While I was in France, watching Northern Ireland compete at Euro 2016, I read Evan Marshall’s brilliant book, Spirit of 58, which charts the team’s first major tournament finals, almost sixty years ago.
It’s a great story, describing how the country’s manager, Peter Doherty, transformed perennial whipping boys into a squad of formidable professionals, who then advanced to the quarter finals of the 1958 World Cup. It’s written vividly and lucidly, on the back of freshly researched source material and a wealth of new interviews.
One of the striking themes, which clearly frustrates the author, is the consistent ineptitude of the Irish Football Association, the sport’s organising body in Northern Ireland. The IFA refused to allow a full panel of players to travel to the tournament in Sweden, it frustrated Doherty’s attempts to scout opposition matches, it botched hotel bookings – with the result that an injury-ravaged team missed out on much needed rest – and, worst of all, it almost stopped Northern Ireland competing in the first place, because of controversy about playing games on a Sunday.
Fifty-eight years later, much has changed and little has changed.
The squad of 2016 certainly had all the amenities it needed to compete in France and it played matches on the Sabbath, during qualification and during the tournament itself, with few serious objections. However, the IFA still has a formidable talent for bungling matters off the field, even while its international team is over-achieving on it.
Last night, the association elected David Martin as its president. This is a man who was forced out as IFA treasurer, after the sports minister made it clear that the organisation was not fit for purpose and couldn’t receive government monies while some of its officers were still in place. Not to be discouraged, Mr Martin failed three independent suitably tests, as he attempted to find his way back into prominent posts in local football. In 2013, the IFA changed its rules at an AGM, so that officers no longer needed to prove their suitability to an independent panel.
A lot of the problems underlying Mr Martin’s comeback would be familiar to the football community in 1958. Tiny little clubs, many of them from church leagues, rather than Irish League teams, drove opposition to playing football on a Sunday and jeopardised Northern Ireland’s involvement in the World Cup. Likewise, Mr Martin built up his power-base in junior football, and he was linked to the ‘Dunloy Proposals’, which almost derailed funding for the new National Stadium at Windsor Park, as small clubs made a grab for more influence.
The IFA has changed over the years and there are professional staff amongst its ranks. In most respects, it did a good job of promoting and organising Northern Ireland’s Euro 2016 campaign, so that it was memorable for players and supporters alike. It would be a real shame if that hard work is undermined by the election of the association’s foremost officer.