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