Northern Ireland Profile

Year Founded 1950

Northern Ireland has long enjoyed representation in major international competitions despite remaining part of the United Kingdom.

The Belfast-based Irish Football Association (IFA) had held sway over the whole of Ireland from 1882 until 1920, having powers to select the team to represent the Irish Free State.

Because they fall under the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland cannot qualify for the Olympic Games football tournament, but they have appeared at the FIFA World Cup three times and in the UEFA European Championships once.

Northern Ireland's best showing on the global stage came in their first outing in 1958 when they reached the quarter-finals, they would also reach the second group stage in Spain in 1982. Northern Ireland reached the last 16 in their only Euros appearance in 2016.

They were the last winners of the British Home Championship, the now-defunct tournament played between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland's national identity is complex, as is the history and culture of the football team that represents it.

Up until the 2006 World Cup when Trinidad and Tobago reached the finals, Northern Ireland had been the smallest nation to take part in a World Cup tournament.

Early history

In November 1880 seven prominent Irish football clubs, predominantly from the Belfast area, formed the IFA to govern football in Ireland.

Some 15 months later Ireland would play their first international against England, going down 13-0 in what remains both a record defeat for Ireland (and by extension Northern Ireland) and a record win for England.

IFA teams would go on to enter the British Home Championship and as the fourth-oldest football association help formulate the early international football calendar.

The 1920 partitioning of Ireland into two separate states which indirectly led to the establishment of a rival in Irish football in the form of the Football Association of Ireland which would later earn FIFA recognition as the Football Association of the Irish Free State.

The Civil War that followed the partitioning strengthened the divide between the rivals. The FAI had withdrawn from FIFA along with the other so-called home nations, as such between 1928 and 1946 the two Irish teams did not play in the same competitions.

The FAI had continued to select players born and based in Southern Ireland and after rejoining FIFA would, in 1950, field four players who had featured for the Southern Ireland team in the same World Cup qualifying campaign.

After complaints from Dublin, the FAI were limited to selecting players from within the political borders of Northern Ireland. The FAI stopped selecting southerners in 1950 and in 1954 FIFA recognised the FAI as the organising body of Northern Ireland.

The 4-1 defeat to England in Belfast in October 1950 is considered the first international played by Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland and the 1958 World Cup

Northern Ireland team, 1958 World Cup

Northern Ireland qualified for the 1958 World Cup in Sweden thanks to home wins over Italy and Portugal and a massive point from a draw in the opening match of the campaign in Lisbon.

The team was led by Spurs skipper Danny Blanchflower and were coached by Peter Doherty, who had been at the helm since 1951.

Doherty's squad was impacted by the Munich air disaster with the captain's younger brother Jackie badly injured in the crash, he would miss the World Cup and never played football again.

They made their mark on World Cup debut, beating Czechoslovakia 1-0 in their first match courtesy of Leeds United striker Billy Cush's 20th-minute goal.

Three days later Northern Ireland took an early lead against Argentina with Aston Villa legend Peter McParland putting them in front in the fourth minute, but the South Americans stormed back and went on to win 3-1.

Northern Ireland needed at least a draw against defending world champions West Germany to retain any hope of progressing to the quarter-finals. McParland twice gave them the lead only to see the Germans equalise shortly afterwards. The draw was enough to earn Northern Ireland a play-off against Czechoslovakia.

McParland wound up scoring just one goal fewer than Pele at the 1958 tournament although both were put in the shade by Just Fontaine's legendary outing.

The Czechs were coming off a morale-boosting 6-1 thumping of Argentina while Northern Ireland were without goalkeeping hero Harry Gregg. He was replaced by a half-fit Norman Uprichard who played the match with a heavily strapped ankle and injured knee.

Uprichard couldn't get to a long ball floated into the box in the 19th minute, allowing Zdenek Zikan to head the Czechs in front. But just before half time Cush was in on goal, he would see three shots blocked, but when the third rebounded to in-form McParland, the striker buried an equaliser. A winner couldn't be determined in regulation time, and the match was sent into extra-time. Uprichard aggravated his injury, but with no substitutes allowed was forced to play through the pain. The Irish rallied around Uprichard defending as a team to hold off the Czechs until a chance presented itself to their star striker.

McParland popped up with his fifth goal of the tournament in extra-time to send Northern Ireland through.

Northern Ireland fell victim to the rampant Fontaine, who scored twice as France beat the Ulstermen 4-0 in the last eight.

In the years that followed Northern Ireland were hit by a talent drain along sectarian lines, as players with Republican sympathies chose to represent the South instead of their native North. The FAI were restricted to selecting players from the six northern counties, but similar restraints did not exist for the Republic.

Northern Ireland failed to reach a World Cup finals again until 1982, as a result arguably the greatest player Northern Ireland has ever produced, George Best, never played in the World Cup.

Return to the World Cup

Under the guidance of Billy Bingham, Northern Ireland narrowly missed out on reaching the 1970 World Cup, and when the 1958 World Cup squad member returned for a second spell in charge, the team began another upswing.

The Troubles in Northern Ireland disrupted the country's ability to host regular matches during the '70s and '80s. A year prior to Northern Ireland's return to the World Cup both England and Wales refused to travel to Belfast for fear they may be impacted by a spike in violence.

Northern Ireland were able to host matches at Windsor Park in Belfast during their World Cup qualifying campaign. Northern Ireland qualified after finishing second in their group behind Scotland. They needed to beat Israel in Belfast to progress, a result they achieved thanks to a goal from Gerry Armstrong, who would feature as a key man during the 1982 tournament.

Northern Ireland, 1982 World Cup

Drawn alongside hosts Spain and powerhouse Yugoslavia, Northern Ireland were given little hope of progression but started with a creditable 0-0 draw against the latter before struggling to a 1-1 draw with Honduras.

Having seen Yugoslavia beat Honduras the day before Northern Ireland had to beat Spain to reach the second group stage.

Northern Ireland stunned the hosts in the 47th minute when Armstrong brought the ball forward with a bustling run from inside his own half after intercepting the ball close to his own box. Armstrong laid the ball off to Billy Hamilton, whose cross dipped awkwardly causing Luis Arconada to spill it into the path of the Watford striker who had continued his run. Armstrong lashed a low shot into the net and Northern Ireland held on for a famous win.

Hamilton scored twice as Northern Ireland drew with Austria in the second group phase, before a 4-1 defeat to France ended their hopes of a semi-final. Armstrong scored his third of the tournament against France ending as the leading scorer from any team from the UK.

Bingham took Northern Ireland to successive World Cups despite being handed a tough qualifying group that included England and a very good Romania side. Northern Ireland made a nightmare start as they suffered defeat away to Finland but rebounded, beating Romania at home. With two games to go Northern Ireland were third in the group ahead of a trip to Bucharest where Jimmy Quinn wrote his name into the team's folklore. Quinn was afforded time and space in the box and produced a good finish to give Northern Ireland a lead they would not surrender.

Billy Bingham, former Northern Ireland manager

The Northern Irishmen showed the same resolve in claiming a point from their trip to Wembley to round off their qualifying campaign and clinch a place at Mexico '86.

Northern Ireland were done no favours in the draw as they found themselves group with Brazil, Spain and Algeria.

Norman Whiteside scored early in the tournament opener against Algeria but Northern Ireland let the lead slip and shared the points.

Defeat to Spain effectively ended Northern Ireland's hopes of progressing and they were soundly beaten by Brazil in their final outing.

Debut in European Championships

Northern Ireland had to wait until 2016 to qualify for their first European Championships when the tournament expanded to 24 teams.

Northern Ireland, Euro 2016

The team produced perhaps their best display in qualifying for a major championship as they topped UEFA Euro 2016 qualifying Group F. Their only loss in 10 games came away to Romania.

Northern Ireland started the tournament with their first competitive loss to Poland but produced a strong response against the Ukraine whom they beat 2-0 in a much-improved display. Northern Ireland took the lead just after half time through Gareth McAuley and Niall McGinn clinched the three points with his injury time strike.

Germany also beat Northern Ireland, but their defensive resolve helped them earn a place in the second round by virtue of being one of the four best third-placed teams.

Northern Ireland proved tough to break down for Wales in the round of 16, but McAuley put through his own net under pressure in the 75th minute to hand their fellow home nation passage to the last eight.

Recent years

Northern Ireland came agonisingly close to qualifying for the 2020 European Championships, reaching a play-off tournament final before going down in extra-time of the Path B climax having scored late to force the game into extra time.

Michal Duris broke hearts in Belfast and the six counties with Slovakia's winning goal.

Northern Ireland started the UEFA Nations League in Division B but in two seasons of the competition are yet to record a victory and at the end of the 2020/21 campaign were relegated to Division C.

The team endured a difficult 2020 as they failed to record a competitive victory in regulation time in eight matches.

Northern Ireland still struggle to compete with larger nations due to their small population and the bulk of their players ply their trade in England and Scotland.

Ian Baraclough was appointed as Northern Ireland manager in September 2020, becoming the first non-Ulsterman to hold the post as well as the first Englishman. He won favour in Northern Ireland thanks to a successful stint as manager of Sligo Rovers.

Northern Ireland's legends

George Best, Northern Ireland

While Best is considered one of the greatest players to never play at a World Cup, his international career didn't hold a candle to his club outings. The inverse of that is true for Northern Ireland's all-time leading scorer David Healy, who seemed to reserve his best for the white shirt. Healy scored 36 international goals.

The heroes of 1958 command a special place in the history of Northern Ireland's football team with skipper Danny Blanchflower, topscorer Peter McParland and future manager Billy Bingham being the standouts.

Pat Jennings debuted in the same match as Best and while the dependable goalkeeper did not grab headlines like the Manchester United star, his 119 caps for Northern Ireland are a testament to his impact on their game.

Martin O'Neill captained Northern Ireland at the 1982 World Cup but he has largely made a name for himself as a manager. O'Neill has coached the Republic of Ireland but has never helmed his home country.

Norman Whiteside might have become a global superstar had his career not ended prematurely but he retains a spot amongst the best to play for Northern Ireland and remains the youngest player to play in a World Cup, having turned out in the 1982 tournament at the age of 17.

Biggest rivals

Northern Ireland established rivalries with the home nations of England, Scotland and Wales as well as the Republic of Ireland with whom they share a troubled past.

They are technically the reigning champions of the British Home Championship, having claimed the trophy in the final edition of the tournament in 1984.

Within Ireland, the rivalry has its roots in the sectarian divisions that have caused so much strife on the island, both sides of the north-south divide also have footballing disputes that have kept them apart.

Northern Ireland was the traditional stronghold of football in Ireland due to its stronger links with England and the greater popularity of the game amongst Ulster Protestants.

In the Republic of Ireland, the influence of Belfast over all Irish football came to be a source of resentment as the North was seen to be holding back the development of the game in the South. Later the South would be accused of playing up sectarian divisions to poach talent from the North. In the modern game the professionals from either side have had little reason to engage in conflict but as recently as the 1990s matches played between the two in Belfast were conducted under heavy security and the atmosphere was tense at best.

Northern Ireland's fanbase

For certain sections of supporters of Northern Ireland hooliganism and sectarianism went hand in hand but more recently the bulk of fans have attended matches in good spirits.

In 2002, Catholic player Neil Lennon was subjected to sustained abuse and death threats from his countrymen and ultimately quit international football.

Their supporters are known as the "Green and White Army" and have won hearts with their tongue-in-cheek chants regarding the team such as "It's Just Like Watching Brazil".

Ahead of the 2016 Euros a fan-made song "Will Grigg's on fire" by Wigan fan Sean Kennedy went viral and became one of the most popular at the whole tournament.

The Ulstermen have embraced being the underdogs in most contests but expectations have been raised by recent efforts, while demand for tickets for international matches at Windsor Park have steadily increased since their 2005 win over England.

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