Belfast Telegraph

A league of their own... the day our heroes beat English aces at Windsor Park

It's 60 years since Irish select thrashed England's finest in front of 20,000 at Windsor

By Ivan Little

It will be 60 years ago on Monday that 20,000 fans in Windsor Park witnessed one of the greatest ever shocks in the history of local football as the Irish League's part-timers humiliated the most famous players in England, thrashing them 5-2 in an inter-league game which they'd been expected to lose.

The Englishmen, with seven internationals in their ranks, thought they just had to turn up in Belfast to record yet another victory in the then annual representative game against Northern Irish counterparts.

And why wouldn't they have been cocky on that Spring evening on Wednesday, April 25, 1956? The encounters were usually a stroll in the park for the full-time professionals from the Football League who hadn't lost to their poor relations from the Irish League for 19 years.

In modern day terms, it would be like the strongest team of multi-millionaire superstars from the Premier League coming to Belfast with the likes of Wayne Rooney, Sergio Aguero and Harry Kane in their line-up and losing to the little known grafters from the Irish League.

Unimaginable? Of course. The bookies would be offering odds of thousands to one.

And back in 1956 the Irish League side were also rated no-hopers as they prepared to take on the star-studded Football League team with their task made even tougher when two of their players, Sammy Lowry and Billy Neill from Glentoran, had to pull out because The Oval side were facing an Irish Cup final replay after drawing 2-2 with Distillery on the Saturday.

Linfield's Jimmy Hill and Paddy Corr from Glenavon were called up. And that meant that six Linfield players were in the Irish League line-up. The other five were Alex Russell in goals, Dick Keith at right-back, Tommy Hamill in the centre-half berth and the legendary Tommy Dickson playing inside left and Syd Weatherup in the No.11 shirt.

As well as Corr there were two other Glenavon players in the Irish League side - Wilbur Cush and Jimmy Jones, who had been injured at Windsor in his Belfast Celtic days eight years earlier during the infamous Boxing Day riot.

The other two players were Jack Davis from Crusaders and a rising star called George Eastham, a young Englishman who was making a name for himself at Ards where his father George Eastham senior was the manager.

In the build up to the match, the English team trained at Solitude where a number of journalists ran their eyes over the illustrious visitors.

One reporter marvelled at the stature of the opposition. "They are a well-built side and centre half Wicks is 6ft 3in in height but Jones will probably give him some trouble."

The same writer predicted that the most significant English threat would come from the famous Fulham star Johnny Haynes who he said with masterful understatement "has shown himself to be a skilful player".

Other big name players in the Football League team included the Manchester United pair Roger Byrne and Tommy Taylor, who were both to die in the Munich air disaster just over two years after the Windsor Park game.

Also in the Football League XI that night was Sheffield Wednesday's talented inside forward Albert Quixall who was to join Manchester United in the wake of the Munich tragedy as Matt Busby tried to re-build his side.

Blackpool's Jimmy Armfield, who went on to become a respected football analyst on the radio, was a full-back in the English side.

He'd been in Belfast just six months earlier playing for the Western Command representative side who were beaten 8-1 by the Irish League at Grosvenor Park.

That win might have sounded a warning about the potential of the home team and their talented bunch of young wannabes but the newspapers of the time who were more concerned with a three-day visit by the Duke of Edinburgh to Northern Ireland didn't devote too many column inches to previews of the Football League game.

The cynics were quick to point out that the Irish League hadn't triumphed in the fixture since 1937.

However, one writer said: "Football League teams have generally proved too strong for Irish League teams but the side chosen tonight seems capable of putting up a good fight on this occasion."

How right he was. In front of a boisterous crowd which included a sizeable number of Linfield fans who wanted to cheer on their six players in green, the Irish League team ran riot and the headlines the day after the game read, 'Irish League part-timers humble the might of England'.

The five-goal tally was the first time they'd ever scored that many goals against any of the big guns from across the water.

One reporter cooed: "It was almost unbelievable" and he raved about displays of individual brilliance and teamwork.

English journalists were stunned. But they took comfort from the fact that one of the players on show had captured the attention of England's international selectors. And he wasn't wearing a white jersey.

It was the aforementioned George Eastham who also excited the legions of English scouts who had turned up to see the game.

One report said that Eastham's five-star show had sent his transfer value rocketing to… £25,000. Which is barely a day's pay for the top earners in the Premier League nowadays.

But Eastham wasn't the only hero that night.

One account of the game said: "Beside Eastham there was Jones adding fuel to the fire and to the left was Dickson fanning the blaze which had the English citadel a conflagration in the short space of 10 minutes.

"Dickson has never reached such great heights in a representative game before."

And it was the Duke of Windsor who scored the first goal after just 90 seconds and on eight minutes the Windsor crowd were delirious, according to one report after a second score.

Dickson had cheekily back-heeled the ball to Hill and he hammered home a powerful drive which was followed two minutes later by a goal from Weatherup.

The score was 3-0 and virtually one way traffic and a journalist quoted a supporter in the stands who wanted to know if the Football League were wearing green.

In the 14th minute Davis scored an own goal and the Football League clawed another one back thanks to Tommy Taylor amid protests that he was offside.

Four minutes from half-time, Eastham restored the Irish League's two-goal advantage but in the second period the Football League came out "with all guns blazing" according to one scribe who said Russell repeatedly thwarted them with a series of fine saves.

But the same writer said Eastham, Corr and Hill were soon running amok again and in the 65th minute Dickson grabbed a fifth goal after a Keith cross.

The game finished 5-2 and Eastham was hailed the hero.

It was no surprise then that not long after the runaway win, the 20-year-old starlet who was the youngest player on the park was transferred to Newcastle United.

Keith and Hill were also transferred to Newcastle and Cush joined Leeds United

Eastham once again hit the headlines in 1963 thanks to his involvement in a landmark court case which improved the freedom of English players to move between clubs.

The case followed the refusal of Newcastle United to allow Eastham to move to Arsenal, a transfer which eventually did go through

He became an English international and he was a non-playing member of the 1966 World Cup-winning team.

Eight years earlier, his erstwhile Irish League team-mates Keith and Cush played significant roles in Northern Ireland's fairy-tale World Cup campaign in Sweden.

But they never forgot that April night two years earlier in Belfast and the wonder of Windsor Park.

Irish League: Russell (Linfield) Keith (Linfield) Davis (Crusaders) Corr (Glenavon) Hamill (Linfield) Cush (Glenavon) Hill (Linfield) Eastham (Ards) Jones (Glenavon) Dickson (Linfield) and Weatherup (Linfield)

Football League: Baynham (Luton) Armfield (Blackpool) Byrne (Man United) Clayton (Blackburn) Wicks (Chelsea) Iley (Sheffield Utd) Harris (Portsmouth) Quixall (Sheffield Wednesday) Taylor (Man United) Haynes (Fulham) and Grainger (Sheffield Utd)

Referee: Mr R. Reid (Belfast)

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