s vision of creating and harnessing an identity shared by all of the players. It isn’t a zero sum game.

Irish rugby has done it. They have changed over the years. The GAA has also done it. They are Irish sports that have, on occasion, painfully moved from the ‘always been’ mentality because ‘always been’ didn’t work. It needed change. It did not represent current thinking.

The people who decide these things may sit down now and imagine what the experience would be for a talented kid from The Village or Shankill Road to line up for each NI match and respectfully stand to attention to The Soldier’s Song. All hell.

Then they can agree that what they expect of the talented kid from Turf Lodge, or Ballymurphy is to do exactly that for GSTQ. Ask then, if both green and orange traditions are equal in value, or is one of them just not worth it?