Friday, March 3, 2017

A Night in September - Linfield and Manchester City



I caught the recently released documentary about George Best last Saturday at the cinema in London. In general a fairly pedestrian haul through the usual milestones and recollections though the section on his time in the North American Soccer League was put together in an engaging way and there was some news footage I had never seen before. However the actual sporting archive clips were all well-worn choices yet oddly left out the two most famous of all his Seventies goals which were scored in the rain and the sunshine respectively against Chelsea and Sheffield United.

There was also little Northern Ireland international footage despite rare film being available on youtube for quite some time of the November 1970 game against Spain and the February 1971 match against Cyprus - also his final international performance against Holland in October 1977. In fact on the day I uploaded this post I came across further material from the 1971 and 1977 away matches against the USSR and West Germany. The ongoing absence in the public domain of material from the famous Rotterdam game against the Dutch in 1976 - his last truly great performance for his country - remains utterly inexplicable.

In general the documentary was something of an opportunity lost on this occasion. There was no social contextualisation about Northern Ireland and the Troubles in the new documentary - a particular failing in light of the success of Irish rugby union in bridging vintage national division around a broadly generic cultural calling without any noticeable rancour or controversy. The use of subtitles on various pieces of footage was odd in the extreme too in light of Best's highly attractive, warm, rich and distinctly crystal-clear Ulster brogue.

The last word on George Best still remains the Duncan Hamilton biography Immortal - overall the story of his fall from grace becomes more desperately sad and terribly futile with the passing of each year.

As discussed in an earlier blog post, George Best played only 37 times for Northern Ireland between 1964 and 1977. Eighteen of these matches were at Windsor Park in Belfast. The onset of civil war in Ulster in the Seventies meant that several Northern Ireland home matches were played at English grounds  - hence the February 1972 home tie against Spain being played at Boothferry Park in Hull. There is one picture I have often seen of Best taking a corner with both British policemen and fans gathered in very close proximity behind him - by process of elimination this is either that Spanish fixture or the April 1970 Home International against Wales at the Vetch Field in Swansea.
 
Best's matches at Windsor were played out against Uruguay, England and Switzerland in 1964; Holland, Albania and Scotland in 1965; England in 1966; Scotland in 1967; Turkey in 1968; England, Wales and the USSR in 1969; Scotland in 1970; Cyprus, England and Wales in 1971 and then Iceland and Holland in 1977.

The 1967 match against Scotland is generally accepted as his finest international performance while the World Cup qualifier two years later against the USSR is the source of the oft-repeated slow-motion action clips under the Windsor Park unreserved stand's public health advice to smoke Gallaher's - Northern Ireland's First Name in Tobacco.

Best was sent off in the 1970 match against Scotland for throwing mud at the referee while the 1971 England Home International included the globally famous Gordon Banks incident - youtube contains other footage of this match with him openly taunting English players to take the ball off him to the crowd's raucous delight. The Welsh match in the same year I assume is where another famous clip originates - Best cockily pretending to kick his football with extreme force, prejudice and intent into a shirking defender's bollocks. The BBC managed to destroy all footage of Best's 1971 hat trick in Belfast against Cyprus. Incidentally, the iconic footage of Best passing the ball to a colleague while holding his boot in one hand is possibly from a Home International tie against Scotland at Hampden Park - 1969 or 1971.

Northern Ireland's national stadium is of course the home ground of Linfield football club in south Belfast - I attended several matches here with my maternal grandfather in the mid-Seventies when I was a kid. In terms of the players I particularly remember - Peter "Bald Eagle" Rafferty, the Malone brothers, Eric Magee, Billy Millen, Davy Nixon, Ivan McAllister etc - this may well have been the 1975-76 season. The first match I saw there was a 6-1 victory over Cliftonville - Ireland's oldest football club.

In an earlier post I mentioned Gareth Mulvenna's recent study of the teenage loyalist Tartan Gangs of the early Seventies and how a particularly voracious element in West Belfast who were Linfield supporters were regularly engaged in significant acts of civil disorder with the police constabulary, army squaddies and the Catholic community at particular city interfaces. A recent Belfast Telegraph article by Malachi O'Doherty made interesting reference in turn to an earlier pre-Troubles riot in the Falls Road as linked to Linfield supporters returning from a match against Distillery in 1964 that I was not aware of.

Last month I also flicked through the centenary history of Linfield written in 1985 by the late Malcolm Brodie. The work doesn't shirk from the political back story associated with the club over the years - alike mirrored sectarian football divisions across from the Lagan on Clydeside - and the outplay of the same in crowd disorder. This as notably associated with historic Belfast Celtic and Derry City ties and with a particular battle royale engaged at an away match against Dundalk in the Irish Republic in August 1979. Belfast Celtic, Derry City and Distillery (in its Belfast incarnation) are all - albeit in different respects - long gone from modern day Irish League football in the North. The exit of Belfast Celtic was directly related to trouble at a December 1948 Windsor Park match and a serious crowd attack on one of their (Protestant) players.

More argy bargy would follow against Glentoran in 1983 and Donegal Celtic in 1990 at The Oval and Windsor respectively - bad blood with Cliftonville has a heritage stretching back to 1913 when the players were welcomed onto the Solitude pitch by the firing of revolvers by some visiting Linfield fans. For many years in the modern period ALL Cliftonville home matches against Linfield were played at Windsor Park for security reasons.

Linfield Football Club's contribution to European football history is threefold. Firstly, in the 1921-22 and 1961-62 seasons, they won the entire raft of seven domestic trophies in Northern Ireland. Then there was a highly successful period in the late Fifties and early Sixties when Newcastle United legend Jackie Milburn joined Linfield as player-manager. Finally there was a match in September 1970 when the same Billy Millen I saw at Windsor Park in the mid-Seventies played the central role in a truly extraordinary Wednesday evening of European cup football in a politically charged and very troubled Belfast City.

(That second seven-trophy winning run by the way - under the captaincy of the ultimate Linfield icon Tommy "The Duke of Windsor" Dickson - was completed at the Solitude ground in North Belfast. I can only imagine the scale and reverberation of the crowd cheers to be heard that night at full time in my own paternal grandparents' road in the Oldpark district a few streets away. This was the very same urban location I mentioned in my Tartan Gang post - at the opposite end of the street from the Solitude-direction on internment day in August 1971 the Catholic and Protestant proletariat were of course firing away with total abandon across the main road at each other.)

Linfield had regularly appeared in European cup competition since the 1959-60 season - a first round appearance in the European Champions Cup against Sweden's Kamraterna (victory in Belfast and defeat in Gothenburg) followed by ties against East Germany's Vorwaerts in 1960-61 (defeat in East Berlin and the opposition denied visas for a return leg) and Esjberg of Denmark in 1961-62 (defeat in Belfast and a draw in Esjberg). In the 1963-64 season they entered the European Cup Winner's Cup and were again knocked out at the first round by Turkey's Fenerbache - defeat in Istanbul and a win in Belfast. Linfield however reached the 1966/67 European Champions Cup Quarter Final. An away draw and a home victory over Luxembourg's Aras and an away victory and a home draw against Norway's Valeregen before being knocked out by Bulgaria's CSKA Sofia - a defeat in the Balkans following a 2-2 draw in Belfast.

Linfield ended the Sixties with three more first round appearances - in the European Fairs Cup in 1967/68 against Leipzig of East Germany (defeat in Leipzig and victory in Belfast), Setubal of Portugal in 1968/69 in the same competition (both defeats) and Red Star Belgrade in the European Champions Cup in 1969/70. The Yugoslavian team - which had its own infamous hooligan following that proceeded to a particularly dark future as paramilitaries in the Nineties civil war in Bosnia - won in Belgrade and Belfast.

For the 1970/71 season part-time Linfield - then managed by Billy Bingham who would later be the Northern Ireland manager at the 1982 and 1986 World Cup Finals - were drawn in the first round against holders Manchester City. A guaranteed healthy pay day for the Belfast club lieing ahead though another early tournament exit being surely foregone. City were of course one of the major top flight English soccer teams of the period with a line-up that included Colin Bell, Tony Book, Mike Doyle, George Best's close friend Mike Summerbee, Neil Young and Francis Lee amongst others. They had won the League in 1968 and the FA Cup in 1969 - indeed my collection of six cool Wembley Soccer Stars figurines in my childhood bedroom consisted of their forward Lee, Bestie, Charlie George of Arsenal, West Ham's Bobby Moore, Martin Chivers of Spurs and Super Leeds' Billy Bremner.
 
A supremely fit Linfield produced a superb performance in Manchester on Wednesday 16th September under the drive and encouragement of Bingham. Goalkeeper Derek Humphries and sweeper Issac Andrews excelled and only a very late goal from Colin Bell deflated an otherwise incredible team effort. Bingham himself held to the firm belief that Linfield could yet pull off a victory back in Belfast.

The latter half of 1970 had seen a rapid and dismal deterioration in the security situation in Belfast with a significant hike in bombing incidents - including one on the doorstep of the author's family home in July of that year. The countdown to barely contained civil war the following year was starting to gain pace. The 100th explosion of the year in Northern Ireland exploded the day before Linfield played at Maine Road.

In the run up to the return fixture serious disorder had taken place between Linfield fans and the residents of the Catholic Unity Flats at the junction of the Lower Shankill Road with the city centre's North Street on Saturday 26th September. 300 people were injured and many cars and buses were burnt. The day after the fighting continued in the Shankill district between loyalists and the security forces - an Army post was besieged and CS gas was deployed. It would continue into the Monday albeit on a reduced level.

On Wednesday 30th September 1970 Billy Millen moved from midfielder to striker for the game and hit two goals in front of a 25,000 crowd in Linfield's most unforgettable match. He had scored after only four minutes to raise the roof at Windsor Park though Lee equalised shortly afterwards - Millen put Linfield ahead again at the 56th minute but City went through on the away goals rule. City manager Joe Mercer emplacing the epilogue on the tie's drama that "if this is one of the so-called easier draws give me a difficult one every time".

There is little information on the internet about these matches but from what I can gather the Linfield line-up was the same for both matches - Derek Humphries, Alan Fraser, Jackie Patterson, Issac Andrews, Ivan McAllister, Eric Bowyer, Billy Millen, Eric Magee, Bryan Hamilton, the Scot Billy Sinclair and Dessie Cathcart. Hamilton of course later became a well known player for Ipswich Town and Everton and won many international caps before managing Northern Ireland. McAllister was a serving policeman and goalkeeper Humphries - who also joined the force shortly after this historic match- was killed in a car crash the following year on the way from the police college to another European tie in Belfast against Standard Liege. Reports from the matches speak highly of the contributions of McAllister and Fraser alongside Andrews, Humphries and Millen.

A posting on a Glasgow Rangers fan forum made note of an aggressive crowd atmosphere at Maine Road in the first leg. For the return match the kick-off was scheduled early at 6.30 because of the political situation in the city regarding the loyalist disorder on both the Shankill Road and in East Belfast. A few bottles were thrown at City goalkeeper Joe Corrigan at the start of the game but otherwise there was no serious disturbance.  Corrigan was conscious of Linfield's status as the "Rangers of Belfast" and recalled the incident in his biography and how manager Bingham had appealed to the crowd to halt the abuse of Corrigan to stop the match being abandoned. He also remembered the size of the crowd and the genuinely electric atmosphere, the military escort back to the airport after the match and how Linfield as an amateur team got nothing like the credit they deserved for the victory.

I also found the match discussed on one thread of a Belfast forum with particular commentary on how a certain senior member of the Manchester City staff executed a tactical volte-face at the prospect of a first round eviction from the lowly competition:

Man. City were very close to being knocked out of that game. Malcolm Allison their coach had been on TV saying a rule should be put in place to stop the passback to the goalkeeeper deliberately wasting time. That night against The Blues I watched him from the touchline yelling at his players to pass the ball back to the keeper. I'm sure he must have been doing it for the last fifteen minutes or more. Billy Millen was tremendous that night. He scored two and ran the Man City defence ragged. Issac Andrews was a close second for man of the match he was certainly first division material that night. Why he wasn't picked up by an English club I'll never know.

From the perspective of 2017 the Linfield victory that night stands as a truly amazing achievement for amateur football in Europe and for Irish sport alike - this without diminishing earlier Irish League achievements by both Glentoran and Distillery in the Sixties in holding mighty Benfica to score draws in Belfast. I also remain cogniscent that clearly it doesn't equate to the purely non-confessional nature of later Northern Irish sporting success relating to snooker, boxing, athletics, golf and international football.

The timing and location of the match of course is enshrouded with a genuine strangeness and fatefulness  in ways that are not dissimilar to the aforementioned footage of George Best in his power pop glory playing against the USSR. This was some mere weeks after the 1969 civil disorder in Belfast and Derry which lead to the introduction of British troops on Ulster's mean streets. The same can be said for the 1-0 Northern Ireland victory over England at Wembley on 23rd May 1972 - the middle of the worst year of the entire Troubles. On that Tuesday alone a British soldier was shot dead by a sniper, a Catholic civilian died after being injured in an earlier loyalist car bomb attack and four no-warning explosions took place in Belfast injuring seven people and damaging property.

Even though I knew of the significance of this Linfield-Manchester City game for many years I always assumed it had taken place in the late Sixties and not at the start of the Troubles itself. As far as I can remember my maternal grandfather was there to see the victory over City since he mentioned it to me many times. The night - at the eleventh hour of war and peace in Ulster - that Linfield became the Pride of Ireland and the greatest football team in the world.

In light of some seriously hysterical cultural marxist wailing emanating from one particular terrestrial broadcaster's 7pm national news bulletins in the past few months - and that in counterpoise to the deconstruction of fake news agendas by certain transatlantic political playmakers in the same period  - I would not hold my breath for any mainstream media reappraisal of the scale of Linfield's incomprehensible achievement at any point soon in documentary or theatrical form. Or indeed the true dynamics underpinning certain political earthquakes of late.

Fortuna Audecas Juvat 1970.


2 comments:

  1. Excellent article indeed. I was at that game and remember vividly the unbelievable amount of back passes to Joe Corrigan.

    Linfield were simply fantastic that night.

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  2. Many thanks for your kind comments - without doubt an utterly extraordinary night in British and Irish social history which is yet sadly overlooked in the annals of European football.

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