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Northern Ireland’s Journey To Their First World Cup

Northern Ireland’s Journey To Their First World Cup

Ben Roberts takes a look at Northern Ireland’s successful 1958 World Cup qualifying campaign. You can also listen to a discussion on his new book, Gunshots & Goalposts: The Story of Northern Irish Football, below and you can buy the book itself by clicking here.

Northern Ireland’s qualifying group for the 1958 World Cup, pitting them against Portugal and Italy, presented a treacherous pathway to the tournament due to be held in Sweden.

This was the first time that the ‘home’ nations would compete for a place in the finals without squaring off against one another for a single spot, and the team from Northern Ireland had not played a team from outside these two islands since a friendly against France in Paris in 1952.

Though a qualifying group of three appears unbelievable to the modern eye, only fifty-three countries entered the pre-tournament pool. Unlike today, where more than two hundred nations vie to contend in FIFA’s showpiece tournament, Northern Ireland was the least populous nation in the running.

The road to Halsmtad began in January 1957 at the Estadio José Alvalade in Lisbon. Peter Doherty travelled to the Portuguese capital with a squad of twelve, reminding his players that ‘We go out to fight for the honour of Northern Ireland and for the glittering prize of a place in the World Cup final sixteen. Remember we are ambassadors for our country.’ The Portuguese had planned to play the national anthem of the Republic, Amhrán na bhFiann, for their visitors, but were mercifully informed of their potential faux pas before the match and quickly substituted ‘God Save The Queen’ into the running order. Likely feeling an abundance of caution at this point, the cover of the match day programme was emblazoned with a Union Jack rather than the Red Hand of Ulster.

This was also a fixture which had the unusual distinction of being scheduled so late in the evening that it would begin one day and finish the next, though the Portuguese made one scheduling concession to the IFA: it would normally have been a match arranged for a Sunday afternoon, but their counterparts in Belfast would not countenance such an affront, and the eventual timing of the tie meant it was the first match to take place under floodlights in Portugal. On the culinary front, no fripperies were permitted by the Northern Irish team doctor: a report in the Belfast Telegraph stated that the ‘Irish team are told to watch diet. British meals only until after game.’

When the match got underway on the 16th January, and Billy Bingham wasted no time in putting his team in front, scoring after six minutes. A goal from Manuel Vasques in the thirty-fourth minute levelled the score, and this was how matters remained on January 17th when it ended. Afterwards, Peter McParland described the game as ‘the dirtiest in which I’ve played.’

A 0-0 draw with Wales in a British Championship match-up three months later was followed by the team’s first qualification bout with Italy in Rome’s Stadio Olimpico. It was an especially hot April day on the central Italian coast, and the team’s trainer-cum-physio, Gerry Morgan, had decided to fill a bucket with eau de Cologne and water, using it to wipe the players faces during breaks in play. Northern Ireland had conceded from Sergio Cervato after three minutes and battled for the rest of the match to level the score, managing to hit the woodwork no less than three times during the final ten minutes of play. The Glasgow Herald described Doherty’s side as ‘most unlucky to be beaten’, though it was plain to even the most optimistic observer that the prize of a World Cup berth was already looking tenuous. The trip had not been entirely irredeemable, though: the travelling party’s only two known Catholics in Morgan and McParland were able to make a short pilgrimage to the Vatican.

It was not time for Peter and Gerry to discard the rosary just yet. The Irish case would be bolstered a week later when Portugal travelled to Belfast and were defeated 3-0, despite Doherty’s side having not won a match for two years.

Before Northern Ireland’s decisive return fixture with the Italians at Windsor Park there would be two British Championship matches: a 1-1 draw with Scotland in Belfast and a 3-2 triumph over England. The travelling Irish contingent in the stands are said to have invaded the Wembley pitch and ‘carried the Irish players to the dressing rooms, waving shamrocks and cheering what was undoubtedly a famous victory.’

It was only the fifth time they had beaten the English, and the first since 1927. Peter McParland would reflect that this was the game that gave them a new confidence in their abilities, saying: ‘That was a really great day and it was a stepping stone towards the World Cup. The greatest thing was we had an Irish team, we were all from Belfast, Derry, Newry, lads who’d grown up in Northern Ireland, which was very satisfying. We were a close bunch by then and beating England made us feel we could take on anyone.’

The Italians seemed to take the renewed Northern Irish threat seriously, hastily arranging friendlies with Luton Town and Charlton Athletic to give themselves an indication of the ‘British’ type of football they should expect.

This was a match Northern Ireland had to win, whereas a draw would be sufficient for the Italians to progress: the stage was set for a qualification showdown from which only one of them could emerge.

There was one problem: the referee, whose day job was as a stage manager at the Budapest Opera House, had a four-legged journey to Belfast, involving changes in Prague, Brussels and London. He only completed three of them, becoming stranded by fog in London. What was to be done? The official waited in England hoping to catch the Ulster Flyer as hurried arrangements were made to source a replacement. The IFA contacted the English referee, Arthur Ellis, who was amenable but the Italians believed a British official could not be sufficiently impartial and rejected the idea. Given that this notion had been dismissed it was unsurprising that, when IFA then sought the services of a local referee, this was also vetoed.

The game could not go ahead as planned, but to call it off would be to risk the fearsome wrath of the Windsor Park faithful, many of whom had taken a day off from the shipyard to attend this crucial encounter. A decision was made; the match would be demoted to a friendly with the qualifier to be rearranged for a later date. Tommy Mitchell, a Lurgan man, would officiate the match. Even so, the unwitting crowd were hardly likely to be overjoyed and it seems the players had not been kept in the loop either. Peter McParland set the scene in the Irish dressing room: ‘Twenty minutes before kick-off we were up and ready for the game, raring to go, and Peter Doherty came in and said, “I’ve news for you. The referee hasn’t turned up and the Italians won’t accept the Irish referee.”’


The Battle of Belfast

 The teams took to the field in front of 35,000 fractious fans who proceeded to drown out the Italian anthem with a chorus of jeers and boos. Though this sounds confrontational, it is probable that most of those present had never before heard the anthem: this was 1958 and a football match was still yet to be televised in Northern Ireland. Neither had the team played a game outside the UK before 1950, and even after that, such ties had been limited to a mere handful. The cost of following the team to away games would have been prohibitive to all but the richest of fans, so it seems more likely a combination of a disgruntled crowd and an unfamiliar tune were to blame.

The stage was set for what Bertie Peacock would call ‘the battle of Belfast.’ He was not the only player who remembered it well. Billy Bingham recalled, ‘We were kicking the shit out of each other…I was getting whacked all the time. It was the unfriendliest friendly I played in.’ He continued: ‘They were all heroes in their own right. But they brought it on themselves unfortunately and they met a team that would have a go with the Irish temperament. Don’t kick me or I’ll kick you twice. We never let people away with kicking us at Windsor Park. No, you didn’t get away with it. You were always going to get it back.’

When the game ended with the score at 2-2, the Irish crowd were still fired up, perhaps even more so than they had been at kick-off. They had forsaken a day’s pay in shipyards to watch what turned out to be nothing more than a friendly and their mood was far from genial. More than 2,000 of them invaded the pitch, charging in the direction of the departing Italian players who had to be given protection by their opposite numbers in the Irish side, who took responsibility for a man each.

It had been a bruising affair and they would have to do it all over again in January. Off the pitch, the government in the Republic of Ireland were quick to point out that it was the Northern Irish team (rather than their own) that had been involved in the dramatic events in Belfast. The foreign press had made some incorrect assumptions, forcing Dublin’s Minister for External Affairs to send a hurried telegram to Irish embassies asking them to explain that Belfast was part of Ireland ‘held by the British.’ The Éire legation in Rome issued statement explaining that ‘Belfast has no political connection with us. It is the principal city of Northern Ireland which is part of Britain. The team which played against Italy represented only Northern Ireland, and not the Irish Republic.’

Nothing was left to chance in preparations for the Italians’ second visit to Belfast in the space of six weeks. Istvan Zsolt, intrepid Hungarian referee, arrived with his linesmen three days before kick-off, while Peter Doherty took his charges to the cinema to watch a screening of their victory over England a few months earlier. There was also a more substantial police presence this time: two dozen RUC officers inside Windsor Park and more on standby outside. Perhaps most significantly for the Ulster folk lucky enough to own a television in 1958, the BBC were to televise the match, the first broadcast of a football match in Ireland. Well, most of it: the first ten minutes were not shown, schedulers deciding that something else – perhaps the news – was more important.

The Italians were on £500 a man to qualify but one of their number, Alcides Zhiggia, would not last the full ninety. When he was dismissed in the 66th minute, all three of the goals that would decide the tie had already been scored. Jimmy McIlroy had netted early for the Irish and Wilbur Cush made it two in the 28th minute. Though Dino Da Costa put the ball past Norman Uprichard (Harry Gregg having become another victim of fog), it would only be a consolation rather than the start of a famous comeback.

The players had done their bit, but there was a problem which many had not foreseen, and those who had had likely thought would never materialise: Northern Ireland were not allowed to play football on Sundays. This was fine when they were in a position to organise their own fixtures, as they had been in qualifying, but when FIFA were in charge of scheduling, there could be no such guarantees.

Compromise would eventually be reached on March 13th, when representatives of the Churches League agreed to withdraw their opposition to the team going to the World Cup, on the condition that the IFA would commit to not entering any future competition that would require them to compete on a Sunday. Peter’s players would be going to the World Cup.

Their passage to Sweden assured, there was a British Championship match with Wales to deal with first, though there would be no pre-tournament friendlies for fear that Doherty’s paper thin squad would be weakened by injury. It was a closely fought 1-1 draw at Ninian Park, a fixture in which Peter McParland believed he had played so badly that he might not make the World Cup squad. He was quickly disabused of this notion by Willie Cunningham, who told him, ‘What do you mean – we’ve only got sixteen players!’ The Belfast Telegraph writer Malcolm Brodie’s assessment of McParland’s performance was scathing, writing that he had missed more chances ‘than France has had post-war governments.’

Wales v Northern Ireland, 16 April 1958. From 11v11.com

Twenty-two players were permitted for each team going to the 1958 World Cup, though Doherty named just sixteen in the travelling party. The preliminary squad allowed up to forty men, a figure which provoked only laughter from the IFA offices, who told FIFA that there ‘weren’t forty men remotely under consideration!’ Though the association was not a wealthy one and cost may have been another factor in the small squad, it is worth noting that England took just twenty and the reigning champions West Germany travelled with only eighteen players.

With Doncaster’s post-season tour commitments demanding Doherty’s attention, Danny Blanchflower lead the early training sessions in Belfast, before the team met up with the manager and those players with club commitments in London prior to their flight to Sweden. Understandably, Harry Gregg had his own arrangements, having been on the stricken plane which had crashed shortly after taking off from the Munich-Riem airport on 6 February 1958; a disaster which took the lives of twenty-three and the football career of Jackie Blanchflower. Proof of just how divided the IFA still was on the issue of Sunday football is found in the actions of the selector who accompanied Gregg on his boat and train journey to Sweden, a man by the name of Joe Beckett: he returned home immediately by plane, not wanting any further part of a tournament in which Northern Ireland would be playing on the Sabbath…