World Cup, Sweden, 1958, was unquestionably the launch pad for Northern Ireland’s emergence as a country capable of creating a shock on the global scene.
To qualify for the quarter-finals of a group which included West Germany, Czechoslovakia and Argentina was an incredible feat.
Northern Ireland, who eliminated Italy in the qualifiers at Windsor Park six months earlier, arrived in Sweden as the joker in the pack, the Cinderella nation, but left as the belle of the ball finally falling 4-0 at Norrkoping to a powerful French side which included prolific scorer Just Fontaine and Raymond Kopa.
Inspired and motivated by manager Peter Doherty and captain Danny Blanchflower the squad was composed, significantly, of top-rated players appearing regularly in English and Scottish football. I rate that group as the most accomplished individually to wear the Irish FA’s green jersey.
A headed goal from the iron man Wilbur Cush gave Northern Ireland a 1-0 win over the Czechs in the opening group fixture at Halmstad; they crashed 3-1 to Angel Labruna’s Argentina followed by a 1-1 draw with West Germany at Malmo where Harry Gregg produced one of the finest displays of goalkeeping in the history of the competition.
Not surprisingly the Germans topped the group on four points, Czechoslovakia and Northern Ireland finished with three each and, as points and not goal difference operated, a play-off was necessary at Malmo.
What a dilemma faced Doherty. Another 140-mile round trip from their headquarters at the seaside resort of Tylosand, near Halmstad, had to be made within two days with virtually every player under treatment for knocks or severe bruising and Gregg and Tommy Casey were eventually ruled out. As adequate reserve strength in depth just didn’t exist it was a case of make-do and mend. In other words a makeshift job with Jackie Scott (Grimsby Town) a winger at centre-forward as Derek Dougan and Fay Coyle had not impressed. Again Blanchflower and company were the underdogs.
Disaster struck early in the play-off, watched by only 6,000, when goalkeeper Norman Uprichard, a wonderful character, damaged his right ankle and, against the run of play, Zdenek Zikan’s header put the Czechs in front after 10 minutes. Just before half-time Peter McParland equalised after Cush, always rumbling the opposition defence, had three attempts blocked.
In extra-time McParland came to the rescue once again putting Northern Ireland ahead after 10 minutes with a right foot volley from Blanchflower’s pinpoint accurate free kick — his fifth goal in four games.
There was 20 minutes of agony before the final whistle Northern Ireland were into the quarter-finals with players who had become instant Irish football immortals.