Northern Ireland in Sweden
by Ronnie Hanna
Reviewed by Robbie Meredith
From WSC 263 January 2009
The team that made it to the quarter-finals of the 1958 World Cup have served as a sustaining cliche in Northern Irish football. We’re perennial underdogs, so the story goes, and “our wee country”, although comparatively short of players and facilities, can occasionally roll our sleeves up and battle to victory over superior teams who just can’t match our collective warrior spirit, just like the boys of ’58.
Yet, as Ronnie Hanna reveals in his fondly written story, this interpretation blends fiction with fact. Yes, Northern Ireland was the smallest country to enter the competition, but the squad contained unprecedented quality. Harry Gregg, who journeyed to the finals by ferry rather than fly so soon after the Munich air disaster, was arguably the best keeper in Britain at the time, while Jimmy McIlroy inspired Burnley to a championship and vied with Stanley Matthews as the English League’s most creative forward. There were serial medal-winners such as Bertie Peacock of Celtic and Peter McParland of Aston Villa, as well as Sunderland’s Billy Bingham and a young Derek Dougan. In 1957 they beat England at Wembley and qualified for the finals by finishing ahead of Italy and Portugal in a three-team group.
Captain was the orator-intellectual Danny Blanchflower, while they were managed by Peter Doherty, an innovative figure who gave work with the ball primacy in training, against the conventions of the era. These were hardened football men, used to success, and the fact that they progressed to the quarter-finals from a group containing West Germany, Argentina and Czechoslovakia is not as surprising as it first appears.
Hanna is an unashamed nostalgist, making clear his distaste for the corrosive effect of money in the modern game, and he writes in a style redolent of an earlier time, describing Stalin and Churchill as “two of the wartime big-three”. Yet his portrait of a footballing era is a compelling one. Arsène Wenger and Alex Ferguson would certainly approve of the precedence given to club football then – two of the players only arrived at the finals a few days before the opening game as they were on a Newcastle end-of-season tour – while the team were almost pulled from the tournament by the Irish Football Association, which didn’t allow football on a Sunday.
This is one of the few acknowledgments of the darker side of post-war football in the book, but Hanna’s declared aim to tell a story “to quicken the pulse and gladden the heart” is understandable. For the most part he succeeds.