Northern Ireland’s 2-1 triumph over Italy which eliminated the Azzurri from the Sweden ’58 World Cup is always looked upon as a significant occasion in local football history.
It was, of course, the launch-pad for the incredible era of glory by what many people contend was individually our strongest ever international squad — and I would agree with that.
Yet, the first match in the qualifying group provided a lesson which inspirational manager Peter Doherty and captain Danny Blanchflower read and inwardly digested. They admitted they didn’t know all the answers.
The scene was the Olympic Stadium, Rome. Wednesday, April 25, 1957 — Labour Day in Italy with a capacity crowd basking in 70 degree heat. A contrast with the raw temperature which chilled the bones during January in Lisbon where they held Portugal, the other opponents in the group, to a 1-1 draw — a match that began after 10pm and finished the next day!
Only three minutes had gone when suddenly Doherty and Blanchflower, two tactical geniuses, realised they were still comparative rookies.
Italy were awarded a free-kick 25 yards from goal. Northern Ireland set up a defensive wall. As the referee pushed it back to the required spot Alfredo Orzan appeared as if he would take it, but up stepped left-back Sergio Cervato, who moved the ball to the right of the Irish defence with the referee’s back to them. His rasping free-kick crashed past Harry Gregg who was unprepared as was the rest of the defence. That was never allowed to happen again in the Doherty regime.
Inspired by a magnificent defence they held out until the finish, conceding that solitary goal. Alf McMichael produced the form of his international career and another hero was flint-hard Wilbur Cush who was operating at centre-back — one of the four positions he occupied during a 26-match international career.
His opponent was ex-Charlton Athletic centre-forward Eddie Firmani, then with Sampdoria, who had many close associations with Northern Ireland. This was the tribute he paid to Cush: “He was like a brick wall. I couldn’t go through him.”
And Harry Gregg, playing for Doncaster Rovers under Doherty, gave the 90,000 fans a glimpse of the class which would eventually earn him goalkeeper of the tournament in 1958 — a few months after he had played a heroic role in the Manchester United air disaster at Munich. One save just before half-time can only be described as a classic of classics — a palm over the bar from Muccenelli’s shot which looked a goal all the way.
Here we had the basis of the Doherty-built squad which he would lead to Sweden. Indeed, the performance prompted Jimmy McIlroy to comment as Ronnie Hanna recalled in his comprehensive book ‘The World At Their Feet’: “Coming off the field I realised for the first time we were good enough to qualify for the World Cup. We had invaded enemy territory twice, discovering we were every bit as good as Portugal and Italy.”
The Italians never liked Windsor Park. They drew 2-2 there in the infamous Battle of Belfast, a World Cup tie reduced to a friendly when Hungarian referee Istvan Zolt was fog-bound in London and lost the actual tie 2-1 a few weeks later which ended qualification hopes.
All other games have been friendlies which Northern Ireland lost, including that in 2003 at Campobasso, near Monte Casino, with the proceeds devoted to the relatives of the earthquake disaster victims and the last one in Pisa 17 months ago before the Italians departed for the Confederation Cup in South Africa.
Italy 1 Northern Ireland 0 (Olympic Stadium, Rome, April 25, 1957)
Italy: Lovati (Lazio), Magnini (Fiorentina), Cervato (Fiorentina), Chiapella (Fiorentina), Orzan (Fiorentina), Cegato (Fiorentina), Muccenelli (Lazio), Gali (A C Milan), Firmani (Sampdoria), Gratton (Fiorentina), Frignani (A C Udinese)
Northern Ireland: Gregg (Doncaster Rovers), Cunningham (Leicester City), McMichael (Newcastle Utd), Blanchflower (Tottenham Hotspur), Cush (Glenavon), Casey (Newcastle Utd), Bingham (Sunderland), McIlroy (Burnley), Simpson (Rangers), McMorran (Doncaster Rovers), Peacock (Celtic)