When We First Dared to Dream

With the Euros just weeks away, Belfast archivist Evan Marshall shares the untold story of the first Northern Ireland footballers to light up the international stage in new book Spirit of '58

Irish fans carrying Harry Gregg at Wembley, after the famous 3-2 win over England in 1957

Describing Spirit of '58 author Evan Marshall as a football enthusiast is a bit like calling the Queen a monarchist. The man who has cleverly evoked memories of possibly the greatest Northern Ireland football team first took interest in the beautiful game at around seven.

'We were heading into the World Cup and it was a good lift-off point to become interested,' he says. 'I liked collecting too and remember my old stickers book. I also recall the English team were having a bit of malaise which gave us a bit of a head turn.'

The reason Marshall supports Manchester United is nothing to do with Ulster’s traditional reverence for George Best, it’s sartorial. 'I liked red strips, but because my mother and father had bought my cousin a Liverpool kit for his birthday, I wasn’t going to support Liverpool. So it had to be Man U.'

Marshall (45), who lives in east Belfast, goes on to point out that his love for the great club came long before Sir Alex Ferguson’s appointment and the glory days of subsequent decades. 'I supported them for years when the team did nothing, so you could say I’ve paid my dues.' True fans hold the faith in times good and bad.

Although in his words he 'just ran around like a headless chicken' when playing, Marshall remained drawn to the sport throughout his education, including his time attending Grosvenor High School – 'a working class grammar school and not posh at all'.

After becoming disillusioned with his politics degree at Queen's, he found himself working at the Post Office sorting department in Tomb Street, Belfast, where eight 'soul destroying' years instilled a desire to write. Interestingly though, the bond between Marshall's pen and the pitch stems back to P1, when his short story I Am a Ball earned a 5p prize. His dad even framed the winning effort.

The idea for Spirit of '58, both the book and film of the same name, came about after watching a Pathé News movie about Northern Ireland's campaign of that year. Already involved in film archive work through his connection with well known film buff, Brian Henry Martin, a friend from school, Marshall sensed he had a story.

'It fascinated me from the beginning. Northern Ireland were the joke team, having lost 9-2 to England and 8-2 to Scotland, but [manager, Peter] Doherty promoted this idea of togetherness and team spirit.' And it worked. Marshall’s creative flair made him one of the best film archivists in Northern Ireland, the go to man whenever BBC NI was outsourcing work on period films and documentaries.

'I liked that job and remember one film, not great quality, which showed a woman from the country and this very bad short film had something about it.' The story behind the images fascinated Evan – 'I'm nostalgic on behalf of other people' - who researched the film with journalistic precision and unearthed the touching back story. It had been made when the woman became ill with cancer. They bought a camera to preserve the precious image, and so that her family would be left with a lasting memento.

Using the BBC's extensive archives, Marshall worked on films such as Super 8 Stories and Those Were the Days: 'It was a way of validating people’s pasts and I became a big fish in a small pool.' He also interviewed sports stars like the road racing Dunlops. But it was the discipline of Blanchflower and Bingham that Marshall longed to document.

On learning that quite a few of the doughty national squad of 1958 were extant, Marshall went on a mission to get them the respect, and long overdue praise, they deserved but had never received.

'When I started thinking about this, eleven players were left behind but then Derek Dougan went,' he says. 'At DoubleBand, where I was working, films had a long gestation and by the time it was floated as an idea in 2007, we were down to five remaining players. The BBC decided not to option it for local TV.' Determined as the men who fought their way past qualification and on to the quarter-finals, Marshall decided to do it himself in their memory.

Their names resonate like a list of lost heroes in some classical text: Harry Gregg, Bobby Rea, Norman Uprichard, Willie Cunningham, Len Graham, Alf McMichael, Bobby Trainor, Billy Bingham, Danny Blanchflower, Tommy Casey, Sammy Chapman, Tommy Hamill, Dick Keith, Jimmy McIlroy, Bertie Peacock, Fay Coyle, Billy Cush, Derek Dougan, Sammy McCrory, Peter McParland, Jackie Scott, Billy Simpson and manager Peter Doherty.

They each live on in Marshall’s Spirit of '58, which editor and MD of Blackstaff Press Patsy Horton, who worked on it, said she found inspiring despite football being far from her subject. Marshall recalls his research and a piece of good fortune.

'I was in a bookshop on the Comber Road, Dundonald, and saw this book on the World Cup campaign of '58 with little tables and statistics. So I forked out £20, even though it wasn’t in good condition. I learnt things I never knew, but I know a great story when I see one.'

The facts are exciting. Northern Ireland needed to beat a characteristically charismatic Italian side. And they did, 2-1. This was more than surprising, as Marshall explains. 'Italy had never failed to qualify and had won the World Cup twice but Northern Ireland beat them to qualify.' It was a startling result for Doherty and his men.

And in memory of the five remaining players, Marshall started work on telling their story. He still needed finance, but the footballing community stepped up to the mark. 'The fans here helped me to get funding,' he says. 'NI Screen were supportive too.'

He visited the men – three of them living in England, one in Scotland and one here - and taped their recollections. Using a sensitive interviewing technique, with regards to the age of his interviewees, Marshall came away with a flood of great material.

West germany

Wilbur Cush scores against West Germany

'Peter Doherty has been forgotten. He was the second greatest footballer Northern Ireland has produced after Bestie. He won the title with Manchester City as a talented inside forward. His career was interrupted by the war and he could only play in exhibition matches while serving in the RAF. His best footballing years were robbed from him. But he had the consolation of leading his men to an incredible result.'

They reached the quarter-finals, where finally beaten by France, but their spirit showed that teamwork and a new approach to football could achieve great things. 

One anecdote in the book indicates the sheer grit of the men. It concerns the much debated question of whether the players should participate in matches on the Sabbath. If they hadn’t, they couldn’t have achieved what they did in '58 but at home, there were the usual sensitivities. In the end, they found a way round this uniquely Ulster dilemma.

As Marshall writes: 'Northern Ireland’s match with Czechoslovakia took place on June 8. Of course, the day of the match was a Sunday, and perhaps as a show of goodwill, the team, a mixture of Catholics and Protestants, attended a service in a tiny Tylösand church before boarding their coach.

'As (Danny) Blanchflower remembered, "We sang the hymn 'Fight the Good Fight' and listened to a sermon on 'Faith moving mountains'. It was all, I felt, a well-aimed blow against the anti-Sunday-soccer brigade back home in Northern Ireland.'

The boys took on the Czech side, whom Peter Doherty had seen playing and described as talented but 'easily upset'. And so it proved, with the 11,000 spectators treated to a rollercoaster of a game. Winning that game against expectations was sweet and the team continued.

With time now on his hands, has Marshall another project to occupy him? Naturally, he has, with work already underway on recording the achievements of the next obvious subjects - the equally stellar Northern Ireland side of 1982. Expect another equally spirited book and documentary.

Spirit of '58 is published by Blackstaff Press, and is now available to purchase online and in store from selected book retailers. Evan Marshall will be in conversation with NI sports pundit Adrian Logan at the Crescent Arts Centre on June 15, as part of the Belfast Book Festival. Find out more and book tickets here.