How Northern Ireland turned football world upside down in 11 days at 1958 World Cup
60 years on from their magical journey to the Sweden 58 quarter finals, our heroes remembered
As Sweden get ready to face England in the quarter-finals of the World Cup, that Scandinavian country combined with that tournament has a particular resonance for followers of Northern Ireland.
In 1958, Sweden hosted the finals of the World Cup, and for the first time in its history, Northern Ireland was among the 16 finalists.
The smallest country in the 1958 tournament, Northern Ireland had already made headlines in qualifying at the expense of Portugal and two-times World Cup winners Italy.
Although rank outsiders alongside the elite of world football, the team could nonetheless call on the services of some of the best players in British football of that era, nearly all of them playing for leading English clubs: the likes of captain Danny Blanchflower of Spurs, Jimmy McIlroy of Burnley, Billy Bingham of Sunderland, Peter McParland of Aston Villa, Harry Gregg of Manchester United. They were also led as manager by one of British football’s all-time greats: Peter Doherty.
Still, no one gave Northern Ireland a chance, if for no other reason than that they simply didn’t have the resources to match their competitors, a point illustrated by the fact that although, like every other team, they had 22 places available to fill, the Ulstermen travelled to Sweden with a squad of just 17 players.
They were also drawn in what was arguably the toughest group of all in Sweden, facing, as they did, Czechoslovakia, considered to be one of the best teams in Europe; Argentina, the reigning champions of South America; and the reigning world champions, West Germany, who had defeated Hungary 3–2 in the 1954 final in Berne.
Three of that winning side now remained to face Northern Ireland — the 38-year-old captain Fritz Walter; the powerful right-winger Helmut Rahn, scorer of two of the three goals against Hungary; and inside-left Hans Schaefer. This was a solid core of experience to which was added some exciting new talent, most notably the young centre-forward Uwe Seeler.
Yet in the space of just 11 days, Northern Ireland turned the football world upside down and showed what a special team they were. Beginning on Sunday, June 8 in Halmstad, the Czechs were the first to experience the whirlwind attacking of Peter Doherty’s men, the only goal of the game a bullet-header from Lurgan’s Wilbur Cush, then of Leeds United. The footballing world had received a jolt.
Three days later, on Wednesday, June 11, the Orjans Voll stadium in Halmstad was again the venue for the second act in the drama of Sweden ’58. Before the teams took to the field, there had already been some contact, as Jimmy McIlroy remembered: “When we lined up in the passageway to go out with the Argentinians, their captain looked across… and our shorts had a lovely shiny, glossy look. He touched Danny’s shorts and he asked, “Silk?” and then looked at his own shorts and said “Cotton”’.
So it was advantage Northern Ireland in the fashion department, and in fact once the game was underway, the men in the ‘glossy’ shorts got off to the perfect start, with a goal after just four minutes.
Cush was the provider on this occasion, sending over a cross which McParland headed past Amadeo Carizzo in the Argentine goal. But just before half-time, Argentina equalised from a controversial penalty and went on to win 3–1. So the fairy tale was over, wasn’t it? In fact, it was just beginning.
The final scheduled group match was against West Germany in Malmo on June 15. Twice, Northern Ireland took the lead with goals from Peter McParland, the second coming in the 60th minute. The Germans now launched attack after attack, searching for the equaliser. Uwe Seeler found himself foiled at every turn by Harry Gregg, who was having the game of his life.
Just twelve minutes of the match remained when the ball dropped into the path of the West German centre-forward about 35 yards from the Northern Ireland goal.
Seeler even appeared to be slightly off-balance when he connected with the ball, but the shot was like a missile. For once Harry Gregg was helpless as the ball flew past him into the net — 2–2.
Northern Ireland now faced a play-off match against the Czechs, who had beaten Argentina to end up on the same number of points as Doherty’s team.
With injuries accumulating fast, including to Gregg, Bertie Peacock and Tommy Casey, the team had just two days to prepare for the sudden-death encounter in Malmo.
On June 17, fighting exhaustion, injury and a Czech side who took the lead after just 18 minutes, Northern Ireland played their way back into contention. The goal-scoring hero was again Peter McParland, who equalised just before half-time and then won it in extra time. Northern Ireland had reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup.
Again they had only two days to recover before they faced France in the last eight, but the team was decimated by serious injuries – including to both goalkeepers – and practically dead on their feet from the herculean efforts in the group matches. France ran out 4–0 winners on June 19.
A rested and fully fit Northern Ireland might well have reversed that result. They were beaten as much by sheer fatigue and injury as by the footballing prowess of France. It was hardly a coincidence that all the teams that had play-off matches at the end of the group stage lost their quarter-finals.
Harry Gregg was named as the goalkeeper of the tournament by the watching sportswriters.
It had also been a great World Cup for Peter McParland, scorer of five goals, the third-equal highest scorer in the competition with Vavá of Brazil; for Billy Bingham, whose thrusting runs down the right were often the launch pad for openings on the opposition goal; for Bertie Peacock, who ran and tackled with seemingly endless energy; and for Alfie McMichael of Newcastle United, who kept in check some of the world’s best wingers.
One final thought. If Northern Ireland had beaten France in the quarter-finals, their semi-final opponents would have been Brazil. Now I wonder what Pelé would have made of Wilbur Cush?
Ronnie Hanna is the author of The World at Their Feet: Northern Ireland in Sweden and Six Glorious Years: Following Northern Ireland 1980–86 (contact firstname.lastname@example.org)