The recent World Cup 2022 qualifying campaign saw Northern Ireland and Italy meet in the same group. It was only the second time the two have met each other in World Cup qualifying, prompting memories of the first time. A game which was infamously known as the â€˜Battle of Belfastâ€™.
The circumstances surrounding this occasion were bizarre, yet not completely out of character with international football of the time.
The two countries were pitted against each other in qualifying for the World Cup in Sweden 1958. Back then only 27 countries entered the European section, equally split into nine groups of three. Italy had won the World Cup twice by that stage (1934 & 1938) and were considered the strongest in the group, despite not reaching their pre-War status. Portugal was the other team in the group and neither they nor Northern Ireland had ever competed in a finals tournament before.
The Irish drew in Lisbon and beat the Portuguese easily at Windsor Park. Their trip to Rome saw them lose by a solitary goal. When the Italians were soundly beaten in Lisbon they were bottom of the group. With only one side to qualify, Italy arrived in Belfast in December 1957 knowing a win was a must. Victory for the Irish would mean Portugal would have to win in Rome a fortnight later, to stop them reaching their first ever World Cup.
The build-up to the game was causing great excitement throughout Belfast and was eagerly anticipated.
Italy boasted among their ranks, Juan â€˜Pepeâ€™ Schiaffino who won the World Cup with Uruguay in 1950. Born in Montevideo, he later qualified to play for Italy through his paternal grandfather. Schiaffino is regarded as one of Uruguayâ€™s greatest ever players.
Schiaffino had converted to Italy from 1954 and in 1957 he was joined by one of the most famous Uruguayans & South Americans of all-time. Chico Ghiggia was the man who stunned over 170,000 in the Maracana when he scored the winning goal to lift the World Cup for Uruguay against Brazil in 1950.
Up front with Schiaffino was Gastone Bean, whoâ€™d just won the Scudetto with Milan. Italy were captained by Sergio Cervato, one of five Fiorentina players in the side whoâ€™d won the Scudetto for the first time a year earlier. Guido Gratton, Armando Segato, Miguel Montuori and Giuseppe Chiappella being the other four. All except Chiapella were in the side which reached the European Cup Final in May 1957.
Northern Ireland were managed by Peter Doherty. His playing career had seen him at Manchester City and Blackpool before WWII. After the War he won the FA Cup with Derby County before moving to Huddersfield and Doncaster Rovers. He was player-manager at Doncaster and this brought him to the attention of the Irish FA, appointing him to the national team in 1951.
In the Irish side were the Blanchflower brothers, Danny and Jackie. Future manager Billy Bingham and Irish legends, Jimmy McIlroy and Peter McParland. McParland was the first player to score in and win both English major domestic cup finals. McIlroy considered one of Burnleyâ€™s greatest players.
In goal they had Harry Gregg. As an 18-year old Gregg had been brought to England by Doherty to play for Doncaster. December 1957 would see him make the move to Manchester United where legendary status would soon come his way.
Despite the strength of the Italiansâ€™ reputation, they wouldnâ€™t have relished the meeting at Windsor Park. Theyâ€™d only beaten their opponents by an early goal from Cervato in Rome. The Irish had then gone on to beat Portugal, 3-0 before beating England at Wembley for the first time in May 1957. Against a side containing Billy Wright, Duncan Edwards and Johnny Haynes, goals from Jimmy McIlroy, Sam McCrory and Billy Simpson gave the Irish a famous win.
As the excitement around the city was growing, so was the fog. So much so that the refereeâ€™s flight from London was delayed. Istvan Zsolt, a Hungarian who had refereed at 1954 World Cup. He would later take charge of Englandâ€™s opening match against Uruguay at Wembley in 1966.
Zsolt was manager of the Budapest Opera House and had made it from Budapest to London but his flight to Belfast was not going to take off until the fog lifted.
Anticipating this, the Irish FA put English referee, Arthur Ellis, on standby. Ellis had been a linesman at the Maracana in 1950, as well as reffing the â€˜Battle of Berneâ€™ in 1954. TV audiences in the 1970â€™s will know him from the cult classic show, â€˜Itâ€™s a Knockoutâ€™.
Ellis was to make his way to Stranraer then get a ferry to Belfast. Bear in mind there were no mobile phones or email in those days and getting messages to people took time. Ellis missed his chance to get there in time.
The Irish offered a local official but the Italians declined. FIFA then poked their noses in
A meeting was held at the Old Midland Hotel and a compromise reached. The match was to be downgraded to a friendly, with the qualifying tie a re-scheduled a month later.
40,000 people packed into Windsor Park and the first any of them knew of the refereeing issues was once they were in the ground & an announcement came over the tannoy. Thousands of shipyard workers had been given the afternoon off. They were less than impressed. They were expecting a World Cup tie, yet now they were only going to see a meaningless friendly.
When the two teams took to the pitch the abuse from the stands started. It was paused during the national anthem, but when the Italian anthem was played it started up again.
There was a horrible atmosphere around the place and it soon translated to the players. Within minutes of the kick-off, Giuseppe Chiapella lumped crowd favourite Danny Blanchflower. Then Schiaffino smacked Wilbur Cush.
After spending ten years at Glentoran, Cush had just signed for Leeds United. Blanchflower, sensing trouble, quietly told Cush to ignore it and get on with the game.
Cush nodded. Then minutes later he caught the Uruguayan/Italian with a fierce challenge.
Years later, Billy Bingham recalled the incident to The Daily Mail
â€œSchiaffino chose the wrong man in Cush.â€
â€œWilbur was a very underrated player. Heâ€™d just joined Leeds, but he was a local. Ultra-competitive, raw, tough.â€
Italian midfielder, Rino Ferrario who played his football with Inter, pleaded with Blanchflower to keep the peace. But within minutes he too was overcome with rage as he kicked those around him at a corner.
Ferrario had form. In a match against Hungary in Budapest in 1955 his confrontation with local hero, Kocsis, nearly started a riot.
When Napoli keeper, Ottavio Bugatti, lay on the ground after diving at Peter McParlandâ€™s feet, Chiapella lost it. He jumped two footed into the small of Billy McAdamâ€™s back.
Eventually a game broke out. After 24 minutes Ghiggia gave the visitors the lead. Cush equalised within three minutes. Early in the second half, Montuori put Italy back in front. But once again Cush got the home side back level.
The game ended 2-2 but that wasnâ€™t the end of the trouble.
At the final whistle the crowd poured onto the pitch and started attacking some of the Italian players.
â€œWindsor Park had an auraâ€, Bingham explained.
â€œIâ€™d worked in the shipyard myself. The crowd was partial to begin with. Then it got worse. The Italians went crackers, really nasty.â€
â€œAt the end the fans came on to the pitch. It was certainly dangerous, Iâ€™d have to say that. We were full of trepidation about that happening and we took the Italian players off ourselves to keep people away.â€
â€œThereâ€™s a tunnel at Windsor and we got the Italians to it. They got to their dressing room safely. Then some people tried to gate-crash it.â€
The Italians managed to leave the country without further incident. But when they touched down at home they were booed off the plane.
The team recovered to beat Portugal three weeks later at the San Siro. Two weeks into January and they were back at Windsor Park for the World Cup tie with the Irish.
â€œWe thought January would be another nasty affair,â€ recalled Jimmy McIlroy to the Daily Mail.
â€œBut it was placid. They had a man sent off but no-one knew why.â€
Another big crowd packed into Windsor Park but this time they were far more amiable. The win over Portugal now meant a draw was enough for the Italians.
This time Istvan Zsolt was able to make the game. He sent Ghiggia off, for no apparent reason. Jimmy McIlroy put the home side in front inside the opening quarter of an hour. Just before the half-hour, Cush made it 2-0 and the Irish went into the break in buoyant mood.
Italy had made a couple of changes from the first meeting, and Romaâ€™s Dino Da Costa was making his debut. Five minutes into the second half he scored.
But the Italians couldnâ€™t find an equaliser and poor Da Costa never pulled on an Italian jersey again. Northern Ireland won 2-1 and had secured their very first World Cup Finals birth.
Little Northern Ireland had beaten two-time World Champions, Italy.
The game signalled a general slump in the Italian sideâ€™s fortunes as they didnâ€™t win another match for two years.
Fate can be a fickle thing and none of us know whatâ€™s going to happen in our lives. For Irish keeper, Harry Gregg, the re-arrangement of the tie with Italy was particularly poignant, though he didnâ€™t know it at the time.
With the tie still to be settled, FIFA decided to exclude both countries from the draw to discover an opponent for Israel in qualifying.
Israel had emerged from the Africa/Asia section as qualifiers but had not kicked a ball in anger. After a load of withdrawals and refusals to play them, they were the only team left. FIFA couldnâ€™t sanction this so they decided to put all the runners-up from the other Confederation groups into a hat. Wales was drawn out and the two-legged play-off was concluded on 5th February 1958.
Had Northern Ireland been pulled out of the hat itâ€™s likely Harry Gregg wouldâ€™ve been selected to play in goal for his country. On the same night his club, Manchester United was involved in their European Cup tie against Red Star Belgrade.
As the team flew back home their plane crashed on the runway in Munich. Gregg became an instant hero.
He pulled his manager, Matt Busby and teammates, Bobby Charlton, Jackie Blanchflower and Dennis Viollet from the burning plane. He helped Vera Lukic, the pregnant wife of a Yugoslav diplomat and her two-year old daughter from the plane too.
Tragically, 23 people died as a result of the crash.
In contrast the Welsh team which played Israel that night, were managed by Busbyâ€™s assistant manager, Jimmy Murphy. So, he wasnâ€™t on the plane and was able to take charge of the team in the aftermath as Busby and some of the players recovered.
An example of how life can be so precious.
For Northern Ireland they were off to Sweden where they performed with great distinction. Cush scored the only goal of the game to beat Czechoslovakia. Peter McParland scored in a defeat to Argentina, and then hit two more in a 2-2 draw with holders, West Germany. They were then obligated to take on the Czechs again, in a play-off. McParland was again on target with both goals in a 2-1 win.
Their wonderful adventure ended in NorrkÃ¶ping where they were well beaten by the French in the Quarter-Finals.
Northern Ireland had finally come of age. Of course thereâ€™s a nice link with further appearances in the finals when Bingham was manager in 1982 & 1986.