Hat-tricks are a rarity in Northern Ireland international football but tonight’s friendly with Albania will stir memories of a 1965 May day when Johnny Crossan, back from European exile and playing for Manchester City, wrote himself into history with three goals, one a penalty, in the 4-1 World Cup qualifying triumph over the then minnows from the Adriatic at Windsor Park.
The scorer of the other goal? George Best, one of his nine in a 37-match international career prematurely ended by his decision to retire when he had so much to offer.
That victory raised hopes among the ever faithful supporters their team could emulate the heroes of Sweden 1958, and eventually reach the finals in England.
A 1-1 draw in Tirana, however, shattered dreams — and the Albanians repeated the blow in the 1986 European championship.
Tirana 45 years ago was the most Godforsaken place I have covered in international football. It was as if time had stood still for 100 years, Ruled from the end of the Second World War by Communist leader Enver Hoxha until his death in 1985 this was a regime which courted isolationism and Maoism rather than the original Russian influence.
Hundreds of citizens walked aimlessly around the centre of Tirana gazing constantly at foreigners yet never responding to a greeting. Bicycle, hundreds of them, was the mode of transport apart from the sedate black limousines of the Government officials and the Chinese diplomats and industrialists.
On the road into the airport men and women toiled in the fields using the most primitive of equipment, Army pillar boxes dotted the landscape and the streets. Direct international telephone dialling, now commonplace, was non-existent then making telephoning or telexing copy from Albania a nightmare particularly if dictating a 2000-words “running story” for an evening paper.
In today’s technological wonderland with instant communication, mobile phones and satellite connections journalists don’t know they are living compared with those distant days of yesteryear.
Cajoling helpful Albanian FA officials by handing out a few US dollars, I had a Belfast Telegraph telephone installed in the media box which accommodated about 10 reporters.
Alas, there were only specific times London could make contact and the hours did not correspond with the match kick-off. Had the expensive exercise been a waste of time?
Vienna was the only city that could maintain an open line to Tirana so I arranged with a colleague in one of the Austrian news agencies to employ on a prolonged shift a telex operator taking dictation for 90 minutes instantly re-transmitting to Belfast. Otherwise it would have been a lost cause.
I had just completed the analysis of the game and put down the instrument when it rang again. “London calling,” said the operator.
“Too late,” I replied but took the call anyway, to confirm copy had arrived. “Yes all here,” was the reply. Then the line went dead!
Nowadays in Tirana, or anywhere else in the world, reporters send copy from their laptop and, within seconds, the story is on the computer system in Royal Avenue.
I have been back in Albania, which lies along the Adriatic adjacent to what was Yugoslavia and Greece, quite a few times with Northern Ireland and also Linfield who played Nentori in the 1982-83 European Cup Winners Cup; losing 1-0 in Tirana, winning 2-1 at Windsor Park but eliminated on the away goal rule.
The Albanians have been the football scourge of Northern Ireland — a bogey team.
That 1-1 draw ensured we didn’t make it to the finals while in the 1986 European Championship qualifiers Northern Ireland were held to a scoreless draw in Tirana, but West Germany, defeated home and away by Northern Ireland, squeezed through on goal difference thanks to a 2-1 away win against . . . yes you’ve guessed it Albania.
If Billy Bingham’s troops had won in Tirana they would have gone through a point ahead of the Germans. Such are the quirks of fate in sport.
And in the France 1998 World Cup qualifiers Albania shocked the Irish with a 1-0 win at the Grasshoppers Stadium, Zurich, selected by FIFA after Tirana had been declared a security risk because of civil unrest in the region.
That defeat ended a dismal series and Bryan Hamilton’s four-year reign as manager. Another World Cup had become just a sad memory for Northern Ireland and a case of what might have been.
World Cup Qualifier: Windsor Park, May 7, 1965: Northern Ireland 4 (Crossan 3-one penalty, Irvine) Albania 1
Northern Ireland: Jennings (Spurs), Magill (Arsenal), Elder (Burnley), Harvey (Sunderland), Neill (Arsenal), Parke (Sunderland), Humphries (Swansea Town), Crossan (Manchester City), Irvine (Burnley), Nicholson (Huddersfield), Best (Manchester United).
World Cup Qualifier: Tirana Nov 24, 1965: Albania 1 Northern Ireland 1 (Irvine)
NORTHERN IRELAND: Jennings (Spurs), Magill (Brighton), Elder (Burnley), Harvey (Sunderland), Neill (Arsenal), Nicholson (Huddersfield Town), J McIlroy (Stoke City), Crossan (Manchester City), Irvine (Burnley), Dougan (Leicester City), Best (Manchester |United).