Wednesday 17 January 2018

Northern Ireland provided a football fairytale in 1958

Alan Aherne

'Spirit Of '58 - The Incredible Untold Story Of Northern Ireland's Greatest Football Team
'Spirit Of '58 - The Incredible Untold Story Of Northern Ireland's Greatest Football Team

It's almost upon us; whether you're an avid football fan, someone with a 'take it or leave it' approach, or even a non-sports lover, it will be impossible to avoid the impact of Euro 2016 between Friday's opener featuring hosts France and Romania, and the tournament final on July 10.

Book review

Of course, we have a direct interest in this particular competition, albeit without the presence of our own favourite footballing son, Kevin Doyle, whose international career sadly appears to be over.

Nonetheless, with the Republic of Ireland actively involved, the nation will be gripped by football fever for the next month.

And just to make it that little bit extra special, the presence of Northern Ireland, England and Wales will add even more spice to proceedings around these parts.

Books of all shapes and sizes have been published to mark the occasion, and one which grabbed my attention was 'Spirit Of '58 - The Incredible Untold Story Of Northern Ireland's Greatest Football Team', written by Evan Marshall after he produced and directed an acclaimed television documentary on the same topic.

Many of us will recall the Northern Ireland team which reached the World Cup quarter-finals in 1982, with Gerry Armstrong getting a famous goal against Spain along the way.

However, what I certainly didn't realise at that time was that team manager Billy Bingham and his assistant, Bertie Peacock, had been been key men 24 years earlier when they also reached the last eight in the world in the most unlikely of circumstances in Sweden.

This book explains exactly how it all came about, with the country's football fortunes transformed under the expert tutelage of Peter Doherty who doubled up as manager of Doncaster Rovers during the early years of his time in charge of Northern Ireland.

He had been a gifted player, so good in fact that many rate him as second only to George Best in the list of all-time greats to thrill the Windsor Park faithful down through the years.

And while it was a slow process with a number of heavy home international defeats along the way, Doherty pulled off the great feat of getting Northern Ireland to the World Cup when they emerged from a three-team group also featuring Portugal and Italy.

Unlike today when unfashionable clubs like Fleetwood Town, Notts County and MK Dons have players on Michael O'Neill's squad, Doherty gradually shaped an eleven featuring footballers at the peak of their powers in the old English First Division.

Among them were Danny Blanchflower, Spurs' future double-winning captain of 1961; Peter McParland, whose two goals had earned Aston Villa the FA Cup in 1957; Jimmy McIlroy, a key part of Burnley's best-ever team; and agile goalkeeper Harry Gregg who survived the Munich air disaster and managed to line out in Sweden later that same year.

This is a heart-warming tale of what can be achieved when team spirit and togetherness is at its peak. Northern Ireland had a trainer-cum-joker named Gerry Morgan who bonded the players together, and they also adopted a young Swedish fan named Bengt Jonasson as their mascot.

A bungling IFA didn't help their cause in terms of tournament arrangements, but they undoubtedly punched above their weight before France ended the dream of an injury-ravaged side.

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