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 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.