Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 17 April 2014

Down Memory Lane: Battle of Belfast was far from a golden moment

Fifty years ago this week - Wednesday December 4 1957 to be exact - the Battle of Belfast between Northern Ireland and Italy - a 2-2 draw raged at Windsor Park on one of the most bizarre and shameful afternoons in Irish football history.

Two months earlier on a cold bleak night in Lisbon, Northern Ireland had drawn 1-1 with Portugal in their opening Group 1 qualifier to launch the first real excursion into the colourful and explosive combat of the 1958 World Cup.

A flash in the pan? Not at all, but the emergence of a new Irish International football concept inspired by Peter Doherty the manager and former prince of inside forwards and skipper Danny Blanchflower.

Moves of fascinating beauty both in creation and execution came from players who had benefited from being kept together for prolonged periods. They possessed flair, inventiveness and repeated tactical experiments were carried out.

The away match against Italy was played in April 25 at the Olympic Stadium, Rome, where the defender Sergio Cervatto's pierced the wall with a free-kick which went past keeper Harry Gregg. It seemed Italy 1934 and '38 winners were on their way again.

Northern Ireland's 3-0 Windsor Park victory over Portugal meant Italy's qualifications for the final was not a foregone conclusion. Eyebrows were raised too when Northern Ireland defeated England 3-2 for the first time at Wembley in a British Championship fixture. Italy wondered who were these upstarts who had also held Scotland to a 1-1 draw.

The Italians therefore did not relish the visit to Windsor Park on December 4 1957; Northern Ireland needed a win to go through, Italy a draw - and they ensured they would achieve this by selecting a powerful side which included Juan Schiaffino, who when with Milan had won a World Cup winners medal with Uruguay 1950 and the Argentinians forward Chico Ghiggia. There was a 50,000 crowd assured for a mid-week fixture - what a contrast from today.

Then, on the eve of the game a-behind-the-scenes drama unfolded.

Hungarian referee Istvan Zolt, manager of the Budapest Opera House was fog-bound in London and as alarm bells rang, Irish FA general secretary Billy Drennan arranged for English referee Arthur Ellis to travel by ship via Stranraer as a stand-by should the circumstances be unchanged.

Italian president Ottorino Barassi would not agree and preferred to leave it until the morning but the fog never lifted. Zolt never made it and they wouldn't agree to any refereeing change. Abandon the match? That was impossible for they had already let thousands of fans through the turnstiles.

Behind closed doors at the Old Midland Hotel a compromise was reached when the match was reduced from a World Cup-tie to a friendly and re-arranged again for January. The document was signed by Dr Barassi, Irish FA president Joseph McBride and Belfast Lord Mayor Sir Cecil McKee.

What a furore arose when fans, most of them taking a half day from work, were informed of the changed status over the public address system. They felt they had been conned and as the teams appeared howls of protest greeted them. It stopped during the playing of the National Anthem but resumed with the Italian one which could not be heard although many did not realise what it was. There was an atmosphere of distrust, anger and antagonism which affected the players.

Italian right-half Guiseppe Chiapella caught Blanchflower with a lightning hook which would have been applauded at Madison Square Garden; Schiaffino, contrary to his normal cultured play, brutally hit Wilbur Cush and Blanchflower, realising the danger, told him to forget it and get on with the game.

Cush nodded but shortly afterwards tackled the Uruguayan with a ferocity which made even those who knew the toughness of the little iron man from Lurgan wince.

In the midst of the mayhem was the giant centre-half Rino Ferrario who pleaded with Blanchflower to keep the peace, then became engaged in acts of fury and during a corner kicked all around him with the ball nowhere in the vicinity.

Italian keeper Ottavio Bugatti lay prostrate after diving at Peter McParland's feet, Chiapella went berserk jumping with his feet into the small of Billy McAdam's back and at the end of the 2-2 draw - Cush got both Northern Ireland goals - the crowd invaded the pitch attacking the Italians including Ferrario, the villain of the piece.

Police had to baton-charge the crowd on the pitch to restore order.

Questions were raised in the Italian Parliament as football relations between the two countries dipped to zero.

So it was back to Belfast this time on January 15 1958, a match in which Ghiggia was ordered off for no apparent reason and Northern Ireland triumphed 2-1 with goals from Jimmy McIlroy and Cush.

They had at last reached the World Cup finals and the Italians were out. A new era had dawned.