Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 December 2014

Nations Cup: The days of home rule

Forget the glamour and the global appeal of the World Cup, the inter-continental club competitions and the original, insular attitude of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the British Championship was unquestionably the life-blood of the game in these islands.

Not only did it possess an intensity of competition, huge interest and, above all, financial reward which kept the domestic game alive. For fans, particularly during the Depression of the 1930s, it was a morale-stimulating, therapeutic pastime.

It was founded in 1884, abolished in 1984, with England categorically stating they preferred much more attractive foreign opponents. That year Northern Ireland won the trophy and it has remained in their custody ever since. A void was created, however hopefully it can be filled by the newly created Carling Nations Tournament, staged at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin over the next few months.

The four British associations met in 1882 in Manchester, formulated an international board which is the rule-making body to this day, with FIFA delegates obviously added to it. Their aim was to ensure conformity of operation.

The atmosphere at these matches, particularly between England and Scotland, was phenomenal. For weeks before the great day newspapers were filled with voluminous words about “the game”, as fans called it.

And a trip to Wembley was always an attraction for Scots, who established a weekly payment fund enabling them to have sufficient cash to visit the capital every second year during a Saturday in April. London would be penetrated by dawn, captured by noon and returned to their occupiers as the last Special trains departed for Glasgow and Edinburgh.

As Brian James, a noted sports journalist in that era, put it: “Kilted, tam-o’-shantered Scottish troops stormed the Wembley ramparts and London belonged to Glasgow for the day!”

Yes, those England-Scotland fixtures made the British Championship. The tales about them and the litany of stars are legend, particularly by Scots when Aaln Morton, the Wee Blue Devil, and the Wembley Wizards of 1928 who defeated England 5-1, Alex Jackson scoring the goals. This is now part of football folklore.

Scotland’s goalkeeper Jack Harkness (Hearts) later became a journalist with the Sunday Post. I covered England’s first match in Berlin after the Second World War with him and I was fascinated by the stories behind that momentous Scottish victory.

During the 1902 game at Ibrox a section of the West Stand collapsed, the first disaster of the ground, killing 26 and injuring over 500. Play was stopped but restarted after 20 minutes. The match, however, was later declared void and restaged at Villa Park, Birmingham.

Meanwhile, Ireland had a dreadful start to the series, defeated 13-0 by England at Bloomfield.

It was not until 1955 that England invited them to appear at Wembley where they lost 3-0, but two years later triumphed 3-2 at the Twin Towers with goals from Jimmy McIlroy, Sammy McCrory and Billy Simpson.

That performance was the first indication. Here we had a team capable of going places, the birth of the immortal Sweden 1958 World Cup squad. Since then Wembley has been the venue while during the Troubles Northern Ireland had to play several games at English stadia.

The opening fixtures in the British Championship were invariably staged on Saturdays during September or October and, to make it a gala day in Belfast, promoters organised international boxing tournaments with world class fights at the King’s Hall which became a cacophony of sound.

Ninian Park, Cardiff was used by Wales for the visit of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland and I recall the October 1966 match there — 24 hours after the Aberfan disaster when a colliery waste tip slid down the mountain and hit the mining village near Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales, killing 144 people, 136 schoolchildren and five teachers.

The match that day was meaningless.

My greatest British Championship memory? A difficult job considering the number of fantastic matches I have covered over the decades.

Unquestionably the vote must go to George Best, who took Scotland apart in 1967, a game used as a European Championship qualifier — a mesmeric display still talked about to this day.

It was pure theatre by the ultimate genius and a dramatic Dave Clements goal to provide the victory.

Let’s hope there can be a revival with the forthcoming Carling Nations tournament having a meaningful purpose and not plagued with withdrawals by clubs pressurising them.

The British Championship was the real influence in the development of football in these islands.

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