Tuesday 20 August 2019

Irish football fan raises toast... with beer he kept for 30 since Northern Ireland last reached major finals

Claire McNeilly

Rarely has a brew had so much time to settle. For almost 30 years football fanatic Stephen Rowley has been waiting to open the bottle of beer he bought in Mexico in 1986 after Northern Ireland were eliminated from the World Cup.

At the time he vowed never to open the bottle until the Green and White Army qualified for another major tournament - although he was not expecting to have to wait nearly three decades for the opportunity.

But now that Michael O'Neill's men have made it to the Euro 2016 finals in France next summer, 55-year-old Stephen has finally been able to sample the vintage brew that has been lying in a cupboard for all of 29 years and five months.

"Actually, it wasn't too bad," said the man who has followed Northern Ireland all over the globe since he was a football-mad teenager.

"Believe me, I've had a lot worse in my travels. That beer actually tasted a bit like port.

"It's been a long time coming, and two or three times I almost gave up on the boys qualifying again for a major tournament, but it was worth the wait."

Northern Ireland's glorious 3-1 victory over Greece at Windsor Park in October meant that Stephen could finally live up to the promise he made himself in the searing Mexican heat back in 1986.

But, just to be on the safe side, he took the decades-old brew along to the Belfast Beer and Cider Festival at the Ulster Hall, where a drinks expert cleared it as fit for consumption.

"I considered taking it to Helsinki for the final qualifier and downing it after the match with Finland, but I was scared it would break in transit," said Stephen, a former banking official who now does voluntary work for Marie Curie.

"I know it's daft, but the longer it went on the more precious it seemed to become.

"And I'm really glad that I got a chance to sample it after all this time."

Stephen, who is single, claims to be one of only four Northern Ireland fans to have attended what, for him, were the three best performances by the team in his lifetime - the legendary 1-0 defeat of hosts Spain in Valencia at the 1982 World Cup, courtesy of Gerry Armstrong's winner; the epic 1-0 victory over West Germany in Hamburg (1983, when Norman Whiteside got the vital goal), and the memorable 1985 single-goal eclipse of Romania in Bucharest, when Jimmy Quinn netted.

He is now counting the days - just over 200, apparently - until Northern Ireland's opening game of the Euros.

"And this time, when the Green and White Army's epic adventure comes to an end, I'll be going out and buying a bottle of France's best Champagne," said Stephen.

"It'll be another great moment when I open that, but let's hope it isn't another 30 years.

"I'm in my mid-fifties now and I might not be around in 2046, but, like every Northern Ireland fan, you live in hope."

Belfast Telegraph

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