WITH Northern Ireland progressing into the knockout stages of Euro 2016, a fairy tale that began nearly two years ago continues.
As the country’s travelling supporters move on to Paris to face a Gareth Bale-inspired Wales on Saturday, there is a real sense of optimism back home, especially within a young generation.
This is because a national team which was once viewed by many as a representation of one-sided sectarian politics appears to be attracting significant cross-community support for the first time.
At the forefront of this support is the country’s young adults – myself included – who are having our heads turned by the notion that the national team now represents something more than black and white politics.
This is a generation that has grown up amongst the remnants of a conflict which, for most of us, is confined to stories from parents and grandparents.
As the Good Friday agreement was signed in 1998, it is difficult for today’s young adults to comprehend how things were around that time and before.
However, just over a decade ago, such cross-community support for the national team would have been unthinkable. In 2005, when David Healy scored that famous goal against England in Belfast, politics still appeared to loom heavily over Irish national football.
For me, it seemed essentially confined this; support Northern Ireland if you were Protestant or the Republic if Catholic.
As a Catholic with mixed heritage, I can remember going to Windsor Park in 2004 for the first time and, come to think of it, the last time.
As a nine-year-old I experienced that old, intimidating atmosphere within the stadium's run-down walls, and it stuck with me for years.
However, something seems to be changing. A major factor behind this is an increasingly depoliticised atmosphere around the national team, which has been pushed by various cross-community IFA programmes.
It is not just the IFA creating this cross-community atmosphere though, as Northern Ireland fans have been joining their Republic counterparts in being a credit to the island, which has been showcased to the rest of Europe via France.
Social media has been inundated with videos of Northern Irish and Republic fans drinking, dancing and simply having a bit of craic together. This new-found respect for each other was heightened following the tragic death of 24-year-old Northern Ireland fan Darren Rodgers.
In a show of respect to the young fan, Republic supporters sang “Stand up for the Ulsterman” during the 24th minute of their game with Sweden. In Belfast, Republic supporters at the city’s fanzone also held up a tribute banner during the applause.
Social media also erupted in tributes with one Republic fan writing on Facebook: “At the end of the day, we are all just Irishmen north and south, protestant and catholic…massive condolences to Darren’s family and friend.”
In response to this, a Northern Ireland fan wrote: “Definitely mate, we all live on the same island and hopefully one day we can all just get along.”
One major sticking point still exists though; Northern Ireland continue to use God Save The Queen as their anthem, which isn’t inclusive to all fans and can leave some in a position of hesitation.
During Northern Ireland’s Euro 2016 opener against Poland I had an eye-opening experience when a packed pub full of Northern Ireland supporters in London opted not to sing the anthem.
When asked about the issue earlier this year, Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster stated rather bluntly that she doesn’t see a need to “tinker” with the national team’s use of the song.
This standpoint from Foster, leader of the DUP party, is no real surprise. However, for many, her “we shouldn’t get into the politicising of sport” reasoning doesn’t surmount.
If anything, the current anthem represents a somewhat last stand of divided politics within Northern Irish sport.
It wouldn’t take long to adopt an alternative anthem or even write a new inclusive song, with rugby’s ‘Ireland’s Call’ being an example of how successful this can be.There is also the endorsements of Belfast’s popular world champion boxer Carl Frampton and golfing superstar Rory McIlory – himself a Catholic – who have achieved cross-community support in their fields.
This has promoted a depoliticised atmosphere within Northern Irish sport, which, if Euro 2016 is any to go by, has filtered through to the football team.
Of course, there are still young people from Northern Ireland who choose to support the Republic, but what represents a change in attitude is how little animosity now exists between these personal decisions.
I’ve seen plenty of friends – whether they support the Republic or Northern Ireland – sharing jokes online and wishing each other well during their respective trips to France.
As the tournament continues for both Irish teams this weekend, a new, refreshing footballing atmosphere is evident to myself and others who once felt only animosity and hesitation when getting behind Northern Ireland.
There is still one big hurdle to get past – the anthem issue – but with this ever-growing welcoming atmosphere among the Northern Ireland fans, the seeds have been sewn for a future whereby everyone born in the country will support the national team.