“Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” – Desmond Tutu
In our last article we looked at the highs of the Northern Ireland 1958 World Cup campaign in Sweden. But such success wasn’t just confined to the North. The Republic was also improving as a team and there was a sense of optimism both sides of the Irish border.
Northern Ireland had proven herself to be a worthy match for the top footballing nations at the World Cup, whereas the Republic of Ireland had only narrowly missed out on qualifying for the tournament. Looking towards the future, many contemporaries thought it was a new dawn in Irish football. They spotted a horizon in which Ireland would take its place amongst the best footballing teams.
How wrong they were.
The years that followed the 1958 World Cup saw Irish football enter into the wilderness. Northern Ireland, despite boasting a team containing the likes of George Best, Pat Rice, Pat Jennings and many more stars failed to qualify for an international tournament for the next two decades.
Similarly, a Republic of Ireland team comprised of Johnny Giles, Liam Brady and Steve Heighway failed to make an impact in world football. There was little to cheer about during this time but as always there were glimmers of hope. Today we’ll examine five of the greatest Irish victories from 1960 to 1982 in an attempt to find the good in a down period in Irish football.
5) Republic of Ireland 2 – France 1 (November 1972, 1974 World Cup Qualifier)
France has had an interesting history with football in the Republic of Ireland. We know from previous articles that France was highly influential in supporting the FAI in the 1920s when few nations would. We also know that in recent years, France was accused of robbing Ireland of a World Cup place after a certain handball incident that’s best left alone. It’s been a mixed relationship at the best of times.
In 1972 however it was Ireland who broke French hearts, albeit briefly, when a trailblazing Republic of Ireland side stunned France in a 1974 World Cup Qualifier. Trailblazing may be an exaggeration but you can excuse my enthusiasm.
During the late 1960’s and early 1970’s the Republic of Ireland went almost five years without a victory in a competitive soccer match. Following a victory on 22 November 1967 over Czechoslovakia, it was not until 15 November 1972 before Ireland would win another competitive fixture. The opponent? None other than France!
Imagine it, Ireland lining up against a French time containing Jean Djorkaeff, Henri Michel and Hervé Revelli. Admittedly France had failed to qualify for the 1970 World Cup and were going through a rough patch of their own but they were still formidable opponents, especially for an Irish team that hadn’t won a game in five years.
There was therefore a nervousness in Dalymount Park when the Boys in Green lined out in front of 10,000 Irish supporters. Would Ireland lose yet another competitive match? Or would the losing streak finally be broken?
27 minutes into the match Terry Conroy, the Stoke dynamo, coolly put Ireland one up. The French were rattled and the Irish didn’t know what to do. Should they shut up shop or go for another goal? Could they hold on? Would they hold on? How? France was angered. How dare this little team disrespect the French like this?
67 minutes went by and France had her revenge when Jean-Michel Larqué broke Irish hearts by scoring an equaliser. France now went on the offensive sensing Ireland’s resolve was weakening. In her desperate attempt to snatch a winner France left herself vulnerable at the back leaving just enough space for Ray Treacy to score for Ireland with 76 minutes on the clock. It was the most important of the five goals Treacy would notch for the Republic.
The next 14 minutes saw Ireland fight with everything she had to hold on for the final whistle. When the ninety minutes were up, Ireland emerged victorious. The five year losing streak was over, proving that your next win is always around the corner. You just have to wait for it.
4) Northern Ireland 1 – Wales 0 (1980 British Home Championship)
We often forget the significance of the British Home Championships for the teams involved. It’s understandable in many respects as the tournament ended in 1984 but during its lifetime, the Championship was hugely important for those competing in it. Bragging rights and reputation were at stake for those involved. Northern Ireland had often been the whipping boys of the tournament while England, Scotland and Wales ran away with the tournament.
You can imagine the surprise of the other three nations when Northern Ireland put up a fight in the 1979-1980 tournament. It all began with Northern Ireland’s one-nil victory over Scotland in 1980. England and Wales scoffed that it was simply a once off and that the natural order would soon be restored.
This was ignoring the fact that Northern Ireland had Gerry Armstrong, Martin O’Neill and Pat Jennings in their midst. Northern Ireland’s next game would be against an English team containing the backbone of the feared Liverpool team then dominating English football complemented by footballing wizards such as Glen Hoddle. People were not holding out much hope. Well people outside of Northern Ireland weren’t holding out much hope.
In front of a sell-out Wembley Stadium Northern Ireland snatched a draw with England meaning that if she won her last match against Wales she would be the undisputed winner of the Home Championship. As we know, the last time that happened was 1913.
It had been a long time coming. Ninian Park in Cardiff was the venue, the Welsh were the opponents and the tension was high. Northern Ireland had the chance to gain a trophy during her time in the footballing wilderness. What’s more she could rightly claim the bragging rights over the British Isles teams. Could she do it? Noel Brotherston, the Blackburn Rovers, servant certainly thought so when he put the ball in the back of the Welsh net.
When the ninety minutes were up, Northern Ireland were Champions of the British Home Championship. It was the beginning of a golden period in Northern Irish football that would see Northern Ireland playing in the World Cup two years later.
3) Republic of Ireland 3 – Soviet Union 0 (1974 European Championship Qualifier)
From Ireland’s victory over France in 1972, we learnt two things. Namely that Ireland could occasionally shock the bigger nations but that it was a very rare occurrence. Less than two years after ending her five-year losing streak, Ireland, lined up against a highly favoured Soviet Union in front of 35,000 fans at Dalymount Park.
Few people game the Irish a chance in this European Championship Qualifier. John Giles, the Irish manager and captain, sought to rally his troops to put up a fight against the Soviets. It would be tough, but Giles himself was no stranger to a dogfight, as the classy midfielder’s Leeds United career attested to.
It was the opening group match of the Qualifiers. Defeat for Ireland could have damaged their entire qualification efforts. No one wants to start with a loss.
22 minutes in something strange occurred. Don Givens, the QPR striker, slotted the ball into the back of the Soviet net. A fluke surely? The Soviets were stunned. Eight minutes later Ireland were two up, with Givens again the goalscorer. Had the stars aligned? Would Ireland actually defeat the Soviets? The game soon became a fight. 32 minutes on the board and Terry Mancini was sent off for the Republic. Volodymyr Kaplychniy was dismissed for the Soviets. Matters were heating up.
Both teams began to lose their focus and discipline but the Irish looked the stronger. With 20 minutes remaining, Don Givens put the game beyond any doubt by notching his hat-trick. Final score? The Republic of Ireland 3, Soviet Union 0. A momentous occasion in Irish footballing history.
2) Northern Ireland 1 – 0 Scotland (British Home Championship, 21st October 1967)
It would be a great disservice to Irish football to look at the George Best era and not include the great man. The 1967 British Home Championship between Northern Ireland and Scotland may not have had much significance for either teams but it was a special occasion for those privileged enough to be there.
What was so special about the match? George Best, arguably in his greatest ever performance for Northern Ireland, took hold of the game and almost single-handedly defeated the Scots. This was no mean feat, Scotland were a team largely made up of the Celtic team that went on to win that year’s European Cup. Yet the Scots were simply mesmerized by Best’s brilliance as he danced around their players, running every inch of the Windsor Park pitch.
Best may not have scored the winning goal (it was Dave Clements who took the honour) but in front of a packed Windsor Park, the Belfast Boy displayed everything we loved about him: skill, speed and the courage to display his ability.
The match has been remembered by soccer fans as the George Best match. If there was ever a game in which a single player defeated an entire team, it was this one. George Best being the man he was, choose an opponent that many others would have been afraid of. The victory may not have been as illustrious as the others in our list, but it was no less magical.
1) Northern Ireland 1 – 0 Israel (18th November 1981, 1982 World Cup Qualification)
In a World Cup Qualification group containing the likes of Scotland, Sweden and Portugal, few people expected to see Northern Ireland at the 1982 World Cup. You can imagine the surprise and excitement of Northern Irish fans when the team, as if awoken from a deep slumber, began to display the strength, tenacity and skill that Irish fans knew the team was capable of.
Northern Ireland defeated Sweden and Portugal during the qualification, showing she was no pushover. The final match of the qualifying group saw Northern Ireland face Israel needing only a draw to qualify for the World Cup in Spain, being held the following year.
40,000 expectant Irish supporters packed into Windsor Park to watch the Irish face off against a formidable Israeli team. The North hadn’t been at a World Cup since 1958. Her time had come, she just needed one more result. Could she do it?
27 minutes into the game Gerry Armstrong volleyed home what proved to be the only goal of the game. Ninety minutes went by and Northern Ireland were at their first World Cup in over two decades.
Northern Ireland had qualified, scoring six goals and conceding just three. She qualified behind Scotland for the World Cup and fans of Irish football were expectant of another fine World Cup performance. How did she do in 1982? You’ll have to wait until next week’s article to find out.
Irish football has a history of ups and downs. The point of this article was to show that even during the darkest moments in Irish football, there is hope. Irish football may not enjoy the success of Germany but we have our own victories. The 1960s-1980s was a a testing time for fans of Irish football but a new dawn was coming.
Northern Ireland qualified for the 1982 World Cup, and a manager by the name of Jack Charlton would soon enjoy success with the Republic. The next few weeks here at Pundit Arena will see us explore this golden age of Irish football. Stick around, you won’t be disappointed.
Conor Heffernan, Pundit Arena.
Featured Image By “Aankomst Noordierse elftal op Zestienhoven; trainer Blanchflower en George Best (r)” by NL-HaNA, ANEFO / neg. stroken, 1945-1989 – Nationaal Archief Fotocollectie Anefo. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
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