GAWA: Matches I’ll Take To My Grave – England 1977

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland v England (1-2), 28th May 1977
Windsor Park, Belfast

Football. For me, it’s all about memories – as I suspect it is with most of you. This little series of mine is going to be about ten Northern Ireland matches that I would take with me in my green and white urn to the, what shall we say here, Pot 4 or 5 hereafter. I think it is probably a good time to throw in probably the most epochal football quotes with which one of our favourite sons decorated our great game- ‘The game is about glory’. Too right, Danny.

Danny Blanchflower, who was the manager that day against England, would understand my quoting him in a nondescript, tired Home International that we lost. For since it was my very first ever game, forty years ago this Saturday coming as I write, he and many of you will know that for me it was the day that access to (albeit future) glory occurred – access that only football fans know of.

I should say as well that access to despair is equally guaranteed and looking back over the years- a banner stretched across White Hart Lane or Windsor Park’s ramparts screaming ‘The game is about DESPAIR ‘ would not only be accurate but certainly would appeal to us lowly foot soldiers whose emotions are battered about every week. It could apply anywhere of course. It really is a kind of locked in syndrome, isn’t it? Self- inflicted but at the same time impermeable – good or bad. The banner may not be quite appropriate right now on those two edifices as it is indeed flying porcine territory that we find both Spurs and Northern Ireland flying high. Whimsy!

Back to South Belfast, late spring 1977. Thinking back to it I’ll gingerly suggest that actually, the last week of May of that year was of a certain cultural significance, both generally and for football fans.To be fair, May is never dull for football fans. In the ‘world’, as Vietnam soldiers used to refer to the world beyond them, things I recall had ‘heavy load’. Google may correct me but I do remember ‘Hotel California’ belting out around the airwaves around that time.

“you can check out any time you like but you can never leave”

Now there’s a song that could apply to most of us. Some of us may let go of our teams but do they ever let go of us? Another day that one!

It was also the height of the Silver Jubilee as Her Majesty did her twenty-five year reign gig all around the nation. Taking it back to music momentarily, this was also the time Rod Stewart controversially went to Number One ahead of the Sex Pistols’ ‘ God Save the Queen’ when the world and his wife knew fine well (to use an Ulster phrase) that the Pistols were outselling Rod. Clearly, Johnny Rotten’s orange spikes were irritating the underbelly of the Establishment.

So forgive me for a bit of digression but the picture needs to be painted. Football-wise, this was the week that Liverpool went to Rome and won their first European Cup after their mishap the previous Saturday v Manchester United in the FA Cup final. This leads me nicely into our match in question as the England team that Saturday was shorn of Liverpool players following their exploits in the Colosseum. So no Keegan, Hughes, Kennedy, Clemence, Neal or Phil Thompson though I think Kirkby’s finest was injured at the time.

None of that was really an issue for me at the time. I was going to my first live football game, a world that had only existed for me in television. Indeed, that March we had only received delivery of our first colour TV and for me, Brian Moore on ITV’s BIG MATCH never needed to say to me again “ for those watching in black and white, Tottenham are in white with black shorts”.

At primary school, football was all I knew but being sent to a rugby school somehow dissolved that period for a few years. I can’t quite remember what got me back into it but do remember the 75/76 season getting a hold of me and have never looked back. That autumn of 1976 a George Best inspired Northern Ireland played Holland in Rotterdam. A Holland that included Cruyff, Krol et al and we somehow attained a 2-2 draw. From that point, my mission was to attend the return a year later and thus my journey to Windsor was shaped from that point.

Eight months of anticipation I ask you. The day arrived and my mate Jimmy’s dad took us from the east to the south of the city. First impressions? Naive me! Why were so many people wearing red, white and blue scarves yet weren’t English? Indeed why were there no English fans there? A moment’s thought and yes…Belfast in the mid-seventies was not a place where even England’s marauding fans of the time had the balls to visit. To be fair they started to arrive in the eighties but they did keep their heads respectfully down.

But I did get the pre-match football fever that we are all familiar with. Situated on the Kop which was Windsor’s unimaginatively named equivalent to the Jungle, Holte and Stretford Ends I gazed down at those I had only seen through cathode ray. Within four minutes we scored and to this day it remains one of my highest jumps in football ….and there have been a few. Chris McGrath, legend of Manchester United’s reserves turns in a rebound from a good Shilton save from Gerry Armstrong- five light years out from the finest moment in his life. Life has never been the same since. The final hinge to the real world probably gave out for me three years later when my first ever concert- Pink Floyd doing ‘The Wall’ in Earls Court severed my last link to the rest of dull humanity.

The game followed no unlikely pattern for the rest of the game. England having a fair bit of possession whilst not doing a whole lot with it as Northern Ireland harried and fussed whilst doing less. Things I remember. Colin Todd’s dynamic run forward ( where was the midfield I hear you cry) to set up football’s Pete Townshend, Mick Channon to equalise. Allan Hunter, centre back of Ipswich Town and Northern Ireland out on the wing working hard to find space to get a cross in. Really? Perhaps he was of the opinion that the geographical position of East Anglia took precedence and needed pitch representation over that of centre back.

What else. Martin O’ Neill buzzed and raced around the pitch as fast as he talked. Many things dated the match as we look back at it today. The green-shirted RUC police force in shirt sleeves standing nonchalantly in the crowd while mayhem by today’s standards popped up in various parts of the ground. Football mischief was probably small beer to their normal workload of the time. A hail of bottles from the Kop barraged an England player taking a corner. More bizarrely, various youths climbed the floodlight pylon and various missiles rained down and many decided that a seat on the roof of the stand was the best corporate ‘chaise du jour ‘ of the day. This was par for the course in those days.

Viewing footage on YOUTUBE you can still see remnants of the sixties’ working man’s uniform on the terraces – the cheap suit and tie though fast dying out by this stage of the century. The chants date the whole thing more than anything though. ‘We’ll support you evermore’ (which probably lasted longer with ourselves more than anywhere else due to our familiarity with nil), ‘ We all agree, Northern Ireland are magic,’ and I suppose to a lesser extent ‘You’ll never walk alone’. Will Grigg and the sophistication and repertoire of today were a long way off. More whimsy!

Strangely, the seriously loyalist crowd present were more than happy to chant ’Ireland’ as against’ Northern Ireland’. Odd as this was in the teeth of the Troubles, it is something you would never hear now in an age far removed from those days. Part of me thinks that in those days the Republic of Ireland football team rarely featured in anyone’s consciousness and thus, the northern hordes were happy to represent the island. I’ll not get into that as it could release several shelf loads of cans of worms.

Finally, I think I should mention the teams that were represented on the pitch which of course again highlighted the era. Ipswich Town I have already mentioned lest we ever forget the tutelage of Bobby Robson. I think there were four of their players that got on the pitch that day. Who else? Derby County, Southampton, Leeds United, Stoke City were in there and in a different guise to the Premiership beasts of today- Manchester City and just relegated Tottenham Hotspur. Manchester United reserves, of course, played in green that day.

Yes, we lost to a late Dennis Tueart goal but nothing takes away from that match. It set me on a road which is still being walked as I take a breather from its journey by sitting down to write this. My final thought is our jersey of the day. Different from now and different even then, the Celtic cross was imprinted right bang in the centre of the sternum where the heart tends to be more accurately physiologically placed as against where the football badge of today thinks it is. Small point, but that jersey stole my heart forever that day.