Northern Ireland excelled themselves in the world finals in Sweden in 1958 after it nearly went all very wrong in the opening match


Picture the scene.

Northern Ireland are getting into their stride in their crucial opening match of the 1958 World Cup finals in Halmstad, Sweden – and then this happens…

Opponents Czechoslovakia have started at a rush. ‘They bombed us for about ten, 15 minutes,’ Peter McParland, Northern Ireland’s left winger that day, says, ‘but it didn’t help that our little left half, Bertie Peacock of Celtic, got on to Harry Gregg, our goalkeeper, for not coming off his line to take a ball that had come across the goalmouth.

‘Bertie was the next-door neighbour to Harry where he was born in Ireland but this did not stop Harry from taking offence and running after Bertie.

‘Meanwhile their outside right’s got the ball. I’d come across to stop him from getting a cross in, holding him out on the wing, but behind me Harry’s still running after Bertie to give him a punch and Alfie McMichael, our left back, is shouting, “Get back in the goal, Harry.”

‘Luckily they did not score. If they had they might have destroyed our World Cup.’

As it was, Northern Ireland won 1-0 and went all the way to the quarter-finals after beating the Czechs again, 2-1, in a play-off.

It was an extraordinary feat by the Irish who had put out former world champions Italy in qualifying and then been drawn in the ‘group of death’ in the finals in Sweden. World Cup holders West Germany and the 1957 South American champions Argentina were the other two teams in the group.

Danny Blanchflower’s astute leadership and McParland’s goals – he scored five of the team’s tally of six – were the foundations of Northern Ireland’s achievement.

McParland is the first to admit that Blanchflower deserved most of the credit. ‘We had four or five players who could play in midfield,’ McParland says, ‘and Danny would set it all up, crowding the middle of the park when necessary, but also getting players forward at the right time.’

For their five matches in those 1958 finals, which were crammed into twelve days in three different cities, the Northern Ireland players each received £250. ‘Subject to tax’, McParland points out, with feeling.


This is an edited extract from When Footballers Were Skint by Jon Henderson / @hendojonpublished by Biteback Publishing and now out in paperback