Liverpool and Northern Ireland: Quality over Quantity

February 16, 2007

Published:, 16th February 2007

When Jim Magilton was a trainee at Anfield, it was hoped that the boy would be able to break into the first team. Instead he found himself transferred to Oxford, having been as close as any Ulsterman to turn out for the Reds since the 1930s. It is now over 70 years since a Northern Irish International has played a senior game for Liverpool, and the prestige of playing for both belongs to only three men. However what Liverpool may have lacked in quantity, they made up for in quality.

Billy Lacey was no stranger to success. A member of Liverpool’s title winning teams of 1922 and 1923, he was also an integral part of the 1914 British Championship team. It was the first time the honour had come to Belfast, and it didn’t return until a Noel Brotherston goal against Wales in 1980 saw Billy Bingham’s men lift the trophy. Born in Co. Wexford at a time when the Irish FA could select any player from the whole island, Lacey went on to win 23 caps, scoring 3 times. He didn’t represent the FAI until the ripe old age of 37, and remains their oldest player to make a debut and their oldest player of all time on his last appearance, aged 41.
A tricky winger, he made 230 league appearances for Liverpool after his transfer from local rivals Everton. Not renowned for his goal-scoring ability, scoring only 18 league goals, he clearly had an affinity with the FA Cup, scoring 11 times in just 28 matches. Lacey left for New Brighton in 1924, leaving behind his international colleague, Elisha Scott, arguably the greatest goalkeeper to play for the Reds. Joining Liverpool in 1912, he remains the longest serving player in their history, playing for over 20 years. His ability cannot be questioned, nor should it be forgotten. One contemporary reporter wrote of him; “He has the eye of an eagle, the swift movement of a panther when flinging himself at a shot and the clutch of a vice when gripping the ball.” He was held in high esteem by the Kopites, and in 1924 when he pulled off a spectacular save against Blackburn, one supporter ran onto the pitch to kiss him! He had a good friendship with record breaking Dixie Dean, who was a great goal-scorer for Everton. Their battles on the pitch were great spectacles and well anticipated, much like the great Ian Wright versus Peter Schmeichel contests of the late 90s. One story tells of Scott and Dean meeting each other in town one day. When Dean nodded to Scott in acknowledgment, Scott dived through a shop window to save the imaginary ball! After leaving Liverpool he returned to Belfast as player manager of Belfast Celtic, and was in charge of their farewell tour in America in 1953, where they famously beat Scotland – A feat the international team of that time couldn’t achieve.

Aghadowey-born Sam English completes the trio of connections. Having scored 44 goals in the 1931/32 season for Glasgow Rangers, a club record which is still held today, he left Scottish football after a freak accident with Celtic goalkeeper Johnny Thomson which left the latter dead. Hounded out by opposition fans who refused to recognise his innocence, the centre forward joined Liverpool in August 1933, and went onto score 26 goals in 50 appearances. His goal ratio carried through to international football, being capped twice by the Irish FA and scoring once, against Wales.

Next time you find yourself on a plane to Liverpool; don’t expect to be travelling with some local footballers, ready to make their mark at Anfield. Somehow, I don’t think Rafa Benitez is planning on using his Dubai investment to send some scouts over to Linfield versus Limavady. Apparently the Spanish don’t like Windsor Park . . .


10 greatest matches no. 5 Northern Ireland 1 Yugoslavia 0

February 1, 2007

Published: Happy Days Issue 7

Ten Greatest NI Matches. No.5
16/04/1975 Belfast; Attendance: 25,847
Northern Ireland 1- 0 Yugoslavia (ECQ)

Belfast has never had a great reputation at the best of times, but at the height of the Troubles in the early 1970s it was particularly negative. So much so, that for four years international opponents didn’t appear at Windsor Park, and Northern Ireland were forced to play their ‘home’ games up and down the mainland at grounds like Highfield Road and Goodison Park. Incredibly, in Terry Neill’s three year reign as player-manager his team only played at Windsor Park once; a 1-1 draw against the Soviet Union in October 1971 which proved to be the last international match in Belfast for almost four years. It was a depressing reminder of the situation at home, so when the Yugoslavian FA casually agreed to fulfill the fixture it was greeted with great cheer as well as relief that some sense of normality would be restored.

An early 5pm kick off was arranged to minimize the number of intoxicated spectators as well as facilitating the poor floodlights. As the Yugoslavian players emerged they were greeted with a huge roar of approval from an emotional and appreciative crowd, who were touched by the enormity of the gesture. Northern Ireland fielded a full strength team. Indeed, nine of the starting eleven hold places in the 30 most capped Irish internationals of all time, and three have managed the national side. The match itself began as a predictably cagey affair, although Northern Ireland dominated proceedings against a strong Slavic team. Complimenting now player-manager Dave Clements was Martin O’Neill, instrumental in the middle of the park. Here was a player who had improved greatly since his debut in that match against the Soviets some four years previously. It was a shame that the fans had missed witnessing the development of players like O’Neill and the mesmerizing skill of favorite son George Best. Another honorable performance was put in by debutant Derek Spence, who was playing above his third division status and causing the experienced Yugoslavian defence plenty of problems.

With the team keen to impress and show the home crowd what they had been missing, they were creating plenty of chances which were either fluffed or saved by the in-form Ljupko Petrovic. The solitary goal belied the classy nature of the performance, a scrappy left foot shot from Bryan Hamilton greeted by a huge cheer from the Spion Kop. The relief and joy were tangible, for a crowd which had waited nearly four years for a home goal.

Sammy McIlroy – who knows all about goal droughts – was on the receiving end of some more Slavic hospitality. Going down with cramp in the Yugoslav penalty area, play continued without the trainer being allowed on as at that time it wasn’t convention to kick the ball out of play. With the match continuing at the other end of the pitch, Petrovic came out of his goal to help McIlroy stretch. It was that kind of day.

The game itself may not have been a great spectacle, but the significance was far reaching. In the years following, only neighbours Scotland refused to play in ‘unsafe Belfast’ in 1976. It is a decision which still holds bitterness amongst some Northern Ireland supporters, although it is speculated that the IFA did not object too much with the prospect of increased revenue from a ‘home’ game at Hampden. How teams like England, Portugal and Spain would love to use politics as an excuse nowadays to avoid the wrath of Windsor.

Team: P. Jennings, P. Rice, S. Nelson, A. Hunter, C.Nicholl, D. Clements, B. Hamilton, M. O’Neill, D. Spence, S. McIlroy, T. Jackson

Ten Greatest Matches No.1 Northern Ireland 7 Wales 0

February 1, 2007

Published: Happy Days issue 7

10 Greatest matches

Over the next few issues of HD, I will be looking at matches which Northern Ireland have played down the years which have helped define us as a footballing nation. Picking the ten greatest matches that Northern Ireland have been involved in isn’t an easy task. Defining greatness in itself is not easy. Entertainment is important, but so to is significance, so for this reason I have not included any ‘International Friendly’ games. The recent games which form the ‘Wednesday nights in September’ series have been overlooked as enough has been written about them in past HD issues. After much deliberation, here is the final ten

1. Wales 1930 (7-0)
2. England 1947 (2-2)
3. West Germany 1958 (2-2)
4. Scotland 1967 (1-0)
5. Yugoslavia 1975 (1-0)
6. Netherlands 1976 (2-2)
7. Spain 1982 (1-0)
8. West Germany 1982 and 1983 (1-0, 1-0)
9. England 1985 (0-0)
10. Austria 1995 (5-3)

Ten Greatest NI matches. No.1
1/2/1930 Belfast
Northern Ireland 7 Wales 0

Northern Ireland’s biggest ever win came against a Wales team who were enjoying arguably the most successful period in their history. Between 1920 and 1937 they won the Home Internationals Championship no fewer than seven times outright, no mean achievement considering the usual dominance of England and Scotland. However the 1929/1930 was to prove to be a disastrous campaign for the Welsh. Having already shipped four goals to Scotland and six to England, they may have arrived in Belfast looking to salvage some pride as the two traditionally weaker teams in the championship battled to lose the ‘wooden spoon’ tag. However, it was the Irish team that went home with their pride and a winning margin which remains unsurpassed to this day, slamming in seven goals against Wrexham goalkeeper Dick Finnegan who was never to play for his country again. The scoreline was all the more remarkable considering the Irish team featured three debutants, namely goalkeeper Alf Gardiner, James McCambridge and Jack ‘Soldier’ Jones. For Jones, international appearances were a family tradition. His brother Sam, uncles Sam and Joe Burnison and brother-in-law Billy Mitchell all turned out for Ireland. Only the Feeney family can claim such strong family ties with senior Irish representation.

The hero of the day was Linfield striker Joe Bambrick. Thought to have scored around 1000 goals in his 15 year career, he notched an unprecedented double hat-trick against the Welsh. Whilst captain Andy McCluggage scored the other goal, the day belonged to Bambrick in his greatest hour in a green shirt. His six goals in one match stood as a record in the championships until their conclusion in 1984. Such was his feat, that a week later a local soft drinks producer marketed a beverage called ‘Joe Six’ to mark his achievement. Indeed, he scored a total of 94 goals in the 1929/1930 season including all of the goals in Linfield’s 4-3 victory over Ballymena United to clench the Irish Cup Final. Over the course of his 11 caps, he managed an impressive 12 goals coining the phrase, “Head, Heel or Toe, Slip it to Joe.”

Team: A Gardiner, A. McCluggage, R.P. Fulton, W. McCleery, J. Jones, T. Sloan, R.J. Chambers, R.W.M. Rowley, J. Bambrick, J. McCambridge, J. Mahood