Gillespie: Northern Ireland players have made the country proud
June 24 2016

For footballers, few memories can match those of a major international tournament. Experiences at the FIFA World Cup?, the UEFA European Championship, the Copa America and so on remain forever etched in the minds of those who have graced these stages. Fifa 17 accounts

Given this, we can only imagine how tough it must be for ex-players who never got the chance to feature in these competitions, especially if they see their old team-mates take to the pitch and make history for their country. It must be hard not to become bogged down contemplating the 'what ifs'.

Yet, despite this factor, Keith Gillespie is one happy man right now. A long-time stalwart for Northern Ireland, he retired in 2013 and has been watching on gleefully from the stands while his compatriots have made their mark at UEFA EURO 2016 in France.

Positively buzzing about Michael O'Neill's side's exploits, the former Newcastle United and Blackburn Rovers star spoke exclusively to following his country's narrow loss to Germany.

A groundbreaking achievement
Right after the final whistle, Gillespie rose to his feet and whipped out his mobile phone to record the Northern Irish fans, still chanting away tirelessly. "They're singing 'We're not going home, We're not going home,'" he explained. These songs proved to be spot on: subsequent results ensured that Northern Ireland will be involved in the Round of 16 as one of the best third-place finishers.

Having reined in his understandable emotion a bit, the 41-year-old proceeded to outline how much this tournament means to his homeland, pointing to the rousing atmosphere created by the supporters as evidence: "It's incredible. We've never qualified for this tournament before. We've waited a long time since 1986, when we qualified for the World Cup, and just watching these fans, you know, they make it so special for anybody who's from Northern Ireland."

The legendary winger, who won 86 caps for his country, has been hugely impressed with the way O'Neill's charges have acquitted themselves: "They've been excellent. Maybe not so good in the first game [the 1-0 defeat by Poland], but certainly [in the 2-0 win] against Ukraine. Today we were playing against the world champions. It was always going to be difficult, so to restrict them to 1-0, possibly qualifying us for the next phase [at this point it had not been confirmed], is just incredible for everybody connected with Northern Ireland."

Giant-killing credentials
This is not the first time that Northern Ireland have overcome the odds and pulled off momentous upsets. Thirty-four years ago, at the 1982 FIFA World Cup Spain?, they topped a group that included none other than the hosts and a mighty Yugoslavia team. The current crop therefore had an example to draw inspiration from in their ultimately successful attempt to reach the second round.

And this generation's accomplishments have really captured the imagination of the Northern Irish public. As a smiling Gillespie put it: "We have a Fan Zone in Belfast for 10,000 people and we had to increase it to 15,000 for today's match, so the whole of Belfast and the whole of Northern Ireland is tuning in."

As for whether they can keep their run going, the former captain believes anything is possible: "Who knows? We've got a possibility where we could be playing Wales, we could be playing France, it just depends who you play. Certainly we've given a good account of ourselves in the whole tournament, so we can be proud of the players." He went on to note that the team had "nothing to lose" going into the competition because "just qualifying was success", before admitting that reaching the last 16 was already "beyond our wildest dreams". "You never know, we could go one step further as well," he added.

From the delight and optimism Gillespie was radiating, it was clear that thoughts of what might have been for him personally were not eating away at him. Nevertheless, when we asked him whether he felt a slight sense of envy at not having enjoyed such an experience during his playing days, he responded with candour. With no airs about him, this famous figure reiterated that despite the inevitable pangs of regret at having missed out, he is relishing being just another member of his country's travelling support: "Of course, I think anybody's envious of that, playing in front of these fans as well, but just to play at a major tournament. Unfortunately, I didn't get to do that with Northern Ireland, but I've got the next best thing where I'm here supporting them as a fan."



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