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Gregg hopes Messi shines 60 years on from Northern Ireland's heroics

By Steven Beacom

Harry Gregg laughs out loud as he recalls his 1958 World Cup team-mates. He has a story about virtually every one.

How he first met striker Peter McParland, who scored five goals for Northern Ireland in the tournament, is particularly amusing.

"I was a kid playing against a team in Dundalk in the junior leagues and in those days you could charge the goalkeeper," recollects Gregg.

"I picked the ball up, dodged the opposition forward in front of me and kicked the ball away but as I did that I felt a really hard kick on the back of my leg.

"I chased the fella who did it to the halfway line and got him by the throat. When we next met it was after we were picked to play for Northern Ireland and I shouted to him you were the boy that kicked me. It was Peter McParland! We have been friends ever since and were chatting on the phone just last week. Peter was a great player. He was one dirty so-and-so but he could score goals."

While the legendary Aston Villa front man was hitting the net in Sweden in 1958, Manchester United icon Gregg was keeping them out at the other end with a series of sensational saves that led to him being named the best goalkeeper in the competition.

Harry, now 85, can't believe six decades have passed since Northern Ireland featured for the first time in the finals on football's biggest stage. They have only qualified twice since in 1982 and 1986.

Northern Ireland, captained by the wonderful Danny Blanchflower, made it to Sweden after defeating Italy 2-1 at Windsor Park in January 1958 in a qualifier that should have taken place a month earlier.

Due to referee Istvan Zolt being fog-bound in London, the scheduled competitive group game in December went ahead as a friendly much to the anger of the home fans who caused a riot and invaded the pitch. The 2-2 draw between the sides became known as 'the Battle of Belfast'.

In between Northern Ireland qualifying and playing in the 1958 World Cup finals, the Munich air disaster claimed the lives of 23 people, including several of Gregg's United team-mates. But for the heroic and selfless actions of the goalkeeper more would have perished.

Deeply affected by the tragedy, Harry couldn't fly on the Sweden-bound plane with his international buddies and ended up going on a long journey by sea and land taking a boat to France and train to Scandinavia.

"We beat Czechoslovakia with a Wilbur Cush goal then lost to Argentina, who were the hardest team I ever played in my life. They kicked lumps out of us," he says.

Next came a 2-2 draw with West Germany which led to a play-off against the Czechs just two days later. McParland's double took little Northern Ireland through to the quarter-finals where another 48 hours later they lost to France.

Today only four members of that iconic 1958 squad are alive - Gregg, McParland, Burnley legend Jimmy McIlroy and the great Billy Bingham, who as manager inspired Northern Ireland to successive World Cup finals in the 80s.

"It's sad there are so few of us left but I personally think, and not because I was part of it, that was the finest Irish team ever and our finest group of players," says Gregg with a genuine sense of pride.

"The most important factor of all was our brilliant manager Peter Doherty - Ireland's greatest ever player and I include my dear friend George Best in that.

"Gerry Morgan, the trainer, was another key figure. He used to take the mick out of everyone.

"Last week, two Swedish gentlemen turned up at my house. One was a journalist and the other was a young boy when the 1958 World Cup was going on and he talked about how the Swedish people loved the Irish team which was lovely to hear."

Sixty years ago, the Pele legend was born with the then teenage sensation helping Brazil win their first World Cup.

Looking ahead to this year's tournament, Gregg would relish seeing another superstar, Barcelona and Argentina's Lionel Messi, light up the football world.

"I love Messi and it would be incredible if he won it for the first time 60 years on after Pele did," said one of Northern Ireland's true sporting giants.

"I never thought the time would come when I would turn a game off the TV but I feel like that sometimes these days though never when Messi is on. He's amazing. The game has changed dramatically but Messi could take care of himself and shine in any era."

NORTHERN IRELAND'S 1958 WORLD CUP SQUAD: Harry Gregg, Willie Cunnningham, Alf McMichael, Danny Blanchflower, Dick Keith, Bertie Peacock, Billy Bingham, Wilbur Cush, Billy Simpson, Jimmy McIlroy, Peter McParland, Norman Uprichard, Tommy Casey, Jackie Scott, Sammy McCrory, Derek Dougan, Fay Coyle. Manager: Peter Doherty.

Group 1 results

June 8, 1958: Northern Ireland 1 (Wilbur Cush) Czechoslovakia 0

June 11, 1958: Argentina 3 Northern Ireland 1 (Peter McParland)

June 15, 1958: West Germany 2 Northern Ireland 2 (Peter McParland 2)

Play-off result

June 17, 1958: Northern Ireland 2 (Peter McParland 2) Czechoslovakia 1 (after extra time)

Quarter-final result

June 19, 1958: France 4 Northern Ireland 0

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