It didn’t begin very well for Northern Irish international football. Their first ever game was a 13-0 loss to England. However, Northern Ireland are not a team to take things lying down. They are strong, passionate and determined. They are a very proud nation and that pride is echoed on the football pitch and in the stands at their home at Windsor Park in Belfast. They boast one of the best goal-keepers the game has seen in Pat Jennings, and also one of the greatest players "full stop" in the one and only George Best. Not the Republic of Ireland and not England, Northern Ireland are very much a force of their own and, increasingly over the last ten years, a force to be reckoned with.
To go into the ins and outs of the entire history of the divide of Ireland, why, how and when, would turn this into a history and politics lesson. Let’s keep it all about the football. What is important is that before 1921, the entire island was part of the United Kingdom and that island had the one football team. They selected players and staff from all over the island. What we now know as Northern Ireland came when the country split in 1922 and southern Ireland became The Irish Free State, which is now called The Republic of Ireland.
When the country split, the team in the north became the Irish Football Association and they could pick players from the whole of the island. In 1926, another team was established in Dublin, which had to look for Irish descendants throughout Europe for their squad. Finally in 1954 the borders seemed more defined (on the map at least) and so Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland were born in every sense of the word, other than just football.
It was an explosive start to world football for the newly named Northern Ireland. In their first World Cup in 1958 in Sweden, they beat Czechoslovakia in the play-offs to get to the quarter finals where they would face France. Although they lost to the French they were the smallest nation not only to ever reach the World Cup tournaments but also to reach the last eight, the latter of which still stands as a record to this day. The world suddenly sat up and paid attention to the boys they call the Green and White Army.
Northern Ireland reached the 1982 World Cup finals, this time in Spain, where once again the small nation reached the quarter finals. Under their manager, Billy Bingham, who had managed Northern Ireland in the late 1960s and had returned to the job from club football managing, they produced the biggest upset of the tournament, when they beat the host nation Spain in the second round play-offs, which certainly meant the world paid more attention to them.
Their players were rich with ambition and vitality and none more so than the youngest ever player in a World Cup finals, Norman Whiteside, who was 17 years and 41 days old when he played for his nation, younger than Pelé before him.
Off the back of this success, Northern Ireland then qualified for the next World Cup in 1986, held in Mexico, but faced a very tough group indeed with the likes of Brazil and Spain, the latter who were no doubt out to wreak revenge for being knocked out four years previously.
Better out the limelight
As it currently stands, Northern Ireland haven’t yet qualified for the European Championships, although they have often produced some notorious matches during the qualifying stages. In the qualification stages for the hotly anticipated Euro ’96 tournament, which was to be held in England, Northern Ireland were put up against their old rivals, the Republic of Ireland. The group finished with the two Irish teams level on points, but the Republic went through on goal difference…of only one goal.
They have been successful in the British Home Championships though, which is no longer held. They won the title in 1984, although they only actually beat Scotland in the tournament, as it was decided on goal difference when every nation finished on three points. This would be the last time the tournament was played though, so some could say they are still the champions of Britain.
In qualifying matches Northern Ireland have frequently shone. They seem to be the team that can often cause major upsets for teams when they least expect and need it. In Sept 2005 they celebrated one of their most successful victories when they beat a very strong England side at Windsor Park in Belfast, in a World Cup qualifying game. The then Leeds United striker, David Healy, scored a mesmeric goal to win the game 1-0 and deflate an England side that were hotly anticipated to go on and reach the latter stages of the World Cup finals.
Another similar qualifying victory for the Northern Irish was a year later in Sept 2006, when they beat their old nemesis Spain 3-2, in a qualifier for the Euro 2008. Golden boy, David Healy, scored a hat-trick, the first Northern Irishman to do so since Gerogie Best strutted his stuff. Healy has gone down in history as one of the most potent strikers the nation has ever had. In the Euro 2008 qualifiers he scored 13 of the 15 goals (at the last count) and that figure is bound to rise. He signed for Fulham in 2007 and has made his mark on the Premier League, just as comfortably as in international games.
Home sweet home
Northern Ireland’s home is Windsor Park in Belfast. It was built in 1905 and has been the nation’s home since it opened. As well as being their home ground, it is also that of Linfield FC, who are one of the most dominant forces in the Irish Premier League, which is a semi-professional league for Northern Ireland, currently ranked 46th in the UEFA league rankings.
Northern Ireland have played many famous matches at Windsor Park and none more so than the victory over England in 2005. However, following an inspection in 2007, the ground was passed as unfit to stage home international games as the capacity had been reduced to only 9,000 seats.
Plans have been put forward by the Irish Football Association (IFA) to build a new multi sports stadium near Lisburn on the site of the former terrorist prison, The Maze. Although passed by the IFA, the fans are not as happy about the idea. They prefer to remain in Belfast and at a smaller and more exclusive-to-football stadium. It might be something to do with the chosen site too and what it means to Northern Ireland.
There have been problems with the fans in the past that stem from sectarianism and some players, including former captain Neil Lennon, have not only been booed from the stands but have received death threats by certain Loyalist members of the fans. More recently though, the fans have been much more supportive and united.
Following the often mentioned England win in 2005, their pride and confidence have gone through the roof and this can now be heard in the songs sung at Windsor Park. For their efforts and loyalty, in 2006 Northern Ireland supporters were given the Brussels International Supporters Award for ironing out all the creases from days gone by. ‘Our Wee Country’ is the name of the group of fans that lead the charge.
Great players over the years
There have been some notably outstanding ambassadors for the Northern Irish game over the years. Pat Jennings, Danny Blanchflower, Terry Neill, Pat Rice, George Best, Neil Lennon, Jim Magilton, Martin O’Neill, Jimmy Quinn, Norman Whiteside, Gerry Armstrong are but a few.
Pat Jennings’ debut was as a fresh-faced 18 year old lad while he was playing for Watford. He went on to play numerous times for his nation in the late 70s and 80s and was the goal keeper during their two World Cup campaigns in 1982 and 1986.
Martin O’Neill played in midfield for his nation 64 times and scored 8 goals. He captained the team that famously beat Spain in Valencia in 1982. He has since become one of the most successful and skilled managers in the UK and has had notable success with Leicester City, Celtic and Aston Villa, but has yet to manage his own nation.
Then there’s Gerry Armstrong, who played up front for The Green and White Army and scored 12 goals in 63 games during the 70s and 80s. He also played a vital part in those World Cups. He is now seen on TV as a pundit.
Danny Blanchflower was a rock for Northern Ireland and a vital part of their team in the fifties and sixties. He played 56 games in defence for his nation and was the captain of the side that reached the quarter finals of the World Cup in 1958 as well as the captain of the formidable Tottenham Hotspur side in the early sixties. Danny’s brother Jackie was an international player with him too but sadly for Jackie he retired from the game aged only 24, following the tragic Manchester United Munich air disaster in 1958.
More than any other player though, George Best stands out as the jewel in the crown for Northern Ireland’s football history. When he was playing in Belfast aged 15, a telegram was sent to the manager of Manchester United, Matt Busby, by one of his scouts saying, I think I’ve found you a genius. Best would play 37 games for his beloved Northern Ireland between 1964 and 1978 and score 9 goals in total.
Best didn’t play his football at a time when Northern Ireland boasted their ‘best’ team though and so he didn’t achieve a great deal of success with his nation. When he was 36, and playing his football in the USA, he wasn’t chosen by the manager Billy Bingham to play in the World Cup 1982 as he was way beyond his prime and physical fitness. This used to be a crucial part of his game, although you’d never suspect it from all the partying back then. Best was always in favour of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland having a united national football team, in the same way they do in rugby. The jury is still out on that issue.
Best’s spell in a Northern Irish shirt could be said to represent perfectly what Northern Ireland’s international success and campaigns have been like. They have often boasted some outstanding players but then often this hasn’t been quite the same for the rest of the squad. Being part of the United Kingdom, people often forget their size and the lack of players in any great number to select from, in comparison to Scotland and England.
They are certainly not ones to give up though and their recent Euro 2008 campaign has proved their desires and capabilities for success. It might take time, it might take a certain collection of players, it might take a certain manager, but it feels as though one day Northern Ireland will be a force to be reckoned with.