BY FERGUS DOWD
Sixteen teams from three confederations qualified for the 1958 World Cup finals; included in that number were Northern Ireland. The provinceâ€™s first World Cup, managed by the great Peter Doherty, featured names like Gregg, Bingham, McIlroy and McParland.
After the 1994 tournament Jack Charlton â€“ the former Newcastle United and Republic of Ireland manager â€“ gave voice to the thought ‘that the most attacking player on a pitch is a full back’.
In 1958 two adopted Geordies occupied those roles for Northern Ireland: Dick Keith and Alf McMichael.
Keith had arrived at St. Jamesâ€™ Park from Linfield F.C. two years earlier for a fee of Â£8,000 with a further Â£1,000 in the kitty for Linfield once he had played a certain amount of games.
At Linfield Keith made his debut aged 17 and was Ulster player of the year in 1956 attracting the attention of the Magpies, then in the English First Division. He was recommended to the club by McMichael and was made club captain in 1962 where he would make a total of 223 appearances.
Alf McMichael began his career as an amateur with Cliftonville F.C. and then became a professional, like Keith, at Linfield F.C where he achieved both league and cup success in 1947/48 and 1948/49.
He then joined Newcastle United for Â£11,500 and went on to make 433 appearances in the famous black and white shirt.
The early 1950s saw Newcastle win back to back FA Cup finals with legendary number nine Jackie Milburn scoring twice in the 1951 final against Blackpool. McMichael starred at full back for the Geordies as they disposed of Arsenal (1-0) to retain the trophy the following year.
McMichael captained both club and country and he was considered one of the best full backs of his era.
In the summer of 1958 both Keith and McMichael had the world at their feet as they boarded the plane for Sweden. The pair were inseparable for club and country and roomed together whilst on international duty.
Northern Ireland’s qualifying for the tournament had not gone without incident, however.
Italy came to Belfast in 1957 searching for a single point that would take them to Sweden; the Hungarian referee Istvan Zolt found himself fogbound at an airport in London due to catch a flight to Belfast after coming from Budapest.
The IFA tried to replace him with English referee Arthur Ellis; and in a last gasp effort a local referee, but the Italian FA declined.
FIFA then declared the match would go ahead but as a friendly with the qualifier to be re-staged a month later. In the first game both boots and fists flew in front of a partisan Windsor Park crowd who were not best pleased by FIFA’s decision. The game ended in a 2-2 draw.
The decider a month later saw Northern Ireland edge out the Italians 2-1 with Wilbur Cush and Jimmy McIlroy netting for the North. And so it was the green of Northern Ireland had booked their ticket for Sweden.
Keith and McMichael and the Northern Ireland team began their adventure against Czechoslovakia in the port of Halmstad on the west coast of Sweden.
The game didn’t go to script with the whole of Halmstad behind them. Northern Ireland struck first as Peter McParland found Cush with a cross that was duly headed into the back of the Czech net.
Argentina provided the opposition in the second match where the North were outclassed 3-1. This meant they went into the final group game against West Germany requiring a positive result.
Keith, McMichael and the whole Northern Ireland team rose to the occasion with a 2-2 draw against the Germans; McParland was again the star, scoring twice. This meant Northern Ireland would play the Czechs in a play-off for the right to play in a World Cup quarter-final.
In a tetchy affair the Czechs opened the scoring when Zednek Zikan struck after 18 minutes of play.
Extra time loomed after McParland equalised and he cemented himself into the countryâ€™s football history books even further when he scored the winner with a superb volley.
Northern Ireland found themselves in the quarter-finals of the World Cup with â€˜onlyâ€™ Just Fontaine’s France in their way. Sadly, the Irish â€“ tired from their efforts against the Czechs â€“ were hammered 4-0 and so for Keith and McMichael the adventure ended.
McMichael went on to manage South Shields after hanging up his boots and eventually returned home to manage local side Bangor in Northern Ireland.
Keith later went on to play for Bournemouth and eventually left league football behind joining non-league Weymouth. Whilst working for a builderâ€™s merchant in February 1967 he was dismantling an automatic garage door when he was struck on the head by a spring-loaded cantilever. The blow was fatal, fracturing his skull. Richard ‘Dick’ Matthewson Keith died at the tender age of 33.
The World Cup of 1958 may be most remembered for the skills of a teenage boy from Brazil, but for the men of Ulster it will always be the spirit of ’58 that shone through.