The Carling Nations Cup, now at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin, has whetted football fans’ appetites.
They see it eventually developing into a Five Nations tournament.
What memories are conjured up of Northern Ireland matches in the British Championship which was abandoned in 1984 because England preferred more glamorous crowd-pulling opposition than the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish.
England didn’t enter this tournament. Now they look like having a change of mind.
Indeed, if dates can be found on the calendar and clubs release players, then this could be a bi-annual spectacle.
One of the most dramatic British Championship occasions was at Wembley on a grey afternoon, November 6, 1957.
Northern Ireland defeated England 3-2 for the first time since 1927 and appropriately on their second visit to the Twin Towers.
There were many empty spaces on the terracing. England fans contended it would be a one-horse race — not worth taking time off work.
What a day, however, it turned out to be for the Irish, summed up by a colleague, Henry Rose (Daily Express), sports writer and showman who perished three months later in the Manchester United Munich air crash.
“It was one of the most exciting and entertaining internationals I have seen,” said Rose, who developed a magnificent relationship with fans when he attended matches at Windsor Park. “Don’t jump to false conclusions of Irish fervour, rough, reckless tackles and the rest. No sir, this was football ability, the pay-off for the Peter Doherty brand.”
There was a confidence, a self-belief in the Northern Ireland camp on the outskirts of London — I felt from the moment I arrived that here was a squad on the verge of greatness. So it proved, for the victory was the curtain-raiser for the World Cup qualifiers against Italy in Belfast and eventual qualification for Sweden 1958, a never-to-be-forgotten era.
That was the conception of the team which, numerically smallest in the tournament and with only a handful of fit players, reached the quarter-finals to be eliminated by Raymond Kopa’s and Just Fontaine’s France. But back to Wembley. The clock hands in front of the Press Stand stood at 4.12. At that moment Welsh referee Mervyn Griffith blew the whistle — a signal for the jubilant Northern Ireland followers to invade the pitch and carry players shoulder high.
Unbelievable... beating England and at the hallowed temple of Wembley.
Gregg the hero, Danny Blanchflower the mastermind. A class act who informed the media: “We are a close bunch and after beating England we feel anyone can be taken on.”
Jimmy McIlroy’s penalty went in off the post. Alan A’Court equalised in the second half. But goals from Sammy McCrory and Billy Simpson put Ireland 3-1 in front. Edwards got one back as Northern Ireland withstood the onslaught. “Bring on the Italians,” chanted fans.
England 2 Northern Ireland 3 (Wembley, Wednesday, November 6, 1957).
England: Hopkinson (Bolton Wanderers), Howe (WBA), Byrne (Manchester United), Clayton (Blackburn Rovers), Wright (Wolverhampton Wanderers, capt), Edwards (Manchester United), Douglas (Blackburn Rovers), Kevan (WBA), Taylor (Manchester United), Haynes (Fulham), A’Court (Liverpool).
Northern Ireland: Gregg (Doncaster Rovers), Keith (Newcastle United), McMichael (Newcastle United), Blanchflower D (Tottenham Hotspur, capt), Blanchflower J (Manchester United), Peacock (Glasgow Celtic), Bingham (Sunderland), McCrory (Southend), Simpson (Glasgow Rangers), McIlroy (Burnley), McParland (Aston Villa).
Referee: B M Griffiths (Wales).
Scorers: England — A’Court, Edwards. Northern Ireland — McIlroy (penalty), McCrory, Simpson.