10 Greatest Games no.4: Northern Ireland 1 Scotland 0

September 1, 2007

Published: Happy Days Issue 8

Ten Greatest NI matches. No.4
21/10/1967 Belfast; Attendance 55,000
Northern Ireland 1 Scotland 0 (ECQ/HIC)

When Stan Mortensen scored a hat trick in the 1953 FA Cup Final he could be forgiven for being a little miffed that it was dubbed ‘The Stanley Matthews Final.” In the same way, Dave Clements winning goal against the Scots in 1967 has been overshadowed by the performance of the man who provided the assist; El Beatle himself, George Best. The game has become known as his greatest ever performance in the green shirt and stories of the day have been well recounted through the years.

There is little doubt that George Best was a huge name. A year after destroying Benfica in the 5-1 demolition in the European quarter final, he was a huge revenue generator for the Irish FA. For the game against Scotland, the crowd was three times larger than it had been at the previous home game against Wales where Best wasn’t playing. Despite having the 21 year old talent in their team, Northern Ireland resumed the role of underdogs, against a Scottish team fresh from defeating World Champions England, and boasting a strong line up including Denis Law, Ian Ure and Tommy Gemmill. Gemmill is seen as arguably one of the greatest British full backs of all time, and just 6 months previously had helped Celtic become the first British team to win the European Cup. When faced with the genius of Best however, he was painfully embarrassed as George would twist and turn, ‘nutmegging’ the full back and then gallop back to tease him again. Best’s performance that day was mesmerising, on an arena that resembled more of a quagmire than a football pitch, gaining credit from the Scottish press the following day.

There were 22 players on the pitch, but the vast majority seemed to be spectators, Gemmell in particular sitting on the field for much of the game. Debutants for Ireland Billy McKeag and Billy Campbell might have spent the night previous dreaming of a perfect performance, but they were merely pawns along with their teammates as Best battled with Scotland and Celtic goalkeeper Ronnie Simpson who excelled in goal, matching everything that Best could throw at him. The same could not be said of his defence however, who longed for the final whistle and the torture to end. Best would pop up everywhere, taking on defenders who tried to bring him down by any means possible but his exquisite balance shone through, all the time heading either for goal, or for Gemmell. Never has such an individual performance been witnessed, tearing apart the Scots, twisting their blood and shattering self-belief.

The goal finally came in the 67th minute. As the Scottish defence flocked to the immediate danger that was Best, he played the ball into Dave Clements in space, and he finished the move from within the penalty area. It was no more than was deserved, Simpson finally beaten after his heroics. The goal gave Billy Bingham a win in his first match as manager, a fact that has been glossed over in recent years. There was no doubt that the glory and limelight belonged to the ‘Belfast Boy’. The joy he gave the people of Northern Ireland had never been encapsulated as much as it was that day, in what has rightly become known as ‘The George Best Match’

Team: P. Jennings, W. McKeag, J. Parke, A. Stewart, T. Neill, D. Clements, W. Campbell, J. Crossan, D. Dougan, J. Nicholson, G. Best


Northern Ireland v Everton: What’s the point?

July 14, 2007

Published: Happy Days Issue 8

Northern Ireland v Everton – What’s the point?

So, half an Everton team beat a Northern Ireland side featuring four regular squad players in a match where neither set of players were at full fitness levels. What did anyone learn from this? For David Moyes, it was a chance to assess how his young players cope playing with seasoned first teamers and to further his players’ progress towards match fitness; but those who turned out for the Northern Ireland ‘select’ could easily have done that with the clubs that employ them. For Nigel Worthington, cleverly disguised as Roy Millar, he will have picked up very little from watching this drab 90 minutes that he couldn’t have found out from you or me.

Irish League players can’t cut it at International level. Sure in days gone by there were exceptions, but can you really convince me that Peter Thompson or Gary Hamilton have set the International stage alight? The only one who can claim to have made and impact in Europe in recent years is Glenn Ferguson, but I’m not sure being banned from Prague is quite what we’re looking for. Oval hero Hamilton was back for this match to show that he is more suited to the ‘big fish-small pond’ scenario. Alongside him was Kevin Braniff, showing good upper body strength and aerial ability, but demonstrating the main indication of his Irish League status, that is the ‘first touch syndrome’. That six Irish league players took part, along with a string of players from the lower English and Scottish leagues who were all captained by the unemployed Stephen Lomas pretty much sums up the quality on show. This was dubbed a showpiece match and had the players featured in the match programme squad lists turned up it would have been. But they didn’t so it wasn’t.

Now far be it for me to be pessimistic and condemning against a Milk Cup committee who persuaded the Irish FA that this would be a good idea. That they also persuaded me to purchase a ticket at £18 so that I could watch my childhood heroes Sean Webb and Sammy Morrow deserves credit also. As a marketing ploy (and I see it as little else) this was a financial success. The committee played the 25th anniversary card spot on. If half the Everton squad turned up to my 25th Anniversary I’d be reasonably happy although I’d be keeping an eye on the thirst and antics of Shandy van der Meyde. However, as much of a success as it was for the Milk Cup and its ego, it was equally a waste of time for Nigel Worthington. How many of these players changed the manager’s mind about whether or not they deserve a full cap? Dean Holden said he would walk from Falkirk to Windsor for the chance – Thing is Dean, so would I. And I’m crap. Holden played well, along with several other players including Keith O’Hara, but did they really show enough to say I deserve to play against Denmark, Spain, Sweden? I doubt it.

Now perhaps I’m mellowing as I get older, but I thought Ciaran Toner actually looked the part. He not only looked energetic and committed, but showed glimpses of quality in his passing and movement, particularly when he moved from right flank into the centre. There you go – A positive. It’s the only one I can find from an otherwise pointless affair.

Liechtenstein 1 Northern Ireland 4 (Match Report)

March 24, 2007

Published: Happy Days Issue 8

Liechtenstein 1 Northern Ireland 4

Northern Ireland came away from Vaduz with a convincing result despite giving not an altogether convincing performance. However, to return from a competitive away match having scored four goals without playing particularly well is a fantastic achievement. Add to that the fact that Northern Ireland never do particularly well under the label of favourites, and this scoreline was as important as it was flattering.

It was David Healy inevitably who was to be the star of the show, becoming the first Northern Irish player to score two hat tricks for his country. And whilst the same prestige may not be attached to this hat trick as to his previous one against Spain, there is no doubting the quality of his finishes. The record breaking talisman took his goals calmly and with accuracy that led Sanchez to declare him a “world class finisher”

Liechtenstein were confident on the ball and stroked it around crisply and succinctly in a way that former Northern Ireland captain Danny Blanchflower – a great ambassador for the passing game – would have been thrilled to witness. As a team they played with their heads held high, always looking for the attractive short pass rather than the ambitious long ball that the visitors preferred. A nervy first half was endured with Healy and Davis trying to see how dubious Peter Jehle was with some ambitious long range efforts. Rather than rattle him however, it seemed to help his confidence as he clawed away a goalbound Keith Gillespie shot at full stretch in what was Northern Ireland’s best effort in a fruitless first half; compounded by Chris Brunt’s inability to deliver any threatening set pieces. Indeed it was the home team who could have stole the lead at the end of the first period, when FC Basle’s Franz Burgmeier headed over from a Mario Frick cross when well placed. It was Frick who was the danger man for the home side, but a lack of quality and awareness from his team-mates meant that his menacing crosses were to no avail.

It took Northern Ireland just seven minutes of the second half to take the lead and calm the nerves of the majority away following. A mistake in the home midfield saw the ball fall kindly for Damien Johnson who fed Kyle Lafferty. A poor attempt on goal from the Burnley striker was quickly forgotten as the ball broke to Healy who slotted it into the empty net. Liechtenstein continued to press and a combination of Frick’s skill and Maik Taylor’s handling on a couple of occasions showed that this was not over yet. Healy eased Sanchez’s worries however, when on 75 minutes Gillespie showed a bit of pace and quality and knocked the ball forward for him, whose first touch took him onto his right foot before sending a reverse shot past the stranded Jehle. As Liechtenstein continued to press forward with their admirable style of football they got caught in possession on 82 minutes when a visionary pass from Steve Davis sent through Healy for his third, slotted coolly through Jehle’s legs.

Liechtenstein got their reward for their perseverance with the strike of the match; Burgmeier cutting in on his right foot and sending a sweet curling shot past Taylor from 18 yards. However it was the away fans who had the final cheer, when the impressive Gillespie sent a cross over from the right wing which was met beautifully by the head of the onrushing Grant McCann. All in all, there wasn’t a lot between these two sides, bar a little bit of quality in the green shirts, and an unforgiving Killyleagh finisher.

Liverpool and Northern Ireland: Quality over Quantity

February 16, 2007

Published: StateOfTheGame.co.uk, 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

Manchester United and Northern Ireland: A Special Bond

January 5, 2007

Published: Happy Days Issue 8 and StateOfTheGame.co.uk, 5th January 2007, http://stateofthegame.co.uk/2007/01/05/manchester-united-and-northern-ireland-a-special-bond/

At the beginning of last year, while visiting a friend in Manchester I decided to make the most of the opportunity and head down to Old Trafford. Manchester United is a club steeped in history, and the on-site museum ensured that I was reminded of this. The Munich air crash of 1958 followed by European success ten years later, the troublesome seventies and the Fergie Era. The stories which had been written on the football field were being treasured and told to a younger generation some 50 feet away. However the one display that dominated the ground floor of the club museum was a tribute to the then recently deceased George Best. It served as a poignant reminder of a Northern Ireland connection with arguably the most famous club in the world. Indeed a glance at the museum’s International honours list shows an impressive number of players who have represented both the Red Devils and Northern Ireland. No club can boast more Ulster representatives than the Manchester outfit.
Whilst George Best is undoubtedly the most recognisable link, no fewer than 28 players have appeared in both the Red and Green shirts, notching up over 750 caps between them. Recognisable names like Best, Sammy McIlroy and Jimmy Nicholl jump out from the engraved list. History makers too such as John Peden who scored Ireland’s first hat trick and Norman Whiteside who became the youngest ever player to appear in a World Cup in 1982. Survivors of the Munich disaster, Harry Gregg and Jackie Blanchflower are names held in high esteem on both sides of the Irish Sea. The crash ended Blanchflower’s career and Gregg became a named associated with courage, although the big Coleraine man is quick to stifle any attempts to label him a hero. It is true he should be remembered for his performances between the sticks, yet many people seek to define him through what he did that night on the runway.

Recent years too have seen Irishmen emerging from the home dressing room at the Theatre of Dreams. Keith Gillespie and David Healy may not have featured highly in Alex Ferguson’s plans but their pedigree upbringing has benefited the national team immensely. The same cannot be said of Pat McGibbon and Phil Mulryne who never lived up to their youthful potential. The former finds himself back home in the Irish League with Portadown and the latter who is reaching the supposed peak years of his career has yet to find a club for the 2006/07 season. Roy Carroll did make a name for himself at Old Trafford, although unfortunately it was more due to some high profile mistakes rather than his shot stopping ability. He remains however, the only Ulsterman to have won a Premiership medal.
And the future for both club and country is bright. Whilst Derry born Darron Gibson has opted to play for the Republic, Jonny Evans has the opportunity to prove to Ferguson he has every right to be involved in the first team if he performs well under another Irishman, Roy Keane, at Sunderland. His younger brother Corey and Craig Cathcart who are also on United’s books, are two more names that might just be engraved in that honours list someday. As long as Northern Ireland keep producing, and Manchester keeps nurturing, there will always be a special relationship between the two, and some successful teams as well.