The Bhoy Lennon a Windsor test case
We never got taken to Northern Ireland games as kids. We never even asked. It was not a spoken thing, but somehow we knew from an early age that Windsor Park was not a place where we would be welcome. We were the Town End at Clones kind of people, not the Kop End at Northern Ireland internationals.
There was no particular problem at issue: that inherent sporting segregation was never a big topic for discussion. It was just there and we got on with it.
We used to watch the games on television though. These were pre-Charlton, pre-any sort of success days for the Republic, and with the terrific fickleness of youth we threw our lot in with the team that was qualifying for the big international tournaments. And that was Northern Ireland.
The rolling bandwagon that accompanied the 1982 World Cup finals provided sharp relief to the desperate political situation, and there was a genuine communal feeling in the air. But there was still confusion. The supporters flew Union Jacks and belted out songs in lusty voices about Ulster, neither of which were regular staples at Ulster Championship games. We knew that Northern Ireland was kind of our team, but at the same time they never really belonged to us. Lurking deep in the background was an unshakeable sense of difference and distance.
As the years rolled on, the emotional attachments to the Northern Ireland side were gradually loosened. Little by little we came to realise just what the words of those old songs were and at just whom they were aimed. But the relationship had not yet broken down irretrievably. We were even less likely to travel to Windsor Park, but we still watched the highlights.
The fork in the road was reached during one of those nondescript matches that Northern Ireland seemed to specialise in once the World Cup glory days had receded and the team dropped back into the third tier of European football. It must have been the mid to late 1980s, and it might well have been Poland who were sampling life in Belfast at the time in all its grey grimness. Those details aren't really important. There are other things that stand out much more clearly.
There was a guy called Anton Rogan playing for Northern Ireland, either at full back or centre half. He was an honest but limited footballer, and had he not been born and brought up in Belfast it is unlikely that he would have found international favour anywhere else. Not even in Wales.
Had circumstances been different, it is unlikely Rogan would be remembered at all now. As it is, his name has become symbolic of something much more significant than his talent as a footballer.
As the game against Poland meandered through 90 minutes of fairly dreadful football, it was glaringly obvious Rogan was being singled out for "special" treatment from his Northern Ireland supporters. That, in fact, does not go nearly far enough. Each and every time he got on or even near the ball, Rogan was booed and subjected to sustained jeering and abuse.
By now we were old enough to realise there was something that wasn't right about this, and the explanation was staring us in the face: at the time, Rogan played for Celtic. There had, of course, been Catholics on the team before, many of them, and none was singled out for abuse. But because of the Celtic connection, Rogan was regarded as markedly different and attacks on him were very much open season. His treatment was a salutary lesson for many non-committal Northern Ireland supporters. It was telling them they didn't belong.
Neil Lennon grew up watching Northern Ireland around this time. A Catholic from a strong Armagh GAA background, the treatment meted out to Anton Rogan would not have been lost on him as he set out on a professional football career that would also see him playing for Northern Ireland.
Lennon's talent and ability have set him apart from the journeyman kind of player that Anton Rogan undoubtedly was, and over the past few years he has moulded well into a strong Northern Ireland midfield. His tackling and workrate make Lennon just the kind of performer that Northern Ireland supporters traditionally value, and so far the relationship between the two has been problem free.
That, however, could change dramatically with his move last week from Leicester City to Celtic. Lennon could well find himself in the eye of a storm.
Running in parallel, however, there have been earnest efforts by the Irish Football Association (IFA) to address the sectarian atmosphere of Windsor Park, and it is now something talked about openly rather than quietly ignored. But as anyone who has spent any time here will realise, there is often a considerable and often unbridgeable gap between fine, noble words of intention and meaningful action.
Northern Ireland's next home game is against the Czech Republic in March, and Neil Lennon, if fit, will probably play. But if he is given the same reception as Anton Rogan, will the IFA and its stewards take action against the offending supporters? If the IFA is really serious about ridding Northern Ireland games of poisonous sectarianism and making them welcoming to everyone who lives here, that would be a good place to start.