As Northern Ireland prepare for their first Euros, a new book reveals the heroic exploits of their first World Cup in 1958. Peter Doyle meets its author, Evan Marshall.
A football team rises from relative obscurity and overcomes massive odds to achieve international acclaim.
No, not Leicester – this is the remarkable story of how little Northern Ireland came within one match of facing Brazil, Pelé and all, at the semi-finals of the 1958 World Cup.
As Michael O’Neill’s men prepare for their first Euros, a new book, Spirit of ’58, sheds light on how the country reached the last eight in Sweden 58 years ago.
Author Evan Marshall has previously made a documentary about the side that shocked world football by reaching the quarter-finals at their first-ever finals.
But Marshall believed their heroic exploits – which also included facing down threats from zealots inside the Irish Football Association (IFA) – also merited a book.
His inside story reveals how some in the IFA tried to prevent the team from travelling to Sweden over fears they would play on the Sabbath.
As Marshall explains: ‘Reading the newspaper reports from the time, I thought, ‘My God, this is even more crazy than I thought. There’s so much more to tell about this story’.
‘In the end they come up with a compromise, which is ‘you can go and play in the World Cup on a Sunday but it must never happen again’.’
‘Essentially they were saying you can never enter the World Cup again. That’s insane.’
Marshall firmly believes the ’58 vintage was Northern Ireland’s finest, outshining the class of 1982 who qualified from the group stages in Spain, and the side that played four years later in Mexico.
It’s a bold claim.
But Marshall is taking into consideration the Munich Air Disaster, ‘when the squad really began to show their mettle’.
‘Northern Ireland had two players involved in the Munich air tragedy. Goalkeeper Harry Gregg is one of only two who walk out that aircraft. He plays a game a few weeks later and continues to play all season.’
‘But the other is Jackie Blanchflower, one of Northern Ireland’s very best players. He never plays again because he’s so injured. And that’s four months before the World Cup. And he’s the brother of Northern Ireland captain, Danny Blanchflower. But the Northern Ireland team pick themselves up and overcome that disaster. When you see the context of these things, the story of ’58 just becomes even more incredible…’
Written off as the whipping boys of international football, Northern Ireland had not been expected to join Scotland, Wales and England at the finals in Sweden.
‘Northern Ireland were the joke team of the home nations. In 1949 they lost 8-2 to Scotland, the very next month they lost 9-2 to England,’ says Marshall.
But the country’s fortunes changed after the arrival of manager Peter Doherty and the emergence of the legendary Danny Blanchflower.
‘These two men decided to rewrite the rule book,’ outlines Marshall. ‘They said, ‘We’re going to do things differently from now on’’.
With greater emphasis on teamwork and allowing players to actually train with the ball for the first time, things were certainly different – as twice world champions Italy discovered when they lost a bruising World Cup play-off in Belfast 2-1 to the home side in January 1958.
Reigning Copa America holders Argentina, one of the favourites to lift that year’s Jules Rimet trophy, later became unlikely scalps in Sweden.
‘Argentina had destroyed everyone in the Copa America the year before, beating teams 6-0 and 8-0. They had beaten Brazil 3-0. Northern Ireland had sent them home bottom of the group,’ adds Marshall.
And just when Northern Ireland thought their luck had run out against highly rated Czechoslovakia, ‘one-legged, one-armed’ reserve goalkeeper Norman Uprichard conjures up the performance of his life after tearing his ankle ligaments and breaking a hand to earn a precious point and help his side qualify from the group stages.
In the foreword to the Spirit of ’58, current boss O’Neill says the 2016 squad hope to create a similar legacy ‘to be handed down to another generation’.
So could Northern Ireland cause a shock in France this summer?
As Marshall concludes, ‘No one expected Northern Ireland to do anything in Spain. No one expected them to do anything in Sweden. Maybe we’ll surprise people in France as well’.
Spirit of ’58 by Evan Marshall. See www.blackstaffpress.com for details.