7th September is a very special date for Northern Irish football fans because on that day in 2005, David Healy’s 73rd minute strike sealed a famous win over England in Belfast.
On the anniversary of that game, I’m going to pay tribute to the shirt worn by NI in that game, which even now remains one of my favourites in my collection!
The 2004-2006 Northern Ireland home shirt made by Umbro, worn between August 2004 and February 2006, mostly in the 2006 World Cup qualifying campaign and famously in the historic win over England in September 2005.
Umbro returned as Northern Ireland’s kit manufacturer in 2004 after a decade away and their first kit was hard to beat.
Of course it was green, as a Northern Ireland home shirt should be, but there was something slightly different about it in that it almost seemed to shine a little.
This was due to the silver fabric woven into the body of the shirt – part of Umbro’s X-Static technology designed to prevent the build-up of sweat and the associated bacteria in the shirt, meaning it stayed smelling fresh even if you’d been exercising in it.
It also continued the strong representation of navy on the shirt that had been part of the previous effort from Patrick, only this time it was on panels on the sleeve rather than the side of the shirt. The sleeves are trimmed with white on both sides and the colour continues across the back of the shirt, forming a navy v behind the collar.
The collar itself is split in two, the back is navy, merging in with the sleeves while the front v part is white.
I like a bit of navy featuring on a Northern Ireland shirt – both this and the kit which replaced it for the Euro 2008 qualifiers made good, restrained use of it as an additional trim colour but it didn’t feature prominently on a home shirt again until the release of the hotly-anticipated Euro 2016 kit, which got the balance wrong with all-navy sleeves and a two-tone blue stripe across the chest.
And although the current home shirt is just green and white, navy lives on in the kit in the turnovers of the socks.
Northern Irish football wasn’t exactly in the best condition at the start of 2004.
An embarrassing Euro 2004 qualifying campaign had seen the national side finish bottom of the group without a single win. They were ranked 124th in the world and worst of all, hadn’t scored a goal in over 1,200 minutes of football.
New manager Lawrie Sanchez, who had won three caps as a player for the country in the late 1980’s, was hardly the most obvious candidate for the job. His main managerial achievement had been guiding third-tier Wycombe Wanderers to the FA Cup semi-finals in 2001 (allegedly recruiting quarter-final hero Roy Essandoh via Teletext along the way) but just over two years later, he’d been sacked and had been out of work for four months when the IFA came calling.
But against the odds, he managed to revitalise the team. David Healy ended the goal drought 56 minutes into his first game in charge against Norway. The fact Northern Ireland were already 3-0 down and ended up losing 4-1 barely mattered.
Healy started to rack up the goals, the start of an extraordinary four-year long international purple patch in which he kept pace with some of the biggest names in world football, despite not always being a guaranteed starter at club level. He scored the winner next time out in another friendly in Estonia and went on to break the Northern Ireland goalscoring record on a summer tour to the Caribbean. In August, NI secured a draw in a friendly away to Switzerland, who had competed at Euro 2004 just a couple of months earlier, in what was actually the first appearance of this new kit.
Now there was actual optimism going into the qualifiers for the 2006 World Cup, which lasted all of 90 minutes at Windsor Park as Poland wiped the floor with their hosts, winning 3-0.
Indeed the first twelve months of the kit’s lifespan had more lows than highs. A heroic 2-2 draw in Cardiff with nine men (the only time the senior NI men’s team wore the accompanying away kit) and a 3-3 at home to Austria, needing a 94th minute equaliser in a game they should have won, were outnumbered by a heavy defeat by England, a last-gasp defeat in the return in Poland and two truly awful friendly results, a 1-0 defeat by Canada at Windsor (seriously a contender for the worst 90 minutes I’ve ever witnessed – only partially redeemed by being the first time Steven Davis pulled on the green shirt) and a draw in Malta ahead of the September international break of 2005.
The pressure was somewhat eased by a 2-0 win over Azerbaijan on the Saturday afternoon, second-half goals from Stuart Elliot and Warren Feeney finally gave Sánchez his first competitive victory.
This set things up nicely for the visit of England to Windsor Park the following Wednesday.
Northern Ireland lined up with Taylor, Baird, Hughes, Craigan, Capaldi, Gillespie, Johnson, Davis, Elliot, Healy and Quinn. England might have had the superstars, Beckham, Rooney, Owen, Gerrard and Lampard all started but Sven-Göran Eriksson had set them up in a slightly bizarre 4-5-1 formation with Beckham playing in a deep midfield role and Rooney pushed out wide.
The Manchester United forward was frustrated in his new position and was lucky to escape with just a yellow card for an elbow on Keith Gillespie before half time. Beckham hit the bar with a free kick and Taylor saved well from Owen, but Northern Ireland largely succeeded in keeping their opponents at arms length.
Then on 73 minutes, Steven Davis clipped the ball through to Healy, and the rest is history…
It was Northern Ireland’s first victory over England since 1972 and one of the biggest upsets in recent international football. The two sides were separated by over 100 places in the world rankings beforehand and few had given Sanchez’s side any hope of getting a result. After all, Eriksson had never previously lost a qualifier as England manager and they had easily overpowered them in Manchester just a few months before.
Considering all that we had endured in the previous few years, you can forgive us Northern Ireland fans for milking the moment a wee bit.
After the euphoria, the campaign tailed off with two defeats the following month, at home by Wales and away in Austria (featuring a then-rare instance of Northern Ireland playing in all green) before this kit’s lifespan came to an end with a 1-0 friendly win over Estonia in February 2006. I mainly remember that game for the mini-snowstorm which enveloped Windsor Park during it.
When competitive football returned to Windsor Park in September 2006, it was in a new kit and Healy proved lightning could indeed strike twice as almost a year to the day since the England game, he scored at hat-trick as Northern Ireland defeated Spain 3-2.
Beating England was the country’s biggest result in decades and although it might not have counted for much in terms of qualification, its symbolic importance cannot be underestimated. Windsor Park had sold out for the campaign mostly because of the England factor.
Without the boost of this win, we might have faced a quick return to the days of struggling to sell tickets for NI games. The momentum largely sustained itself through the next few campaigns, despite diminishing returns after the Euro 2008 qualifiers – until the historic run to Euro 2016.
The shirt remains one of my favourites – and indeed was my match-going shirt of choice until around about 2009. It also must be mentioned that I scored my only two goals for the Queen’s NI Supporters Club team while wearing it – making it part of my extremely mediocre footballing career!