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Northern Ireland proved in 1958 that anything can happen... even against giants like Italy, says Peter McParland

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Former Aston Villa star and Northern Ireland international Peter McParland

Former Aston Villa star and Northern Ireland international Peter McParland

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Former Aston Villa star and Northern Ireland international Peter McParland

Northern Ireland's 1958 World Cup hero Peter McParland would love to see the current crop reach the 2022 finals.

McParland appreciates it is a mighty challenge to qualify from a group containing Italy, Switzerland, Bulgaria and Lithuania, with only the table toppers guaranteed to reach Qatar and the runners-up entering a play-off, but hope springs eternal. History too.

It was 63 years ago that McParland and co. beat Italy 2-1 at Windsor Park in their final qualifier to reach the 1958 tournament.

Ian Baraclough's men would relish being in a similar position by the time the Italians visit Belfast in November for the last group match of the 2022 campaign. Before the business end, though, Northern Ireland will aim to make a strong start in Italy tonight and at home to Bulgaria on Wednesday.

"Italy are a big football nation, but the boys have to believe in themselves and, as we showed in 1958, anything can happen," said McParland.

"There's nothing better than qualifying for a World Cup and I'd love to see the boys do it this time.

"I feel we can improve on recent results and, with the experience of Steven Davis, Jonny Evans and Stuart Dallas and some good young players, we have a good side. Hopefully our forwards are firing when the matches start."

When Northern Ireland were going all out for qualification in 1958, the decisive group game was set for Wednesday, December 4, 1957 with the home team needing a win and Italy requiring a draw. Hungarian referee Istvan Zolt was fog-bound in London and couldn't make the trip and the monumental World Cup clash was reduced to a friendly.

When the 50,000 fans were informed, the atmosphere turned hostile, with supporters feeling conned and howling in protest when the teams came out.

The feelings were equally frosty between the teams. It was not known as the 'Battle of Belfast' for nothing, or 'a booting match' as McParland described it. After the final whistle angry fans invaded the pitch.

A month later, Italy returned for the World Cup tie with relations soured between the nations. Northern Ireland won 2-1 to qualify. We can only hope for a similar outcome this time.

Belfast Telegraph


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