Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 September 2014

Swede dreams really were made of this ...

Northern Ireland's 1958 World Cup squad, arguably the most accomplished individually in Irish FA history, established a bond which over half a century has never been broken.

What a wonderful camaraderie exists between the squad members over the decades through reunions, frequent phone exchanges and family vacations with each other.

Alas each year the numbers are fast dwindling. In fact, out of the 17 players only eight survive - Billy Bingham, Harry Gregg, Norman Uprichard, Peter McParland, Sammy McCrory, Jimmy McIlroy, Billy Simpson and Tommy Casey. Those who have passed on are Danny Blanchflower, Fay Coyle, Wilbur Cush, Jackie Scott, Bertie Peacock, Alfie McMichael, Dick Keith, Derek Dougan, Willie Cunningham, manager Peter Doherty and trainer Jerry Morgan. Gone too are all members of the Irish FA official party.

Next year the 50th anniversary dinner and final reunion in which Dougan was to have had a major organising role, is planned by the Irish FA.

Northern Ireland reached the 1958 finals by eliminating Italy in bizarre circumstances.

The first match at Windsor Park, a 2-2 draw with Cush scoring both goals, had been reduced in status to a friendly when the Hungarian referee Istvan Zolt, manager of the Budapest Opera House had been fogbound in London and Italy wouldn't agree to an alternative. Fans, irate at some of the Italian roughhouse tactics invaded the pitch at the finish attacking three Italians including Juventus centre-half Ferrario, the villain of the piece.

Northern Ireland won the second game 2-1 in January before 40,000 at Windsor, finishing a point ahead of Italy.

So, for the first time Northern Ireland had made it to the World Cup party, the Cinderella, unsung and unheralded at the ball. Unfortunately Jackie Blanchflower, one of the qualifying heroes, injured in the Manchester United air crash at Munich never made those finals.

The seaside resort of Tylosand, near Halmstad, became the headquarters. They were accepted by the locals as members of the community while a 13-year-old boy Bengt Jonasson, son of a wealthy businessman, won the hearts of all. Speaking perfect English he became the team's mascot, carried out errands for players, acted as interpreter and actually stayed in the camp. Tears flowed down his cheeks when at the end of the great adventure the train pulled out of Norkopping and at that moment, led by Danny Blanchflower everyone agreed to bring him back for the home game with England in October to be presented to the crowd and appear on the stage at the Ritz Cinema and also take a bow from the ring at the King's Hall boxing.

Jackie Milburn, then Linfield coach, had been sent by the club to study World Cup training techniques. He stayed with the Northern Ireland contingent and, a master stroke, by Doherty was given the task of assessing Northern Ireland's opponents. His analysis was invaluable.

The opening match on June 8 at Halmstad against the Czechs was the first occasion an Irish FA national 11 had played on Sunday. Ironically, they attended a morning church service and appropriately the text of the sermon was "faith moveth mountains" and one of the hymns "Fight the Good Fight". How appropriate for the battles ahead.

Inspired by Doherty, a genius as a player and master managerial motivator, they defeated Czechoslovakia 1-0, lost 3-1 to Argentina, drew 2-2 with Germany and finished equal on points with Czechoslovakia whom they defeated 2-1 in the play-off and went through with Germany to the quarter-finals.

Then came the long coach journey to Norkopping where they lost 4-0 to France whose team included Just Fontaine and Raymond Kopa. The bulk of the 17 players, smallest party of the competing nations - were suffering from injuries - a case of the walking wounded. This had been the pinnacle of that era in Northern Ireland football yet it almost ended in tragedy when the aircraft bound for London took off in Stockholm, the undercarriage failed to retract and circled for more than an hour jettisoning fuel. Emergency services were called into operation on the airport apron as the plane eventually landed safely and white-faced passengers came off.

It may be 50 years but for those of us privileged to be there and the countless thousands who watched the matches on black and white television it seems just like yesterday.

It is a squad whose incredible achievement will never be forgotten.

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