Column: Thirty years of hurt coming to an end for Northern Ireland

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Thirty years of hurt come to an end this weekend.

Two decades ago David Baddiel, Frank Skinner and the Lightning Seeds released a song with lyrics lamenting the 30-year period since England last won a major tournament.

It always struck me, as a Northern Irishman, that the English didn’t really understand the meaning of the word hurt.

Never mind winning one of the things, the green and white army haven’t made a single appearance at a major international finals since 1986.

I was just three years of age when Northern Ireland took on Brazil, Spain and Algeria in the group stages of the ‘86 World Cup in Mexico.

So I have no memories of a meaningful international summer tournament with Northern Irish involvement.

Offer most football fans from ‘our wee country’ a quarter-final loss on penalties and they’d probably snatch your hand off.

Of course, England should have done so much better on the internation stage since 1966, given the quality of players produced to wear the Three Lions.

But a 30-year absence from the World Cup and European Championships would certainly bring some perspective and a new understanding of that famous lyric.

Northern Ireland have been responsible for some fantastic moments in my lifetime.

I was at Windsor Park when Jimmy Quinn scored one of the most beautiful volleys of all time to give us the lead against the Republic of Ireland.

As a 10-year-old I had some inclination as to the cultural and political significance of the fixture, but mostly, I just loved Billy Bingham’s boys in green.

I grew up idolising Quinn, Iain Dowie, Gerry Taggart and my fellow Bangor boy Keith Gillespie.

Dowie, for me, summed up a lot of Northern Ireland teams. Hard working, full of heart and pride, hard done to by referees and ultimately not world class.

When the draws were made for qualifying groups I used to get excited about the visits to Belfast of the big teams, the Spains, Portugals and Germanys.

We never had an expectation of qualification, yet there was always a faint hope – the kind that doesn’t kill you because being at Windsor Park and singing ‘we’ll support you evermore’ was enough.

Northern Ireland were often a team who would pull out a fantastic result against a huge favourite and then slip up against an underdog.

There was that horrific, record breaking 1,298 minute goalless period – celebrated ironically by Northern Ireland fans so starved of success that we cheered our mediocrity.

International tournaments would come and go.

I loved them, they’d provide us all with glorious memories, moments of sheer brilliance and drama.

But those moments were always viewed as a neutral, as some largely emotionally detatched from the action.

This weekend, this summer, that is no longer the case.

The European Championships are upon us and Northern Ireland are involved.

Not only are they involved, they enter the tournament as the form team.

Remarkably, Michael O’Neill has led his men to a 12-game unbeaten run, having topped their qualification group.

There was no squeaking through or play-offs needed.

Northern Ireland are in France and they’re in France on merit.

Kids growing up at Windsor Park in the last couple of years are idolising players like Jonny Evans, Steven Davis and Kyle Lafferty.

In truth, Northern Irishmen of all ages idolise them, because they’ve brought about a dream scenario.

It’s a journey into the unknown for anyone under the age of 33 from that little spot in Europe.

And for those who remember Mexico 86 or Spain 82, it’s a joyous return to football’s top table.

No one in the Northern Irish camp would countenance any talk of just going to France to enjoy taking part, to make up the numbers.

But for our wee country, Sunday’s first game against Poland will be a party - win, lose or draw.

And 30 years of hurt will come to an end.