How the nearly forgotten heroics of NI's 1958 World Cup team could inspire Michael O'Neill's men to Euro glory
The Northern Ireland manager is convinced the incredible success of the squad 60 years ago could motivate his team to new heights. Ivan Little on why every player en route to France should read a new book about the side of no-hopers that stunned football.
The ghosts of Northern Ireland's World Cup football heroes of more than half-a-century ago have been invoked by the team's modern-day manager Michael O'Neill, in a bid to imbue his European Championship-bound stars with the Spirit of Sweden 1958.
In the foreword to a new book looking back at the astonishing achievements of an almost-forgotten team, who reached the World Cup quarter-finals, O'Neill says what the legends of the past did could galvanise their successors to similarly unexpected success in France next month.
He says Evan Marshall's book, Spirit of '58, couldn't be coming out at a better time. "It shows Northern Ireland football at its typically raw and determined best - and that's something to inspire us all in the months ahead," he adds.
The book tells how a team of no-hopers from Northern Ireland took on football's elite in Sweden and stunned them with a series of performances that defied the odds. And Evan also reveals how Irish whiskey was used to help treat the injuries of a courageous Northern Ireland goalkeeper, who played on in a crucial game in Sweden - despite having sustained serious injuries to his ankle and hand.
The book also details how the Munich air disaster impacted on Northern Ireland's preparations for the World Cup finals, which were also nearly scuppered by a "never-on-a-Sunday" row.
Evan, who's from Dundonald, wrote the book after producing a documentary on the exploits of the men in green in Sweden 58 years ago.
Just five of the 1958 team are still alive - Harry Gregg, Peter McParland, Jimmy McIlroy, Billy Simpson and Billy Bingham, who was to mastermind Northern Ireland's triumphant progress to the World Cup Finals in Spain in 1982 and in Mexico four years later.
Evan says the successes in the 1980s tended to eclipse in fans' minds what the team of '58 had done and he set about redressing the balance with the documentary and the book.
"I thought it was unfair that the older players had been overlooked. And I decided someone should tell their stories," he says.
"We had been limited to what we could put in the documentary and we were able to go more in-depth with the book, an idea which the publishers Blackstaff Press fortunately backed."
Evan says he was fascinated to learn about the problems which faced the Northern Ireland players, long before they even arrived in Sweden.
One of the most controversial obstacles was a rancorous dispute over whether or not the team should be allowed to take part in the finals, because games were scheduled to be played on Sundays.
"The IFA were effectively at war with themselves," says Evan. "Sunday football was forbidden in the (IFA) constitution, but eventually it was resolved that the team could play the games on the Sabbath - on the understanding that it would never happen again.
"Only in Northern Ireland could football administrators try to stop their own team competing in the World Cup finals."
But, Northern Ireland being Northern Ireland, there are loads of happier and funnier moments in Evan’s book, too.
One of his favourite chapters revolves around goalkeeper Norman Uprichard, who stood in for the injured Harry Gregg in a play-off game against Czechoslovakia.
“Norman tore his ankle ligaments in the first five minutes, but there were no substitutes permitted, so he had to play on with one leg, essentially,” he says.
“Yet, somehow, he forced himself into one of the best games of his life, but almost incredibly at the start of the second half he broke his hand.
“The manager, Peter Doherty, thought about replacing him in nets with an outfield player and letting Norman wander about the pitch, but he thought he couldn’t afford to do that. And after the game went into extra time, Norman collided with Bertie Peacock, ripping his knee ligaments.
“At one point of the match, the Irish trainer, Gerry Morgan, who was a mercurial character, took two bottles of Irish whiskey from his kit bag and poured them over Uprichard’s ankle.
“Why he had them with him on the pitch, no one knows and it’s not clear if the drink brought the swelling down.
“But, even with just nine fit players, Northern Ireland went on to win the game and make it to the quarter-finals of the World Cup.”
Northern Ireland had earlier won a group game against the Czechs 1-0; they drew 2-2 with West Germany and lost 3-1 to Argentina.
But after winning their play-off game 2-1 in extra-time, they lost 4-0 to France in the quarter-finals — and so the Odyssey ended.
For Evan, a former film archivist in Belfast, making the documentary was particularly difficult because he was told by Fifa that no footage of two of the finals’ games existed.
But patience paid off and Evan found clips from the first Czech match and extra footage from the French game was unearthed, too, in film libraries.
Sadly, however, Evan had to give up in his search for action from the Argentina clash, but footage did later turn up in London, though it was too late for inclusion in the documentary, which has been shown at film festivals around the world.
Evan also hunted far and wide for a real-life “survivor” from Sweden. Bengt Jonasson was a 13-year-old boy, who had befriended the Northern Ireland team when they played near his home in Halmstad and he even sat on the bench during the games.
After the finals, Bengt was flown to Belfast for a civic reception and conducted the band before a home international match against England, but that was the last contact anyone ever had with him ... until Evan Marshall set about trying to track him down.
“It took a year. But, using Facebook, I discovered that he was living part of the year in Australia and the other in Sweden,” he says.
Bengt was brought to Northern Ireland for an emotional reunion with Harry Gregg and Norman Uprichard, according to Evan, who says the happy-go-lucky nature of the Irish players also meant they were able to win the hearts of the Swedes.
“Even when they moved on to play their games in Malmo, hundreds of folk from Halmstad travelled with them to support them,” says Evan, who reckons that the team of ’58 were better than the Northern Ireland sides who played with distinction in Spain and Mexico.
“Harry Gregg was one of the best goalkeepers in the world. Danny Blanchflower was probably the top footballer in Britain and Jimmy McIlroy, Bingham, Peacock and McParland were near the pinnacle of the game, too.
“It was a team of glittering stars and, though they didn’t have the strength in depth of subsequent squads, we say on the front cover of the book that they were Northern Ireland’s greatest footballing team. And that is unarguable.”
But there were other, lesser-known stalwarts in the team, like Dick Keith and Alfie McMichael, who had to fly to Sweden from a tour of Romania with their club side, Newcastle United.
“And that wasn’t as easy as it sounds,” adds Evan.
“They had to make four flight changes to get to Sweden. And it was probably because it was hard to fly anywhere in those days that so few fans were able to follow the team to Sweden. But two of the supporters did make the journey — via moped and ferry.”
Evan, who’s a Manchester United fan, was particularly drawn to Harry Gregg during his interviews for the documentary and the book.
“Don’t forget, that the World Cup finals were only four months after Harry walked away from the Munich air disaster. I couldn’t help admiring him as he talked to us,” he says.
“But another Northern Ireland international who should have been playing in Sweden was Manchester United’s Jackie Blanchflower, who was Danny’s brother.
“He never played again, because of the injuries he sustained at Munich.”
Peter McParland’s recollections of Northern Ireland international matches and scoring five goals in Sweden also transfixed Evan. “He told me how the trainer, Gerry Morgan, had asked him before one game that was being televised to feign an injury, so that he could come on with his magic sponge and get himself on the box. And, in the second half, Peter duly went down and Gerry came running on before waving the sponge about, but he didn’t bother to do anything for him.
“Peter said he really was hurt, but Gerry was having none of it and told him to get up,” laughs Evan, who won’t be going to France for the Euros, because he didn’t think he would be able to get tickets. However, he hopes the new Northern Ireland can do as well as the old one in Sweden.
“I think we are even more the underdogs now than we were then, because there aren’t the same opportunities for Northern Ireland footballers to play in the top flight of the game in England, compared with the past.
“But Michael O’Neill has got a great sense of team spirit and unity about the team — just like Billy Bingham did in ’82 and ’86 and Peter Doherty did in ’58.”
- Evan Marshall’s book, Spirit of ’58, will be launched at Waterstones, Fountain Street, Belfast on Thursday, May 12 at 6.30pm