NI v Czech Republic

So successful was Michael’s shrewd coaching that in the autumn of 2015 we faced the possibility of qualifying for the Euros with two games in hand. However, it was never a foregone conclusion. Our visitors with three games to go, the Hungarians, were no pushovers. They too fancied their chances of qualifying. I have a personal story about this game. I went to the match with my mate Charlie. Afterwards our wives met us at the railway station with long faces. The latest score they had heard was that Hungary were a goal up and Northern Ireland were reduced to 10 men. “Too bad lads,” they said. “You didn’t win the cup, so we’ll have a cup of tea to drown your sorrows.” “Didn’t you hear?” we replied. “Lafferty equalised with the last kick. It means that we have another cup final next month. We will make no mistake then.” The rest is history. The following month a Greek team high on ability, but low on morale because they were not in with a shout, came to Windsor and were swept aside by the green avalanche hungry for success. Our visitors tonight are definitely in with a shout and unquestionably no pushovers. They gave us a torrid time in Prague and we were happy to come away with a point. What is more, for us old timers, the appearance of the Czechs reminds us of exciting clashes in the past. I have vivid memories of the Czech team who came in the spring of 2001 with man mountain Jan Koller leading their attack and with arguably the best player in Europe, team captain Pavel Nedved, as playmaker.

We had high hopes of winning, especially since a young newcomer from Killyleagh called David Healy was showing promise as a goalscorer (does anyone know whatever became of him?) However, in the drizzle of that dreary Belfast afternoon the amazing Nedved bossed the midfield and scored the only goal of the game himself. For really old old timers (like me) another memory springs to mind whenever a Czech team takes the field against Northern Ireland. The game was in the World Cup Finals against Czechoslovakia in Malmo on 17 June, 1958. The Czechs were formidable opponents, whose midfield boasted Masopust and Bubernik, rated among the best in Europe. It was a real win or bust game, a play-off between two teams who had finished the group stage on equal points. After 90 minutes the score was 1-1 and the game went into extra time. As they waited for the game to restart Billy Bingham suggested to captain Danny Blanchflower that the team should get off the turf where they were lying exhausted and start doing exercises and stretches to make their opponents think that they were less tired than they actually were. The rest is history. A Peter McParland goal put Northern Ireland into the quarter-finals. So again we face the wizards from central Europe in a crunch game which both teams need to win. This is the kind of match we fans love to be part of. Bring it on! Words: Cunningham Peacock


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