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Tuesday, 17 May 2016


Spirit of ‘58
The Incredible Untold Story of Northern Ireland’s Greatest Football Team
By Evan Marshall
Blackstaff Press 2016

In the summer of 1958 tiny Northern Ireland stood just one game away from a semi-final appearance in the World Cup against mighty Brazil. Led by their brilliant manager, Peter Doherty, and captained by the inspirational Danny Blanchflower, the team had triumphed against all odds, blazing a trail through the qualifying rounds and battling through their opening matches to claim their place on the world stage.

I have never been a football fan but I have always been fascinated by heroic stories, especially where apparent no-hopers find the guts, determination and luck to win against all the odds. Growing up in Belfast in the late 1950s and 1960s, it was impossible not to be fascinated by famous people from my city - actors, singers, poets et al, and, of course, footballers. The earliest source of fascination with football was Danny Blanchflower and whilst I never saw him play, he was often on television talking about his sport. I detected from the comments of admirers and experts that very clearly he was someone special. In later years, I more than appreciated George Best too. But it was Blanchflower’s name, unusual and distinctive, that helped me to file him in my head forever as a great Northern Irishman. He is one of the main stars of Spirit of ’58 by Evan Marshall, a superb book, expanding on his documentary film on the same subject, a minor team’s amazing World Cup journey.

Peter Doherty (“Peter the Great”), as manager, was given the task of building a competitive Northern Ireland team for international tournaments. He was a well-respected man. He played the game and he knew the game. He was mindful of skills and tactics and more than aware that it was the players, well-chosen for a mix of abilities, the coaching and the team spirit that would take them on a sometimes bumpy road to a delicious taste of glory. He was appointed in 1951 and what happened between then and the 1958 World Cup is stirring stuff.

Northern Ireland had become known for some spectacular score line defeats but Doherty, with seemingly endless supplies of patience, planned and analysed each game, win, lose or draw, to pick out tactical and player strengths and identify areas for improvement. Guts and grit did not always result in glory but over time the team ingredients came together slowly but surely. A relatively benign but honest Northern Irish press gave moral support in the main, with the Belfast Telegraph’s Malcolm Brodie especially critical when necessary but also praiseworthy when deserved. Danny Blanchflower’s intelligent reading of the game added much to Doherty’s campaign to succeed. Individual players including Harry Gregg and Billy Bingham were enjoying varying degrees of success at club level across the water and they all had considerable contributions to make to the national team’s efforts.

“By the summer of 1957, the Northern Ireland team had matured into a cohesive unit, boasting players of talent and skill. The football cards swapped in playgrounds featured the faces of many Northern Ireland players. They weren’t makeweights any more, they were genuine stars supported by a second rank of solid performers.”

It was a tough journey indeed and a brilliant chapter on a Northern Ireland v Italy game – The Battle of Windsor (Park) – illustrates how brutal, uncompromising and ugly football could become as a referee problem, a demotion of the match’s status, an angry crowd and violent tension on the field combined to produce the unfriendliest friendly imaginable. Fortunately, such cauldron-like atmospheres were rare. It’s a great piece of writing. There were different but nonetheless other disruptive shenanigans surrounding a ban on Northern Ireland playing games on Sundays. Staggering as this sounds today, church organisations wielded great powers about what could and couldn’t happen on the Sabbath. There was even a danger that Sunday restrictions on playing football would have meant that the national team might have been forced to withdraw from the World Cup. Fortunately, some sense prevailed and the journey continued.

The awful tragedy of the Munich air disaster in February 1958 claimed twenty-three lives. Twenty-one people survived including two Manchester United and Northern Ireland players, Harry Gregg and Jackie Blanchflower. Sadly, Blanchflower’s injuries were career-ending but Gregg somehow found the resolve to carry on. Through injuries, hurdles, Irish Football Association organisational ineptitude and tragedy, Peter Doherty and the entire squad stayed focused, continuing to develop a happy-go-lucky, hard-working team that was still regarded by some as jokers in the pack. The 1958 World Cup games saw Northern Ireland beat Italy, draw with Wales, beat Czechoslovakia twice, lose to Argentina, draw with West Germany and finally lose four nil to France in a quarter-final match.

The match against France was one step away from Northern Ireland playing Brazil in the World Cup semi-final. The brilliant Peter Doherty selected his team from a comparatively small squad (my quotes from across the book): Harry Gregg (“superbly talented and athletic”); Dick Keith (“a key figure”) ; Alf McMichael (“veteran of the pre-Doherty side”); Danny Blanchflower (“quick wit and intelligence, a manager on the pitch”); Willie Cunningham (“naturally a right back”); Wilbur Cush (“dominant in the air”); Billy Bingham (“speedy legs and gifted feet”); Tommy Casey (“toughness on the field”); Jimmy McIlroy (“a thinking man’s footballer”); Peter McParland (“everything that a manager wanted”); and Jackie Scott drafted in from Grimsby Town. Danny Blanchflower reflected that travel tiredness and injuries played a huge part in the loss “not the sour grapes of a bad loser. We had practically no chance even before the teams kicked off.” Nevertheless, it was an outstanding run.

As I said earlier, I have never been a football fan but Evan Marshall has written an excellent book with universal appeal that is well-researched, detailed, thrilling, emotional and a fine tribute to everyone involved in the 1958 campaign. The descriptions of matches are written beautifully, capturing the excitement, the highs and lows, the frustrations and emotions and the sheer gruelling toughness required to compete in such a tournament. It is a human story, a heroic story and a historically significant episode in Northern Irish sport. Rather like Northern Ireland’s 1958 World Cup record, this book is a magnificent achievement.

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