They have always been the underdog, fighting against the odds, punching above their weight and instilling hope in a nation which has often been in desperate need of some. Northern Ireland’s appearance at last year’s European Championships was their first ever in the tournament and came a full three decades after their last participation at a major competition – the 1986 World Cup.
Indeed, had it not been for Trinidad and Tobago’s qualification in 2006, Northern Ireland would be the least populous nation to have qualified for football’s most famed tournament. However, the Green and White Army remain the smallest nation to have qualified for more than one World Cup (they’ve managed three), to have won a match at the finals and to have progressed past the first round – all the way through to the quarter finals in 1958.
With a population of a mere 1.8 million – smaller than Hampshire – the nation is not only a minnow in comparison with the giants of international football, but they also should not be expected to seriously compete with mid-ranking sides such as cross-border rivals Republic of Ireland, yet historically they have done just that.
It’s important not only to consider population when analysing the nation’s football performance but also social factors which dwindle the talent pool further. Northern Ireland’s unique dual-nationality (citizens can identify as either British or Irish) allows all legible players to instead opt to represent the Republic of Ireland, should they wish. In fact, a string of high-profile players defecting over recent times has led to an increasingly fractious relationship between the two’s football associations – the Irish Football Association and Football Association of Ireland respectively. James McClean, Darron Gibson, Marc Wilson and Shane Duffy are among Northern Irish-born players to defect at senior level.
Gaelic games enjoy huge popularity across Ulster, particularly in rural nationalist areas, with many opting to represent their local Gaelic club rather than take the football path. Rugby too is preferred, mainly in the middle-class unionist strongholds in Belfast and beyond. World-class boxers, golfers and motorcyclists are also products of a nation that has strong sporting traditions, but such a splintered and fractured sporting outlook further dwindles numbers of potential footballers.
Remarkably, this is the same nation that in the World Cup finals have twice defeated the former Czechoslovakia, led against Argentina, drawn with West Germany and most famously of all, beaten hosts Spain with 10 men in 1982, Gerry Armstrong’s strike providing one of the tournament’s all-time iconic moments.
The 1958 World Cup was the stage for Northern Ireland’s greatest achievement; their mere presence in the tournament was extraordinary in itself as Peter Doherty guided his side to top a feared qualification group which included Italy and Portugal. It was a special competition for the United Kingdom; the first and only time that all four British nations qualified for the same major tournament.
Once again, the luck of the draw evaded the team as they were pitted with West Germany, Czechoslovakia and Argentina in the most feared group in the tournament. The Munich Air Disaster robbed Northern Ireland of Jackie Blanchflower – younger brother of team captain Danny – who never played football after the disaster, bringing a blossoming career to a cruel and premature end. Rangers forward Billy Simpson also missed out due to a hamstring injury to add to the sense that this side would be whipping boys.
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Yet they proved the doubters wrong. Harry Gregg, the hero of the disaster, was imperious throughout the tournament and deservedly won the Goalkeeper of the Tournament award while Aston Villa striker Peter McParland was deadly, netting five goals throughout.
Leeds United captain Billy Cush’s strike proved decisive as Doherty’s men surprisingly defeated the much-fancied Czechs in Halmstad, and despite McParland’s early goal against the Argentines, Northern Ireland succumbed to a 3-1 loss. That was supposed to be the beginning of the end as next up was a match against current world champions and tournament favourites West Germany.
McParland came into his own, twice giving Northern Ireland the lead. and despite the Germans rescuing a draw, the unlikely dream was alive as they entered a playoff against Czechoslovakia, who had revenge on their mind, to determine who advanced.
Then came what looked to be a killer blow – Gregg was ruled out through injury before the match, and his replacement, Norman Uprichard, twisted his ankle and then smashed his wrist against the post. But there was no goalkeeper on the bench and the crocked Uprichard had to struggle on and hope for a miracle. Zdeněk Zikán gave the Eastern Europeans the early advantage but a stunning strike from McParland levelled proceedings before the break.
Their opponents were rattled and the game ticked into injury time, with the red-hot McParland putting Doherty’s men in front before Bertie Peacock’s goal was controversially ruled out for offside. The Czechs had lost their cool and had Buberník sent-off late on, as Northern Ireland secured one of the most sensational victories against all the odds and with no fit goalkeeper, and emerge through the group of death.
The quarter-finals proved a step too far for the heroic Irish side, as a Just Fontaine-inspired French side defeated them 4-0. However, the team went down in folklore and ensured they could never be written off again.
Despite George Best, Pat Rice and Pat Jennings being among the players to come through the Northern Irish ranks, the side had a barren qualification run through the 1960s and 70s, but FIFA’s decision to expand the 1982 tournament from 16 teams to 24 gave them renewed hope. Despite another tricky qualification group, they ensured their passage to the finals thanks to victories over much-fancied Portuguese and Swedish opposition.
Now led by the inspired Billy Bingham, one of the 1958 heroes, this Northern Irish side had found its stars in Jennings, Martin O’Neill, Gerry Armstrong and Sammy McIlroy but numbers were still thin and four players from the local Irish League featured in the squad – Johnny Jameson, George Dunlop, Jim Cleary and Felix Healy.
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First up was a much-fancied Yugoslavia side, skippered by the mercurial Ivica Šurjak in an encounter that drew comparisons to the opener against the Czechs 24 years previously, with a closely fought game ending scoreless. However, another World Cup record was ensured that day; Manchester United’s Norman Whiteside played to become the youngest ever player ever to feature in a World Cup at 17 years, one month and 10 days – a record that still stands.
Honduras were next and whilst the Irish were marginal favourites for the first time ever, the Central Americans had held hosts Spain in their first game and had their tails up. Armstrong’s early goal gave Bingham’s side the lead but Eduardo Laing’s equaliser on the hour mark, two minutes after his entrance to the game, earned a deserved draw.
June 25, 1982, is a date forever etched into Northern Irish football legend. Just shy of 50,000 packed into the Mestalla in Valencia to watch Spain put on an exhibition against the minnows – or so they thought. Two minutes after the break and with the game goalless, Billy Hamilton floated in a somewhat aimless cross which was inexplicably parried by Spanish goalkeeper and captain Luis Arconada right into the path of Armstrong, who fired powerfully home from close range.
Delirium set in among the small band of visiting fans in the stadium, which had fallen into a state of shock. Luton Town defender Mal Donaghy was dismissed just after the hour and a Spanish revival seemed inevitable, but it never came and one of the most remarkable results in World Cup history was rubber stamped as Northern Ireland again marched on.
The second round saw Bingham’s heroes drawn with Austria and France, with only one side advancing into the last four. It was a nigh-on impossible task, but that’s exactly what this side thrived upon. An entertaining 2-2 draw with Austria – Hamilton netting twice – set up another potentially historic and scarcely believable qualification against France.
But it wasn’t to be, this was a miracle too far against a French side led by the irrepressible Michel Platini as doubles from Alain Giresse and Dominique Rocheteau put the Irish on the brink of elimination, before Armstrong’s late and richly deserved consolation was cheered vigorously by a proud set of fans.
Four years later and with Bingham still in charge and the bulk of the squad still in place, Northern Ireland negotiated yet another tough qualification group – alongside England, Turkey and Romania – to seal their place in Mexico.
Bingham had the side meticulously prepared for the event and brought the team to Albuquerque in the United States weeks in advance to acclimatise his troops to the Mexican heat. Before the tournament began, however, optimism was offset by hearing the draw – Algeria, then Spain, then Brazil. Northern Ireland fans had a self-belief that they could beat anyone, but this was as tough as they come.
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Kicking off against Algeria felt like a must-win game and despite Whiteside giving them the dream start with a sixth-minute strike, a somewhat fortuitous equaliser from Djamel Zidane ensured the North African side earned a draw.
Next up was Spain. Could the 1982 legend be rekindled? No. Real Madrid star Emilio Butragueño netted in the second minute and Julio Salinas doubled the lead soon after. Northern Ireland’s spirit was unbreakable and they did not collapse. Colin Clarke pulled a goal back to give the Spaniards a scare but despite a battling performance, the game ended in defeat.
Requiring a win against Brazil and for Algeria to manage at least a draw against Spain, the chances of qualification were slim to none but that did not stop Northern Ireland going for it. Another world record was set too, as Arsenal stopper Jennings earned his 119th and final cap, on his 41st birthday. In the blazing midday Mexican sun and against a Brazilian side in full flow, Northern Ireland fell to a three-goal defeat.
By this stage, the country had a love affair with international football and the World Cup. They were the famed underdogs who nobody wanted to face. This sporting success was largely played out to the backdrop of The Troubles claiming thousands of lives across a nation which was contemporarily renowned for being the least safe in Western Europe.
Three decades on and there had been a great deal of change. Bombs and gunfire were no longer part of everyday life in Northern Ireland as political stabilisation brought peace, and after decades in the wilderness, international football was reignited by boss Michael O’Neill.
It is easy to forget that while the 2016 European Championships were extended to 24 nations, O’Neill’s side would have qualified regardless having topped their group – the first ever fifth seeds to do so. Prior to Iceland’s qualification for the same tournament being confirmed, they were once again the least populous nation ever to have done so.
A two-goal victory over Ukraine also saw them once more advance past the first hurdle of an international tournament, before an unfortunate 1-0 loss to Wales thanks to an own goal saw their elimination in Paris.
However, a promising start to their qualification campaign for next year’s World Cup had led to real hope that, after 32 years, they will return to football’s most prestigious tournament. They certainly have no shortage of folklore to draw upon for inspiration
By Colin Millar @Millar_Colin