Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 23 October 2014

Their achievement now seems incredible

As the quarter finals of the World Cup play out in Brazil this weekend, it's perhaps the perfect time to remember that Northern Ireland are the smallest nation ever to reach that stage and that they have achieved this feat not just once but twice.

Memorably in 1982, but, perhaps even more gloriously, with what must rank as their most talented ever team in Sweden in 1958.

Suffering horrendous losses in the Home Internationals to Scotland and England just a decade earlier which were more comparable to rugby scorelines (8-2 and 9-2 was how they started their 1949 campaign) the team was turned around with twin blessings. First was the appointment of Peter Doherty, recognised as perhaps second only to George Best as our greatest ever player, as a truly inspirational manager.

Second was the emergence of a golden generation of gifted young players, spearheaded memorably by Danny Blanchflower, but backed up ably by his brother Jackie, Harry Gregg, Jimmy McIlroy, Billy Bingham, Peter McParland and many others all commanding first team places at top English clubs.

It was a team which matured together throughout the Fifties and by the time they came to the qualifying for the Swedish World Cup they had hit their peak, sending out a message to the world by dispatching an England team at Wembley who had won 17 straight internationals beforehand.

With the sound of this victory still ringing in their ears, they faced a do-or-die final qualifier against twice World Champions Italy, who were augmented by several of the 1950 Uruguayan World Cup winners as naturalised Italians.

A dry run was held in December 1957 when referee Istvan Zolt was left fogbound and the match declared a friendly.

It turned out to be a brutal affair remembered as the Battle of Belfast and ended 2-2. When the Italians returned in January, Northern Ireland won a historic victory to book their place in the finals.

However, just weeks later, Gregg and Jackie Blanchflower were part of the Manchester United team which crashed on the runway at Munich.

Gregg is forever lauded as the hero who pulled a baby from the wreck but Jackie, although a survivor, saw his career ended on the spot. That Gregg and Jackie's brother Danny went on to play in the World Cup just four months later is testament to the spirit of both men.

Overcoming elements of the IFA who didn't even want the team to fly out as they would be playing games on a Sunday, Northern Ireland covered themselves in glory and emerged from a 'Group of Death, beating Czechoslovakia, holding their own for a half against Argentina and seeing the then World Champions, West Germany, hanging on desperately for a draw against this little Cinderella nation.

In a play-off game, Northern Ireland once more overcame the dark horse Czechs with stand in goalkeeper Norman Uprichard playing most of a match, which went to extra time, with a broken hand. Northern Ireland were now into the quarter finals and one game away from a semi final collision with the mighty Brazil.

However, the fairytale eventually came to an end and a Northern Ireland team that was ravaged by injury and tiredness succumbed to a French side which included the goalscoring machine of Just Fontaine.

They had gone further in the tournament than England and Harry Gregg's magnificent performances earned him a place in the official Team of the Tournament.

The achievement of the team is often overshadowed by the events in Spain in 1982 and perhaps the flickering newsreel footage of this team has seen it overlooked in favour of the Spanish adventures captured in colour.

One thing was common to both our quarter final teams, however... an indomitable spirit of togetherness which saw them punch above their weight and into the history books.

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