Belfast Telegraph

Down Memory Lane: Swede dreams made of super start at Windsor

By Malocolm Brodie

Northern Ireland manager Nigel Worthington is under no illusions. His squad need an impressive start in the European Championship qualifying series, commencing against Slovenia in Maribor on Friday.

Over the decades Northern Ireland teams have been notoriously slow starters, failing at the first few hurdles and finding themselves in a claw-back situation — often beyond their capabilities.

Examples: last World Cup losing 2-1 to Slovakia, the previous Euro Championships a 3-0 defeat by Iceland at Windsor Park which caused Lawrie Sanchez consternation and his fall-out with the media.

Worthington knows he has to deliver. So, too, do the troops, the Green and White Army and the thousands of fans at home. This is a time for encouragement of the squad and not those premature reach-the-finals-or-else threats made to the manager through the media by one official.

Diplomacy, dignity, professionalism and public relations are qualities missing these days in the portals of the IFA. A sad, no, appalling situation.

Worthington knows what he wants — a kick-off like that in October 1980 with the 3-0 victory over Sweden at Windsor Park. Basking in the glory of being British champions and after a highly successful four-match Australian summer tour, Northern Ireland tackled the Swedes at a packed Windsor in the World Cup Qualifying Group Six.

This also doubled up as the Irish FA’s centenary game watched by the hierarchy of football, including Dr Joao Havelange, FIFA President and his predecessor Sir Stanley Rous.

Managed by Billy Bingham, Northern Ireland pulverised the opposition using basically the same team as won the British title at Ninian Park, Cardiff a few months earlier.

Players were bursting with pride as they lined up before kick-off with the Championship trophy displayed on the table. There could have been no more appropriate background for Northern Ireland players to provide one of the greatest displays of attacking football seen in years.

They opened the scoring in the 24th minute when Sammy McIlroy miskicked to Noel Brotherston, who drove home.

Noel, goalscoring hero in the 1-0 triumph at Ninian, tragically died in May 1995, aged only 38; by then, however, he had written his name in the annals of Northern Ireland football folklore.

With Sweden’s defence stretched, McIlroy fell to his knees to head the second goal and for a change Northern Ireland didn’t take the “what we have we hold” attitude.

Attack was Bingham’s philosophy and Jimmy Nicholl hit a long-distance spectacular for the third goal, the first in a distinguished career.

Northern Ireland topped the table after that night, followed by Scotland, Israel, Portugal and Sweden. Reaching the finals for the first time since 1958 still seemed a mission impossible. It was a fiercely contested group, but Northern Ireland finished with nine points, two adrift of Scotland, but sufficient to see them qualify for what was to be an incredible chapter in the history of our wee country — Spain ’82.

Worthington, studying results over the decades, said: “A series of victories like that in 1980 would be ideal and a win to kick-start our challenge.”

Northern Ireland 3 Sweden 0 (October 15, Windsor Park, 1980) Team: Platt, J Nicholl, Donaghy, McClelland, C Nicholl, Cassidy (McCreery), M O’Neill, S McIlroy, Armstrong, W Hamilton (Cochrane), Brotherston.

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