Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Big Match



My interest in football, and particularly the constitution of the modern game, ended a long long time ago with the exception of Matthew Le Tissier's career at Southampton. It probably was shortly after the 1986 Mexico World Cup finals and the Bradford and Heysel disasters I would imagine.

In many respects of course the radical changes affecting the culture of football and its grounding in the British working class - as exemplified by the BBC's The Football Men documentaries on Jock Stein, Matt Busby and Bill Shankly - prefigured and predated other historic sea changes to come as regards our national economic base and social dislocation.

That said my ongoing interest in the game of the Sixties, Seventies and early Eighties is undimmed. The literature available on the subject is often of an extraordinarily high quality with some excellent reads in the past year including Duncan Hamilton's As Long As You Don't Kiss Me biography of Brian Clough, Rob Bachi's The Unforgiven: The Story of Don Revie's Leeds United, Rob Steen's The Mavericks (looking at the respective careers of Tony Currie, Peter Osgood, Alan Hudson, Frank Worthington, Stan Bowles and Charlie George), Paul McGuigan and Paolo Hewitt's The Best Player You Never Saw - The Robin Friday Story , Gordon Burn's comparison of the careers of Duncan Edwards and George Best and Flower of Scotland: A Scottish Football Odyssey by Archie MacPherson.

All reflective of times long gone and never to return as the pictures of Crystal Palace manager Malcolm Allison with Seventies British sex legend Fiona Richmond topless in a communal bath would clearly suggest.

When visiting Derry for the first time last year I saw the Brandywell stadium near the Bogside from the walls of the old city. Derry City football club were founded in 1928 and won the Irish League title in 1964-65. Because of the scale of civil disorder in the city the club was forced to play home fixtures from 1971 thirty miles away in Coleraine. The Irish League insisted on the continuance of this arrangement, despite recommendations from the security forces otherwise, and Derry City left the Northern Ireland football league in October 1972. They now play in the Irish Republic's League of Ireland.

The mighty Belfast Celtic, the major team from Catholic West Belfast and formed in 1891, had left the Irish League in 1949 after a crowd assault on Protestant player Jimmy Jones during a derby match against Linfield on Boxing Day 1949 at Windsor Park. Belfast Celtic had won 14 Irish League championships and today a shopping centre stands on the site of Celtic Park. My late grandfather was a Linfield fan and often talked about the talents of Derry City and Belfast Celtic - the dissolution of the latter being widely regarded as a chronic loss for the game of football on the island of Ireland.

I remember many nights at Windsor Park myself during the extraordinary run of success the Northern Ireland international side had during the Eighties. A striking memory of that period for no doubt many fans was the fantastic Tottenham Hotspur and Blackburn Rovers winger Noel Brotherston and his balding pate. Brotherston played in the match against Israel which secured Northern Ireland's place in the 1982 World Cup Finals and earlier scored the winning goal against Wales in 1980 to take the British Home International Championship to Belfast for the first time.

The 1980-81 home internationals remained unfinished because of trouble in Northern Ireland relating to the Maze hunger strikes. England and Wales refused to travel to Belfast and thus the championship was declared void. Northern Ireland won the final tournament in 1983-84 and therefore remain the British champions - Noel Brotherston from Dundonald on the outskirts of Belfast tragically died of a heart attack at the age of only 38 in 1995.

The greatest memory of those glory nights at Windsor was without doubt the 1-0 victory over West Germany in November 1982 during the European Championship qualifiers - that 1984 tournament standing between Northern Ireland's appearances at the 1982 World Cup finals in Spain and 1986 in Mexico. Ian Stewart of Queens Park Rangers scored the only goal that cold rainswept night while Manchester United's Norman Whiteside hit the winner at the return match in Hamburg one year later - two of the most extraordinary results in British international football history.

My two main recollections of the victory in Belfast were the crowd reaction to the goal which no doubt was heard on Pluto that evening and the chants directed against the opposition goalkeeper throughout - "Schumacher - Schumacher - You're a wanker - You're a wanker!!" In the final table Northern Ireland failed to reach the finals on goal difference to West Germany.

George Best had played his last international match at Windsor Park on 12th October 1977 in a 1-0 defeat by Holland. One of the public tributes made after his death by one fan recalls international matches at Windsor in the Sixties where he watched "the old men in the flat caps and grey coats" watching genuine moments of pure fleeting magic in their unrelentingly tough and hard lives in industrial northern Britain.

Although there was serious talk of Billy Bingham recalling Best to the squad for the 1982 World Cup finals it may well be fortuitous that that did not come to pass and we are left instead with the extraordinary historical counterfactuals of a Northern Ireland team reaching the 1966 and 1970 finals in England and Mexico with Best at his peak.

The road to the 1966 finals came to grief off the back of a draw with Albania in November 1965 where the considerate hosts put on a trip to a mental home to relax the visitors prior to the game in Tirana. Best missed the match against the USSR in Russia in late 1969 which ended Northern Ireland's campaign for the 1970 finals - their first stage opponents there would have been Mexico, Belgium and El Salvador and in another world George Best could have played against the host country in the opening match of one of the greatest football tournaments in history.

It is colour footage from the earlier 10th September 1969 match at Windsor Park against the USSR - one month after the outbreak of serious civil disorder in Belfast and Derry and with a tense and strained atmosphere inside the ground - which is often shown to this day in slow motion to maximise the rare genius of Best. As an exceptional obituary by Sean O'Hagan noted: "Football as poetry. And pop. And a kind of perfection, fleeting and breathtaking. Football, George Best style."

Youtube also has footage available of the May 1971 Home International tie where, alongside the famous goalmouth incident with Gordon Banks, Best openly teases Arsenal defender Peter Storey to take the ball off him to the delighted roars of thousands of home fans.

There is a lovely story in a Danny Blanchflower autobiography of the first Northern Ireland World Cup campaign in Sweden in 1958. The squad were based in Tysoland near Halmstad for their training and a 13-year old local boy Bengt Jonasson became the team's unofficial mascot and traveled on the team bus to matches, interpreted and attended civic receptions with the squad.

When Northern Ireland left the competition after defeat by France during the quarter-finals Jonasson attended the farewell dinner where he linked hands with Blanchflower and his hero Harry Gregg to sing Auld Lyne Syne. As he was so physically upset when the team left Stockholm to return home the players, officials and reporters paid for him to visit Belfast where he saw his adopted team - so often referred to as "Ireland" in those days even in the chanting of supporters in vintage footage - play England at Windsor Park.

Manchester United goalkeeper Harry Gregg who came from Coleraine was regarded as "the hero of Munich" by rescuing team mates - including Bobby Charlton - from the wreckage of the burning plane in February 1958. There is a very famous story about a young George Best shooting the ball through Gregg's legs several times in an early training session to the elder's considerable chagrin.

A lifetime later and after Best's death he talked movingly of a conversation where he had asked Best why he had never let the world know the real person behind the often vilified public persona and became visibly emotional when recalling the reply "It's too late H - it's too late". Harry Gregg and Billy Bingham would both act as pallbearers at Best's Stormont funeral in 2005 alongside Northern Ireland World Cup legends Peter McParland and Gerry Armstrong and Seventies icons Dennis Law and Derek Dougan.

The stories of the wit and wisdom of Tottenham Hotspur captain Danny Blanchflower from Bloomfield in East Belfast are of course legion. My favorite however will always remain the story of his time on American television in the mid-Sixties following his retirement when he was employed as an expert analyst for matches in the attempt to set up a professional soccer league there.

Blanchflower was articulate as ever but typically forthright about the appalling quality of play. TV executives did not appreciate such candor and he was told to "be more positive" by the studio boss after describing some play as "terrible". On the predictable next error Danny Blanchflower commented "And that was positively awful!" His contract was cancelled forthwith.

These were the people's heroes and those were the days.