Irish football is a complicated affair often dominated by politics. Interspersed with the drama we get brief occasions of joy, ecstasy and delight. This comes in the form of tournament football.
Back in 1913 a united Irish side won the Home Nations Championship pipping England, Scotland and Wales to the title. The next forty years saw Irish football as a political battleground as the FAI and IFA fought for supremacy. Fans of Irish football had to wait until 1958 to experience the highs, lows and sheer emotion that tournament football had to offer. In 1958, Northern Ireland qualified for the FIFA World Cup held in Sweden. What’s more, they did bloody well.
1958 marked a special moment for teams of the British Isles. It was the first and only only time that England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland qualified for the same World Cup. Very notable as well was the fact that Scotland topped a qualification group that included Spain and Switzerland. Northern Ireland topped a group including Italy and Portugal and became the least populous country to qualify for the World Cup, a record that stood until Trinidad & Tobago qualified and the 2006 World Cup. As the Republic of Ireland had failed to qualify for the games, Northern Ireland were the great green hope for fans of the Irish game and they did not disappoint.
Picture the excitement. Northern Ireland, just over ten years after FIFA restricted her to selecting players from the six counties of Ireland, at a World Cup. The first Irish team ever at a tournament of this stature. A tournament that would see the début of a small pacy striker from Brazil named Pele. A tournament that would see Just Fontaine score 13 goals. The North were drawn into a group with West Germany, Czechoslovakia and Argentina. A group of death if ever there was one. Her opening match saw her come up against a highly fancied Czechoslovakian side at Halmstad in Sweden.
Luckily for Northern Ireland she had all of Halmstad shouting for her. How? She had ‘adopted’ a local Swedish boy named Bengt Jonasson who was the son of a local industrialist in Halmstad to act as a runner for the team. Jonasson did everything from passing on messages within the Northern Irish camp to translating for the Northern Irish trainer, Gerry Morgan.
Apart from the fun that the local Jonasson brought to the team, he also whipped up support for the North amongst the locals. For manager Peter Doherty and captain Danny Blanchflower it meant that the match against Czechoslovakia was in effect a home match. Yet despite the relative home support, Northern Ireland had problems to face, some of them quite serious.
1958 was the year of the Munich Air Disaster which saw the tragic death of 23 passengers, many of them squad or staff members of Manchester United. Before the globalization of football that we now experience, English football teams were made up primarily with players from the British Isles. Thus, Northern Ireland was also affected by Munich. Peter Doherty had to cope with the loss of Jackie Blanchflower, the younger brother of Northern Irish captain Danny Blanchflower, who was injured in the Manchester United air crash. Jackie was a decisive and tidy defender for club and country. Although he made a recovery from Munich, he never played football again. The loss of Jackie was huge. But Doherty’s selection issues did not end there. He also had to deal with the injury of Rangers centre-forward Billy Simpson who had pulled a muscle in training and was ruled out of the tournament.
How could Doherty react to the loss of two talented players? Luckily Doherty saw something that no one else could. Through some divine inspiration the idea came to switch Leicester City full back Willie Cunningham to the No 5 spot in order to draft a young and relatively green Derek Dougan to centre-forward.
Would Doherty’s gamble pay off at the World Cup? Absolutely. Dougan proved to be a terror for Czechoslovakia throughout the match. Coupled with Dougan’s performance, goalkeeper Harry Gregg, the ‘hero of Munich’ gave a performance worthy of the Goalkeeper of the World Cup Award that he would receive come the end of the tournament. During the match, Czechoslovakia tested Gregg again and again with no luck. The opening ten minutes saw wave after wave of Czechoslovakian attacks being foiled by the man between the sticks. Gregg later acknowledged that had Czechoslovakia scored during this time, it may have been the end of Northern Ireland’s World Cup campaign.
But we know that Czechoslovakia didn’t score. In fact we know that Northern Ireland did something very few people expected. They took charge of the game, and spurred on by the home fans, they gave Czechoslovakia an almighty beating. Midway through the first half, Peter McParland, who would go on to score five goals in the tournament, set Halmstad alight when he cut through the Czechoslovakian defence with a penetrating cross that was met by Wilbur Cush, who duly headed the ball into the back of the Czechoslovakian goal. Not content to sit back, Ireland went in for the kill, throwing players forward again and again with no concern for a Czechoslovakian counter attack. At times, they lived on the edge with the Czech’s having some near misses, but come the ninety minute mark Northern Ireland stood victorious. One-Nil. The great green hopes had not disappointed.
Surely a fluke? A flash in the pan, a footballing anomaly. Such was the thought and writings of many contemporaries of that time. It appeared that the naysayers were correct. Northern Ireland’s next match after Czechoslovakia, saw them outclassed by an Argentinian team for ninety minutes. The damage? Argentina 3 – Northern Ireland 1. Fans of Irish football dreaded Northern Ireland’s final match against West Germany. The West Germans had won the World Cup in 1954 and still retained many of its ’54 champions. People held out little hope for the North.
In spite of the naysayers, the Irish put up a great test to the West Germans. McParland came into his own, terrorising West Germany throughout the match. West Germany couldn’t contain him as McParland scored twice to stun the Germans. Germany, never gave up and the match ended 2-2. A fine result for the North and one that provided the Irish with a chance, no matter how small, of progressing further in the tournament.
The North’s draw with West Germany meant the Irish would face Czechoslovakia once more in a play-off match to determine who would progress from the group. This time the Irish couldn’t rely on the support of its Halmstad’s faithful. This time the match was held in Malmo, a 140 mile round trip from Halmstad.
Seventeen minutes into the match, the Czechs, still enraged from the opening day defeat to Northern Ireland, seemed to have enacted their payback when outside left Zednek Zikan put the ball in the Northern Irish net. Matters got worse for Northern Ireland soon after when the goalkeeper Norman Uprichard twisted his ankle and later smashed his hand against the post. Northern Ireland had no replacement keepers available as first choice goalie Gregg had been ruled out prior to the match. They had to continue with an injured keeper guarding the nets. Two minutes before the break, the Irish stunned the Czechs once more thanks to a stunning strike from none other than McParland to draw the match level. The second half was a nervy affair in which both teams pressed and found no answer. The match ended 1-1 and extra time loomed for both sides.
Imagine the tension. Northern Ireland playing in her first ever World Cup and within touching distance of the Quarter Finals. Spurred on by the chance at glory, they became unstoppable. Ten minutes into the first half of extra time, McParland solidified his place in the hearts of Irish fans when he volleyed the ball past Czech goalkeeper Imrich Stacho. It almost looked like Ireland would run away with the match when Bertie Peacock had a goal ruled for offside. The Czechs were rattled and matters worsened for them when Bubonic was sent off for spitting at the referee. The tension lasted throughout the game, and only ended when the sweet sound of the referee’s whistle signaled Northern Ireland’s progression into the Quarter Finals. They had reached the quarter finals of the FIFA World Cup, a feat she repeated in Spain 82 but it was all the more sweeter in ’58 for no one had given them a chance.
After Czechoslovakia came Just Fontaine’s France in the Quarter Finals. Although this time the critics begrudgingly admitted Ireland were a formidable side, France proved to be the stronger, running out four-nil winners. By this time, the result didn’t matter, the North had already proven themselves on the world stage.
By Conor Heffernan
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona