Northern Ireland’s comfortable 2-0 victory over the Czech Republic (a country with over five times the population which is no stranger to the latter stages of major competitions) last week was the fifth in a row (a clear record, and completed without conceding a goal) and brought up four years without a competitive home defeat and two years without conceding a competitive home goal. It also ensured second place in the group and a likely playoff spot for the World Cup (Northern Ireland is currently the best second-placed team other than European champions Portugal).
It does not need repeated that this feat is made all the more incredible by the fact it has been accomplished through sheer teamwork. Northern Ireland’s best players are mid-table in the Premier League and some are fully two divisions below. It does raise another interesting question, however: is this the best Northern Ireland team ever?
The assumption for the last two years has been probably not, despite qualifying for the knock-out stages of the European Championship. There are no truly world-class players – no Blanchflowers, Bests, or Jennings. However, such is the scale of the continued good form, do we need to re-analyse?
The team captained by Danny Blanchflower would be regarded by many as the best Northern Ireland team ever. It qualified for the World Cup by defeating Italy and then reached the quarter-final (coincidentally after drawing with West Germany, the defending champions; and then beating Czechoslovakia, who reached the final four years later, in a playoff). That perhaps still counts as the best achievement ever by a Northern Ireland team, although it is noteworthy that the game in general was nothing like as global then. Added to the argument against deeming this the best NI team ever would be the fact it was effectively a one-off achievement; a victory over a fine England team at Wembley the previous year aside, the form was not really maintained before or after.
In 1998 I was helping at short notice with an English lesson at a school near Cologne. At the end of the lesson, the teacher asked where I was from. In those days, the response “Northern Ireland” drew a relatively typical response along the lines of guns or other general ignominy, but this case was unusual. He responded instantly with the words “Harry Gregg” – it turned out he had in fact as a youth followed the West German team to Sweden for the 1958 World Cup and was in attendance at the group game with Northern Ireland, in which an inspired Gregg was the star in a 2-2 draw.
I suspect, therefore, most NI fans would regard the 1980-6 team as the best ever. It is of course more recent in the memory, but it also enjoyed success over a longer period. There was a British championship as a warm-up, then there was the run to within one game of the semi-final of the 1982 World Cup in Spain (with an epic victory over the hosts en route), there was the narrow miss in qualification of the then eight-team European Championship in 1984 (with wins home and away against West Germany in the group) alongside the last British Championship, and then there was the nail-biting qualification for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. Throughout this period, Northern Ireland never lost at home to a foreign team. The team then contained regulars in club sides such as Arsenal and Manchester United and it was far from unusual to see a Northern Irish player win a European trophy or score the winner in the Cup Final, so there is little doubt it was the best group of players Northern Ireland ever had (comparative to the time). Against it would be the argument that it did not quite match the singular achievement of 1958, and again it is noteworthy that the game was less global (sides from Scandinavia, Turkey or Portugal were expected to be dispatched with ease back then).
I attended my first ever international match in November 1985 at Wembley, the one in which Northern Ireland qualified courtesy of a Jennings-inspired scoreless draw. The famous interview with the late Alan McDonald (“Come and see me!”) was unknown to me for two decades after, as having been present in the stadium I did not see it!
This then brings us to the current team. There is a sense this week that it all started in 2005 with a World Cup qualifying win over Beckham’s England, which was followed by a narrow miss in qualifying for Euro 2008 (including an epic 3-2 win over eventual champions Spain). Nevertheless, although that raised hopes a little, the truth is this is a separate team from that one, having emerged since a humiliating (and now unthinkable) loss in Luxembourg.
As established above, it is not the greatest group of players, nor has it (yet) delivered quite the achievements of the previous two candidate teams. Nevertheless, what it is achieving is being accomplished in a much more competitive era and is therefore arguably even more remarkable. As this is being done through team spirit and hard work, there is a case for saying this is the best Northern Ireland team ever.
As fans of the previous two candidate teams will tell you, enjoy it while it lasts! But what a fabulous team it really is.