Byline: STEVE CURRY
ENGLAND have not played in Northern Ireland since April Fool's Day, 1987. Both the city and the opposition have changed since - one for the better, the other for the worse.
In the 97 meetings between the countries, the Irish have won just six times, and only twice since World War Two, both times at Wembley rather than their Belfast home, Windsor Park.
Though there were 'Ring of Steel' headlines screaming from the front page of the Belfast Telegraph when England's millionaires arrived here yesterday, in reality the tension compared to 18 years ago is almost non-existent.
Then, I recall, the bus carrying the press to the game was made to wait while a suspicious car was blown up by remote control. Checkpoints were everywhere.
Bryan Robson, who skippered England in their last game here - a European Championship qualifier - and headed the first goal in a 2-0 victory, said: 'It was an intimidating place to come to play football. There was a lot of hostility and anti-English feeling. The whole environment in Ireland has changed now.
'But the crowd at Windsor Park get right behind their team and in that match I recall they had Norman Whiteside as their inspirational player with lads like Mal Donaghy, who was a tough character, in the side.
'But with the greatest respect, their side now is not one who should frighten the current England team. There is a lot of quality in our team and they will have too much for the Irish.' The days when the best talent from the Province made their way into the top sides seems to be over.
There is nobody of the likes of Pat Jennings, Terry Neill, Bryan Hamilton, Derek Dougan or the Arsenal full back pair of Pat Rice and Sammy Nelson, who were all in the side who last defeated England in front of 64,000 on a Tuesday night at Wembley in 1972.
Indeed, it is a long time since Ireland produced players of the celebrity status of George Best, Martin O'Neill, Danny Blanchflower, Billy Bingham, Jimmy and Sammy McIlroy and the revered Peter Doherty.
Even the Irish suggest their team's collective value is a mere [pounds sterling]8.5million compared to England's [pounds sterling]211m and that every player in Sven Goran Eriksson's side has a greater transfer value than all of Lawrie Sanchez's team. …