Who’s the best team in Britain? Well, it’s Northern Ireland of course.
Why? Well, they’ve been British Champions for the past thirty three years now and look set to be undefeated for at least the next thirty three years.
What I am talking about is the British Championships, or the Home International Championships.
Ever wondered what it would be like to have a competition between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? Perhaps played every summer after the season was over?
Well, if you’re over forty then for you this was a reality. These were the days before FIFA created the international schedule where domestic football pauses and attention moves to national sides for a week. Fixtures were ad-hoc and arranged between nations at times to suit themselves, so having a whole week of matches where your team played three times was a real treat.
These were also the days when the English League was littered with players from all other the British Isles so it was natural to wonder how the home nations would get on against each other. Players who were teammates for their clubs, now pitted alongside players from rival sides all fighting for the honour of their nation.
The British Home International Championships ran from 1884 to 1984, until political concerns in Belfast as well as England and Scotland losing interest in matches against, perceived, weaker opposition in Northern Ireland and Wales. The latter argument is harder to justify when looking back. England, Scotland and Northern Ireland all qualified for the 1982 World Cup and then again in 1986. During the seventies Scotland was the dominant British nation, qualifying for the 1974 and 1978 World Cup Finals when no other British nation did. England emerged as a force towards the end of the seventies and into the eighties. But the Northern Ireland side Billy Bingham had put together was arguably the most successful in its history.
Scotland won the British Home International Championships in 1976 and 1977, with England winning in 1978 and 1979. Northern Ireland won in 1980 and 1984. The last five competitions to be completed (1981 was abandoned), were won by England (3 times) and Northern Ireland (twice). Wales shared the title in 1970 and last won it outright back in 1937.
Northern Ireland/Ireland only ever won the competition outright three times in a hundred years, yet two of those victories came in the last four editions.
The final tournament ended, perhaps fittingly, with all four teams finished on three points with one of the ‘weaker’ nations, Northern Ireland, emerging as Champions by virtue of goal difference.
The Early Days
The British Home International Championships began in January 1884, making it the oldest international competition. The countries had been playing each other annually in friendlies and in 1882 they met to design the competition and a common set of rules. Scotland won the first competition, in fact they won the first four tournaments. They traded titles with England in the early years until Wales won in 1906. Ireland won their first competition in 1914. In the fifty one years to the Second World War England and Scotland had won all but eight of the tournaments.
The tournament was gaining in popularity but it wasn’t until the sixties and seventies where it reached its peak. But for the Home Internationals the strength of European Championships and the World Cup gradually pushed it into also-rans column.
For both the 1950 and 1954 World Cups the tournament was used as qualification, with England winning both tournaments. The 1949-50 tournament was the last time Ireland competed as all-Ireland and from then on only players from Northern Ireland were selected.
This tournament was also notable for changing FIFAs rules regarding selection. Up until this point the team had been selected by both IFA (Belfast based) and FAI (Dublin based) associations, and during this qualifying campaign four players played for both Ireland (as in the Republic) and Ireland (as in the Home International Championships). FIFA ruled players could only be selected based on the political border. In 1953 they then ruled neither team could be referred to as ‘Ireland’, and from then on the South were officially designated as Republic of Ireland. The North was to be referred to as Northern Ireland, but after complaints from the IFA they were permitted to continue using the name Ireland in the Home International Championships. This lasted into the late 1970s.
For the 1950 tournament, FIFA had offered two qualifying spots for the World Cup. England took one with Scotland finishing second. The Scottish FA declined to enter a team.
The 1960 and 1964 tournaments were shared by three nations. England, Scotland and Wales in 1960 and England, Scotland and Northern Ireland four years later. In 1964 England beat Ireland 8-3 with Jimmy Greaves scoring four, but the Irish beat the Scots and the Welsh. With England losing to an Alan Gilzean goal at Hampden Park, the trophy was shared.
In 1967 Scotland became the first team to beat World Champions England. The England v Scotland matches were usually the Final Act of each tournament. This particular tournament had been held throughout the season, starting in October. England only needed a draw and had not been beaten in their previous eight matches in the competition. Dennis Law and Bobby Lennox had given the Scots a two goal lead going into the final ten minutes in front of a capacity crowd at Wembley. But Jack Charlton got a goal back but with three minutes left Jim McCalliog, then of Sheffield Wednesday who went onto win an FA Cup Winners medal with Southampton when as a Second Division side they beat Manchester United, scored Scotland’s third. Geoff Hurst grabbed a goal back for the home side but the Scots held out for a famous victory, crowning themselves unofficial World Champions.
1967-68 tournament doubled as qualification for the European Championships. England won the competition to qualify for the Quarter-Final stage of the fledgling competition.
In 1972 future Tottenham and Arsenal manager, Terry Neill, scored the only goal at Wembley to give the Irish victory over England, ending their run of ten matches without defeat. This followed their memorable 1-0 win at Hampden Park the year before. They repeated the feat two years later. Unfortunately they couldn’t follow it up as they lost to England and Wales.
By the early seventies the competition was held during one week, usually in May. In 1974 England arrived at Hampden Park again needing a draw to lift the trophy but two own goals saw them lose and have to share the cup again. A year later England took Scotland apart at Wembley, inspired by Gerry Francis, to win 5-1.
In 1976 with political unrest in Northern Ireland, the Irish were forced to play all three matches away from home as Scotland refused to travel. In fact Scotland had refused to travel to Belfast from 1972 to 1980. They lost all three without scoring a goal. Scotland won all their three matches, all at home, including beating England 2-1 after Mick Channon had put the visitors in front.
June 1977 went down in infamy as Scotland arrived at Wembley unbeaten. Wales stood a chance of their first outright tournament win since 1937 but failed to beat Northern Ireland the night before. Goals from Gordon McQueen and Kenny Dalglish gave them a famous 2-1 win. But the game will be remembered for the after-match invasion of the pitch by the travelling Scots supporters. They ripped up the pitch and climbed onto the crossbars, which eventually broke under the strain. Wembley Stadium was forced to erect fences to avoid similar scenes. It had been an impressive performance on the pitch from the Scots but all the headlines were about the supporters at the end.
1980 was an historic event for the Irish as they won the tournament outright for only the second time in the ninety-six years. Scotland finally relented on their opposition to travelling to Belfast, but were greeted by a determined Irish performance as Billy Hamilton scored the only goal of the game. This was followed the next night by Wales thumping England 4-1 at Wrexham. The following Tuesday the Irish were at Wembley. Things were goalless going into the final ten minutes when Noel Brotherston put through his own net. But despair turned to joy as Terry Cochrane equalised just two minutes later and the match was drawn. Scotland’s win over the Welsh twenty-four hours later meant the Irish were still well placed when they travelled to Ninian Park, Cardiff on the Friday. Noel Brotherston redeemed himself with a goal at the right end in the first half and it ended as the only goal of the game. Northern Ireland were then crowned as British Champions reducing the Old Firm game irrelevant. That game still represents the last time the Irish beat the Welsh.
A year later the Irish were unable to defend their trophy as the competition was not completed due to civil unrest. Hunger striker Bobby Sands had died just a couple of weeks before the competition was due to begin. Riots and protests in Belfast meant both the English and Welsh refused to travel there so the Irish only got to play once, at Hampden Park, where they lost 0-2.
A year later three of the nations were preparing for the World Cup in Spain. England were dominant throughout winning every game without conceding a goal. The Irish, about to attend their first World Cup for twenty four years, only managed a point from a draw against the Scots at Windsor Park.
1983 saw the Irish fail to win or score in their three matches yet still finish above the Welsh. England won two of their three matches, drawing the other at Windsor Park and won the competition.
The Final Act
1984 was supposed to be a celebration as it was the hundredth anniversary of the competition. Instead it was tinged with sadness as both England and Scotland announced their intention to withdraw from future competition. With a fixture schedule becoming increasingly crowded, a sharp rise in hooliganism and the Irish and Welsh considered to be weaker opposition, this would be the last tournament.
By now there was less appetite for the week long festival of football in May, just after the FA Cup Final. The opening game of this tournament was played in mid-December at Windsor Park where Northern Ireland disposed of Scotland, 2-0, with goals from Norman Whiteside and Sammy McIlroy. In February Scotland redeemed themselves with a 2-1 win at home to Wales, thanks to goals from Davie Cooper and Mo Johnston.
In April England beat Northern Ireland 1-0 at Wembley with a Tony Woodcock goal early in the second half. But then things were really evened up when a month later a young Mark Hughes scored the only goal of the game on his debut, when Wales beat England at Wrexham. This remains the last time the Welsh beat the English, but for the Welsh it was their second successive win over their hated rivals at Wrexham, having won 4-1 there four years previously.
The tournament still used the old two points for a win system and with the last two matches to go all teams were locked on two points, with Northern Ireland’s two goal win against the Scots seeing them at the top of the pile.
At the end of May Northern Ireland rolled up at Vetch Field Swansea, where Mark Hughes again scored for the home side but Gerry Armstrong’s equaliser with seventeen minutes to go earned another point.
Four days later Scotland met England at Hampden Park in a winner-takes-all clash. Whichever side won would win the Championship but a draw would see Northern Ireland crowned as winners.
England were on a good run having won the last three meetings there. Mark McGhee put the home side in front on twelve minutes but Tony Woodcock equalised midway through the half and the game ended 1-1. So Northern Ireland won the last ever British Home International Championships by virtue of goal difference, but they didn’t care and it was something Irish football could be proud of for years.
The trophy has now been permanently awarded to the Irish FA.
Looking back it may seem a shame there is no competition like this anymore, but there is no appetite in England to revive it, and let’s face it, they’re going to need to drive the thing if only to attract spectators. The rise of the clubs in the power game has meant the authorities are increasingly under pressure to cut friendly matches so you’ll hardly see them agree to reviving this. They’d much prefer to send their players around the world to play a lucrative meaningless exhibition match than allow their players to risk injury all in the cause of national pride.
The visit of England and Scotland to Wales and Northern Ireland had become a crucial part of the latter’s financial budget, but when you consider the last game played in the competition between Wales and Northern Ireland attracted barely over seven thousand fans, and Northern Ireland’s final visit to Wembley drawing in just twenty four thousand, it seemed clear the tournament was really just about England versus Scotland matches.
The Old Firm tried to keep the tradition going with the advent of The Rous Cup. This was purely England and Scotland for two years and then an invited South American country was added for three years and then this faded into the annals.
In 2009 Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales pressed ahead with a tournament and in an effort to attract the Republic of Ireland in the hope they would provide the support in place of the absent English, they not only let them play in the competition but also host the matches. No match attracted more than eighteen thousand with the nadir being Wales v Northern Ireland at the Aviva Stadium where five hundred and twenty nine people turned up. One assumes the participating players and coaching staff are not included in the attendance figures but for a stadium which has a capacity of fifty one thousand, it will have been possible to hear the players breathing.
It seems pure romanticism to believe the Home International Championships will ever be revived and therefore may forever lie in the history books, but for those of us who experienced it, it will always have a special place in our memories. For Northern Ireland it is a trophy to show off.