Should Northern Ireland once again pick some players from domestic football? Davy Millar thinks so and fondly remembers the few given a chance
Even while the domestic scene has struggled and the best school-age players have been hoovered up by English clubs, there is an underlying belief among Northern Ireland supporters that things would be better if only there were a few Irish League names in the national squad. To the outsider, handing out international jerseys to players who have failed to attract the interest of even the lowliest Third Division club might seem a rash move but at least the local players can be guaranteed to bring a more robust attitude than is usual at this level. After all, none of us watching Spain string 87 passes together could help being thrilled by the idea of the move breaking down courtesy of an Irish League boot coming into contact with Gaizka Mendieta’s genitalia.
Such fleeting encounters between highly paid superstar and irritable part-timer are known as Rafferty moments, in honour of an ex-Linfield defender whose first touch in international football, against England in 1979, is fondly remembered here. One moment Trevor Francis is attempting to control a pass on the halfway line, the next he’s a crumpled heap in the mud while Peter Rafferty points the referee in the direction of the ball smashing into the back of the stands in a successful attempt to avoid a booking. This uncanny ability to get just enough of the ball to fool a referee deserved exposure, however briefly, to a wider audience than the Irish League could provide.
This style of play probably explains why, although they’ve all dipped into the domestic scene, Northern Ireland managers have rarely selected defenders from our local teams, perhaps feeling it’s unfair to expose them to a higher standard of officiating than they’re used to. Instead, it’s been midfielders and strikers who have received the call-up as we seek to end our latest goal drought, with the occasional goalkeeper pitched in for light relief. We even took four part-timers to Spain for the 1982 World Cup where, ironically, the biggest story concerned the sole member of the quartet who didn’t even get to sit on the bench.
Glentoran’s Johnny Jameson was very good at speeding down the right wing, though once he’d reached the dead-ball line, all bets were off. Nevertheless, faced with the need to beat France to grab a semi-final place, Billy Bingham decided that he’d be useful in putting pressure on a full-back who liked going forward. It came as a surprise to the manager when Jameson refused to play as the match was on a Sunday and he was a born-again Christian, something which he’d conveniently forgotten to mention beforehand. Bingham was astonished that any player would voluntarily pass up the opportunity to take part in such an important game, but the winger stood firm against the pleas and the threats and was never picked again.
It didn’t put Bingham off the idea of Irish League wingers, though; in the run-up to Mexico 86, he handed a couple of substitute appearances to Linfield’s Mark Caughey, who was almost as quick as Jameson and twice as erratic. Caughey failed to make the World Cup squad but was able to give up his job in the Royal Ulster Constabulary when he signed for Hibs, a transfer which took place to the backdrop of much giggling at Windsor Park where many were convinced that the Scottish club had meant to sign free-scoring Martin McGaughey. The centre-forward, who also won an international cap, had more reason to curse the similarity in the two names when he was later kidnapped by the Irish Republican Army, who took some persuading that their intended victim wasn’t that cop who used to play for Linfield.
McGaughey’s sole cap had come in a 1984 friendly against Israel and like more or less every other local striker we’ve tried, he failed to score, though his Linfield colleague Lee Doherty did get the third in a 3-0 win. Of course, even full-time professionals struggle to score for Northern lreland, but for the local heroes, the step up in class has been a dispiriting experience. Coleraine’s Dessie Dickson, whose accent was so impenetrable that he could spin the old “my wife doesn’t understand me” line in all honesty, was a lost soul in a green jersey, while Glentoran’s Gerry Mullan was all too easily seduced by the glamour of a niggling feud with someone he’d only ever seen on TV before. More recently, Linfield’s Glenn Ferguson looked the part for a couple of games until he went for an early morning jog with some team-mates, a run which started in a Prague strip club and ended in a police cell.
That 1984 visit of Israel was a high point for the Irish League, with four representatives on the pitch, a goal for Doherty and a truly classy performance from Glentoran’s Jim Cleary. Only one of the quartet, however, got another chance: even then, Linfield’s George Dunlop had to wait until the great goalkeeping crisis of the late 1980s propelled him back into the limelight. His last cap came in a World Cup qualifier in Dublin, where he was denounced by some of the southern media for showing contempt for the Republic’s anthem. Others pointed out that his only alternative to jumping up and down during The Soldier’s Song was to pass out with nerves.
The demand for local players to get their chance continues and the financial problems in English football, coupled with increased involvement in youth development by domestic clubs, may see an increase in Irish League representation as young players find that they can launch a career with a local side. Great players from the past like Danny Blanchflower and Martin O’Neill used to come through our clubs before English financial muscle cornered the market and we might now be seeing a return to those days.
In the meantime, with Spain due back in a few months, Sammy McIlroy should be considering the merits of the local lads. They won’t invent convenient injuries to withdraw from the squad, they will give their all for the team and they won’t mind forming a wall for hours while the professionals practise free-kick routines. We’re probably going to lose anyway, so why not go down in an entertaining manner, taking a few highly paid stars with us?
From WSC 193 March 2003. What was happening this month