UEFA President Michel Platini has visited Northern Ireland to attend a gala dinner that marked the 125th anniversary of the County Antrim and District Football Association.
Mr Platini, accompanied by UEFA deputy general secretary Theodore Theodoridis and UEFA fourth vice-president Marios Lefkaritis, was guest of honour at the celebrations at City Hall in Belfast.
The County Antrim and District FA, which was founded in 1888, is the largest of four regional associations affiliated to the Irish Football Association (IFA). It currently has in excess of 550 member clubs based in the north-east of Northern Ireland, including Premiership sides Linfield FC, Glentoran FC, Cliftonville FC, Crusaders FC, Donegal Celtic FC, Ballymena United FC and Lisburn Distillery FC.
Mr Platini, who was welcomed to the event by County Antrim and District FA president Crawford Wilson, said the association boasted a "glorious history". "When one deals with football in the British Isles, it is really different from the continent," he said. "
There we talk in decades. Here you talk about centuries. The County Antrim FA has served football well for 125 years."
Mr Platini told the gala dinner that a number of Northern Ireland players held a special place in his football memory. Danny Blanchflower, who captained Tottenham Hotspur FC to a famous league and FA Cup double in England in 1961, was captain of Northern Ireland's FIFA World Cup squad in Sweden in 1958. The Irish, featuring legendary Manchester United FC goalkeeper Harry Gregg, reached the quarter-finals where they lost 4-0 to a French team spearheaded by prolific striker Just Fontaine, who scored 13 goals in Sweden – a World Cup record that stands today.
There were thoughts of the brilliant George Best, one of the greatest players of his generation, whose outstanding skills for Manchester United and Northern Ireland thrilled fans in the 1960s and 1970s, and whose goal helped United towards a 4-1 win in the 1968 European Champion Clubs' Cup final against SL Benfica at Wembley.
Midfield duo Martin O'Neill and Sammy McIlroy, plus forward Gerry Armstrong – himself present at the dinner – were part of Northern Ireland's 1982 World Cup side that got to the second group stage, where they lost 4-1 to a France team captained by Michel Platini.
"Danny Blanchflower was before my time but he was a great player," said Mr Platini. "I played against [Northern Ireland] in the 1982 World Cup at the Vicente Calderón stadium in Madrid. I remember it well because it was July, in the middle of the day, and it was hot!" Armstrong scored Northern Ireland's consolation goal in that match.
During his speech, Mr Platini also congratulated the chairman of UEFA's Youth and Amateur Football Committee, Jim Boyce, on Cliftonville's success in winning this season's league title in Northern Ireland. Mr Boyce is a long-time supporter of the Reds who last celebrated the championship in 1998.
Prior to the gala evening, Mr Platini was shown a video presentation of the IFA's planned redevelopment of Windsor Park by national association chief executive Patrick Nelson. The national stadium in Belfast is set to undergo a major facelift, with funding provided by several stakeholders, including the UK government, the IFA and UEFA's HatTrick programme.
The work, scheduled to commence on 7 September and be completed by June 2015, will see the stadium capacity increase to 18,000, and include a complete rebuild of the South and East stands, and a major refurbishment of the North and West.
IFA president Jim Shaw said: "It was a tremendous honour for the County Antrim FA to have Michel Platini as guest of honour for its 125th anniversary celebrations. It was also pleasing that the Irish FA was afforded the opportunity to show the UEFA President a video presentation of the planned redevelopment of Windsor Park. When completed, it will be a very impressive structure and something all Northern Ireland fans can look forward to."
©UEFA.com 1998-2013. All rights reserved.