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The Great Green Hope: Northern Ireland & The 1958 World Cup

“If you don’t believe you can win, there is no point in getting out of bed at the end of the day”- Neville ‘Big Nev’  Southall

Irish football, as we have seen in this series, is a complicated affair often dominated by politics. Interspersed with the drama however is joy, ecstasy and delight.

This comes most spectacularly in the form of tournament football. Back in 1913 a united Irish side won the Home Nations Championship, pipping England, Scotland and Wales to the title. The next forty years saw Irish football as a political battleground as the FAI and IFA fought for supremacy.

Fans of Irish football had to wait until 1958 to experience the highs, lows and sheer emotion that tournament football had to offer. In 1958, Northern Ireland qualified for the FIFA World Cup held in Sweden. What’s more, they did bloody well!

1958 marked a special moment for teams of the British Isles. It was the first and only only time that England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland qualified for the same World Cup. Very notable was the fact that Scotland topped a qualification group that included Spain and Switzerland. A fine achievement I think we can all agree.

Northern Ireland topped a group including Italy and Portugal and became the least populous country to have qualified for the World Cup, a record that stood until Trinidad & Tobago qualified for the 2006 World Cup. It was therefore a time of great triumph for the British Isles teams but alas the Republic of Ireland was nowhere to be found.

Where was the Republic of Ireland in all of this you might ask? England had narrowly qualified over the Republic by two points so Northern Ireland were the great green hope for fans of the Irish game. They did not disappoint.

Picture the excitement. Northern Ireland, just over ten years after FIFA restricted her to selecting players from the six counties of Ireland had qualified for a World Cup. The first Irish team ever at a tournament of this stature. A tournament that would see the début of a small pacey striker from Brazil named Pele.

A tournament that would see France’s Just Fontaine score 13 goals. Oh yes this was a tournament for only the best that football had to offer. How could Northern Ireland fare? She was drawn into a group with West Germany, Czechoslovakia and Argentina. A group of death if ever there was one. Northern Ireland’s opening match saw them come up against a highly fancied Czechoslovakian side at Halmstad in Sweden with commentators fearing the worst for the Irish.

Luckily for Northern Ireland she had all of Halmstad shouting for her. Northern Ireland had ‘adopted’ a local Swedish boy named Bengt Jonasson ,who was the son of a local industrialist in Halmstad, to act as a runner for the team. Jonasson did everything from passing on messages within the Northern Irish camp to translating for the Northern Irish trainer, Gerry Morgan.

Such was the affection held for Jonasson within the team that he referred to Gerry Morgan as Uncle Gerry. Apart from the fun that the local Jonasson brought to the team, he also whipped up support for Northern Ireland amongst the locals, something they would need against Czechoslovakia.

For Northern Ireland manager, Peter Doherty and captain Danny Blanchflower this meant that the match against Czechoslovakia was in effect a home match. Not a bad thing. Yet despite the home support, Northern Ireland had problems to face, some of them quite serious.

1958 was the year of the Munich Air Disaster, that saw the tragic death of 23 passengers, many of them squad or staff members of Manchester United. Before the globalization of football that we now know, English football teams were made up primarily with players from the British Isles. Northern Ireland was also affected by Munich.

Peter Doherty had to cope with the loss of Jackie Blanchflower, the younger brother of Northern Irish captain Danny Blanchflower, who was injured in the Manchester United air crash. Jackie was a decisive and dangerous inside-forward for club and country.

Although he made a recovery from Munich, he never played football again. The loss of Jackie for club and country was huge and left a hole in Doherty’s team. But Doherty’s selection issues did not end there. He also had to deal with the injury of Rangers centre-forward Billy Simpson who had pulled a muscle in training and was ruled out of the tournament.

How could Doherty react to the loss of two talented forwards? A lesser man would have thrown in the towel. Luckily for Northern Ireland Doherty saw something that no one else could. Through some divine inspiration the idea came to Doherty to switch Leicester City full back Willie Cunningham to the No.5 spot in order to draft a young and relatively green Derek Dougan to centre-forward.

Would Doherty’s gamble pay off? Yes. Dougan proved to be a terror for Czechoslovakia throughout the match. Coupled with Dougan’s sterling performance, Northern Ireland’s goalkeeper Harry Gregg, the ‘hero of Munich’ gave a performance worthy of the Goalkeeper of the World Cup Award that he would receive come the end of the tournament.

Czechoslovakia tested Gregg again and again but found no luck. The opening ten minutes saw wave after wave of Czechoslovakian attacks being foiled by the man between the sticks. Gregg later acknowledge that had Czechoslovakia scored during this time, it may have been the end of Northern Ireland’s World Cup campaign.

But we know that Czechoslovakia didn’t score. In fact we know that Northern Ireland did something very few people expected. They took charge of the game, and spurred on by the home fans, they gave Czechoslovakia an almighty barrage of attacks.

Midway through the first half, Peter McParland, who would go on to score five goals in the tournament, set Halmstad alight when he cut through the Czechoslovakia defence with a penetrating cross that was met by Wilbur Cush, who duly headed it into the back of the Czechoslovakian goal.

Not content to sit back, Northern Ireland went in for the kill, throwing players forward again and again with no concern for a Czechoslovakian counter attack. At times, Northern Ireland lived on the edge as the Czech’s had some near chances, but come the ninety minute mark Northern Ireland stood victorious. One-Nil. The great green hopes had not disappointed.

Surely a fluke? A flash in the pan, a footballing anomaly. This was the thought and writings of many contemporaries of that time. It soon appeared that the naysayers were correct. Northern Ireland’s next match after Czechoslovakia, saw them outclassed by an Argentinian team for ninety minutes.

The damage? Argentina 3-1 Northern Ireland. Fans of Irish football dreaded Northern Ireland’s final match against West Germany. West Germany  had won the World Cup in 1954 and still retained many of its ’54 champions. People held out little hope for Northern Ireland. Luckily Northern Ireland didn’t listen to the doubters. Channelling the spirit of ‘Big Nev’ who told us:

“If you don’t believe you can win, there is no point in getting out of bed at the end of the day”

Northern Ireland put up a stiff challenge to the West Germans. McParland came into his own, terrorizing West Germany throughout the match. They couldn’t contain him as McParland scored twice to stun the West Germans. Northern Ireland were surprising even themselves. West Germany, however, never gave up and soon fought back. The match ended 2-2. A fine result for Northern Ireland and one that provided the Irish with a chance, no matter how small, of progressing further in the tournament.

Northern Ireland’s draw with West Germany meant the Irish would face Czechoslovakia once more in a play-off match to determine who would progress from the group. This time the Irish couldn’t rely on the support of its Halmstad’s faithful as the match was held in Malmo, a 140 mile round trip from Halmstad. Northern Ireland’s players were labelled as outsiders by football ‘experts’ who dismissed them as somehow by the grace of God punching above their weight.

Initially it appeared that the critics were right. 17 minutes into the match, the Czechs, still enraged from the opening day defeat to Northern Ireland, seemed to have enacted their payback when outside left Zednek Zikan put the ball in the Northern Irish net. Matters got worse for Northern Ireland soon after when goalkeeper, Norman Uprichard twisted his ankle and later smashed his hand against the post.

Northern Ireland had no replacement keepers available as first choice goalie Gregg had been ruled out prior to the match. Northern Ireland had to continue with an injured keeper guarding the nets. Hope of an Irish comeback seemed misplaced yet Northern Ireland knew something that others didn’t however.

They knew the ability and resilience they held. Two minutes before the break, Northern Ireland stunned the Czechs once more thanks to a stunning strike from none other than McParland to draw the match level. The second half was a nervy affair in which both teams pressed and found no answer. The match ended 1-1 and extra time loomed for both sides.

Imagine the tension. Northern Ireland playing in her first ever World Cup and within touching distance of the quarter-finals. Spurred on by the chance at glory, Northern Ireland became unstoppable. Ten minutes into the first half of extra time, McParland solidified his place in the hearts of Irish fans when he volleyed the ball past Czech goalkeeper Imrich Stacho.

The Irish pressed on. It almost looked like Northern Ireland would run away with the match at one point when Bertie Peacock had a goal ruled for offside. The Czechs were rattled and matters worsened for them when Bubonic was sent off for spitting at the referee.

The tension lasted throughout the game, and only ended when the sweet sound of the referee’s whistle signalled Northern Ireland’s progression into the quarter-finals. Northern Ireland had reached the quarter-finals of the FIFA World Cup, a feat she repeated in Spain ’82 but it was all the more sweeter in ’58. Northern Ireland’s début in the tournament had shocked the footballing world. It was nothing short of incredible.

Northern Ireland went into the quarter-finals against Just Fontaine’s France hoping to progress even further.  This time the critics begrudgingly admitted Northern Ireland were a formidable side. People just couldn’t predict the score.

Ultimately the Irish seemed tired from their courageous efforts against the Czechs. France proved to be the stronger outfit and ran out 4-0 winners but this mattered little. Northern Ireland had shown the world what a team from Ireland could do.

Northern Ireland’s dream run ended in the quarter-finals. Hopes were high in 1958 following the tournament but fans of Irish football would have to wait until 1982 to see another Irish team grace FIFA’s World Cup. In the interim though, both Northern Ireland and the Republic pulled off some great upsets, stunning some of football’s biggest teams.

Join us next week as we examine some of the greatest victories in Irish football. You’ll no doubt have heard of some, forgotten of others and never heard of the rest. Either way you’re in for a treat and it’s only available here at Pundit Arena.

Conor Heffernan, Pundit Arena.

Featured image by PRESSENS BILD/SCANPIX/ARKIV ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


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Author: The PA Team

This article was written by a member of The PA Team.