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The Euro Championships are underway signalling a feast of football in the coming weeks. But there’s nothing much to get excited about in the Newry area.

England, Scotland and Wales all qualified but neither the Republic nor Northern Ireland made it through to the last 24 this time.

Not like a long, long time ago when I was a wee boy.

Northern Ireland had made it through to the last 16 of the 1958 World Cup Finals in Sweden.

And Newry’s first sporting superstar was playing for the green-shirted Irishmen (and then they were all born and bred Irishmen).

Peter McParland. Photograph: Tony Bagnall
Peter McParland. Photograph: Tony Bagnall

In June of that year the Newry area was agog with excitement as a man from Chapel Street in our wee town set Sweden alight with his goal-scoring exploits.
It was the first time that Northern Ireland had qualified for the final stages of the World Cup and Peter McParland, then playing with English Division One side Aston Villa, was creating headlines all over the globe with his goal-scoring ability.

The then 24-year-old netted five times in the tournament and since then no player from Ireland has come anywhere near his tally in World Cup Finals.

I can vividly remember as a football mad youngster living in Linenhall Square watching the 1958 World Cup finals on a neighbour’s wee grainy14-inch black and white television set.
In those days, only one family in the Barracks, as it was commonly called, owned a television and when Northern Ireland played in the World Cup, I would tentatively rap on Mrs Linnie’s door and ask if I could come in and watch the match - and my hero Peter McParland.

“No bother,” the good lady would say as she ushered me into a packed living room. There every chair was taken and it was hard even to find a wee space on the floor to watch the games. Everyone wanted our local boy Peter McParland to do well and the player known to his own people as ‘Pricker’ most certainly didn’t disappoint.

But before the Finals in Sweden, Northern Ireland had to get there and they did so in a most remarkable manner. In December 1957 they were scheduled to play Italy in Belfast’s Windsor Park in their last qualifying match. I remember that occasion particularly well as my uncle Joe Morgan, (now reputed to be the oldest goal-keeper in the world at 92) had arranged to take me to see the game. I had never seen professional footballers in real life before and hadn’t slept for days before the game.

It was to be my first big match and Joe told me he would pick me up at the Stone Bridge at noon. As the match was on a Wednesday I got the day off school and excitedly made my way to my appointed pick-up spot. I arrived at 11.50am in eager anticipation. But my hopes of seeing the game were dashed as Joe forgot all about me and after waiting two hours, I trundled home in tears.
But the official match wasn’t played. That day the Hungarian referee Istvan Zolt was fog-bound in London and, with the Italians refusing to play the game under a deputy ref, the match was played out as a friendly. But never was the term ‘friendly’ more inapt as the match descended into a virtual free-for-all with players from both sides kicking lumps out of each other and at the end of the day the Italians had to be escorted off the pitch with the massive crowd of 58,000 fans baying for their blood.

Tony Bagnall with Peter McParland.

The replay was fixed for January and this time my uncle Joe made sure I did get to see the game. That day Ireland qualified by beating the Italians 2-1 with goals from Wilbur Cush and Jimmy McIlroy. My late mother gave me three shilling (15 pence in today’s money) to pay into the match. I don’t know where she got the money as we were very poor and three shillings was a lot of money in the Bagnall household.

However, the money stayed in my pocket and probably went back to my mother as Uncle Joe and his brother Lou lifted me over the turnstyle into Windsor. And there I can remember standing pitch-side and gazing open-mouthed in wonder as my idols Peter McParland, and the Blanchflower brothers, Danny and Jackie, turned on the style.

I can recall the younger Blanchflower, then playing for Manchester United who were tagged ‘The Busby Babes,’ playing brilliant stuff at centre-half for Northern Ireland, tackling and heading like a colossus. Sadly this was to be one of his last ever matches as a few weeks later Jackie was seriously injured in the Munich Air crash and never played again.
Meanwhile at that time few fans had the money to travel abroad and only a handful of Northern Ireland supporters watched the games. Reputedly though a Newry man, Leslie Nichol made his way to Sweden on a moped!

Yet the Irish were not without fans as the Swedes adopted the boys in Green and gave them great support. And this support helped the Wee North to win their opening World Cup match against Czechoslovakia at Halmstad where our Peter set up Wilbur Cush to nod in the game’s only goal.
The second game in the competition was a disappointing one for the handful of Irish supporters, as Argentina won 3-1. But at least everyone in Linnie’s got to air their lungs as McParland scored Ireland’s goal.

The Wee North needed a result in their third game of the tournament to stay in the competition but this seemed a forlorn hope as their opponents were the current World Cup champions West Germany. Again the match was in Halmstad and after 17 minutes Linnie’s erupted as Peter McParland fired his side in front. Germany levelled, but once more that man McParland did the business with a second goal on 60 minutes. The champions squared the game again with 12 minutes left and would perhaps have won but for an amazing goal-keeping performance from Manchester United’s Harry Gregg – who shared the Man of the Match accolade with our Peter. Still Ireland could have won the game as, in the dying minutes, a McParland thunderbolt clipped the German woodwork.
Earning that draw meant that Ireland were then plunged into a play-off with Czechoslovakia. The match was played at Malmo and early on the Czechs edged in front. But cometh the hour cometh the man, and right on the half time whistle McParland latched onto a rebound from a Wilbur Cush shot to blast into the net. At full time the sides were still locked together at one apiece but nine minutes into extra time McParland surged onto a Danny Blanchflower freekick before volleying home the winner.

Ireland had made it through with an injury stricken side. They had a squad of just 16 players and after that match they had both their goal-keepers, Norman Uprichard and Harry Gregg injured as well as a host of outfield players. And in the quarter-finals they faced France, complete with hotshot striker Just Fontaine who would go on to crack in a record 13 goals in the tournament.
And, as expected, it was a no-contest game against a tired and crippled team and the French duly won 4-0. However, the exploits of Northern Ireland and in particularly Peter McParland will always be fondly remembered.

Incidentally our Peter scored just one goal less than a young Brazilian called Edson Arantes de Nascrimento, who was making his World Cup debut. In the final at Stockholm against Sweden that 17-year-old scored one of the greatest goals ever seen. Taking a long ball on his chest the youngster controlled it in a jiffy, hooked it over the head of a bemused defender before volleying into the bottom corner of the Swedish net.

Such a sweet score and that lad, known to all as Pele, who left the field in tears of joy, was to score a further 1000 goals in a dazzling career.

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