Northern Ireland

1958 World Cup: Northern Ireland's odyssey in Sweden recalled in new film

Bengt Jonasson, centre, who was Northern Ireland's adopted mascot at the 1958 World Cup, with trainer Gerry Morgan, left and captain Danny Blanchflower Image copyright Bengt Jonasson
Image caption Bengt Jonasson, centre, who was Northern Ireland's adopted mascot at the 1958 World Cup, with trainer Gerry Morgan, left and captain Danny Blanchflower

"In years to come, when we reflect with the judgement and enchantment that distance lends to these things, we may marvel at the almost impossible feats we achieved…"

The words of Danny Blanchflower, Northern Ireland's football captain at the 1958 World Cup finals in Sweden, should resonate with Evan Marshall, the director of a new film documentary about the team.

Despite no previous experience in the role, the bookseller has invested thousands of pounds and hours in ensuring the story of Peter Doherty's illustrious side hits the big screen.

Spirit of 58, which premieres at the Belfast film festival next week, has exclusive interviews with the five surviving members of the squad - Billy Bingham, Harry Gregg, Jimmy McIlroy, Peter McParland and Billy Simpson - that bowed out one game away from a semi-final with eventual tournament winners Brazil.

It is augmented by a treasure trove of archive footage and memorabilia Marshall has accumulated in his quest to realise a dream that was ignited in 2008.

"I first came up with the idea on the 50th anniversary of the World Cup in Sweden," Marshall said.

Image copyright Bengt Jonasson
Image caption Jonasson travelled with the players and took this image of them in June 1958 as they lined up before their game against Argentina in Halmstad from his seat on the bench
Image copyright Bengt Jonasson
Image caption He also snapped future Northern Ireland manager Billy Bingham, left, Peter McParland, background, Derek Dougan, centre, and Norman Uprichard, far right, during training in Tylosand

"For various reasons it did not come off, but two years ago I realised we were down to just five remaining players and I said to myself these players will tell their story if it is the last thing I do.

"There is all the drama along the way. Northern Ireland knocked out Italy to reach the finals in a match replayed after the 'Battle of Belfast'. Just four months before the tournament two of the Northern Ireland team, who are Manchester United players, are involved in the Munich Air Disaster.

"One of them, Jackie Blanchflower, Danny's brother, never plays again. The other Harry Gregg, the hero of Munich, goes on to be named goalkeeper of the tournament at the World Cup finals.

"Some elements within the Irish Football Association try to stop the team going to the finals over Sunday football because it is against their constitution and it takes months of negotiations before they are allowed to go."

Marshall enlisted camera operator and editor Ben Price as he embarked on his plan to celebrate the team's achievement in emerging from a group of Argentina, West Germany and Czechoslovakia to reach the quarter-finals, where they lost to France.

'Compelled'

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Harry Gregg starred for Northern Ireland at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden and was voted best goalkeeper at the tournament which took place four months after the Munich Air Crash

He appears to have been infused with the indomitable spirit of his heroes as he investigated distant trails to provide the film with its emotional punch.

Although compelled by the courage of Gregg, he also admires the resilience shown by other players at the finals, including Gregg's understudy Norman Uprichard, in Northern Ireland's crucial play-off game against Czechoslovakia.

"Norman Uprichard, the goalkeeper, injures his ankle at the start of the game and trainer Gerry Morgan comes on and pours two bottles of whiskey over it. Uprichard then breaks one of his hands in the second half, but because there are no replacements he has to play on," he said.

"The game goes into extra time and despite only having one good hand and one good leg he doesn't concede another goal and Northern Ireland triumph."

Image copyright Bengt Jonasson
Image caption Gregg, with walking stick, outside his chalet in Sweden after he was injured during the competition. He had to throw it away to play in the World Cup quarter-final against France

The east Belfast resident scoured internet auction sites for various items of interest for the documentary.

He has also unearthed highlights of Northern Ireland's first World Cup group game against Czechoslovakia, which had lain dormant for decades in England, with help from BBC NI media manager Declan Doherty.

But possibly his greatest feat was locating Bengt Jonasson, who was a 12-year-old boy in 1958, when the team adopted him as their World Cup mascot.

Marshall eventually connected with him through social media and set up a poignant reunion with Gregg and McParland after more than 50 years.

Image copyright Bengt Jonasson
Image caption Bengt Jonasson, centre, was reunited with Harry Gregg and Peter McParland in Northern Ireland last summer

"This almost mythical figure, Bengt Jonasson, was part of the story and I was determined to find him," he said.

"The Northern Ireland team had taken this boy from Halmstad in Sweden to their hearts, he translated for them, he travelled with them, he sat on the bench during their games, he waved them off in tears when they were eliminated.

"The last time he had met the members of the team was in the autumn of 1958 when he travelled to Northern Ireland for the civic reception in Belfast, he also conducted the band before the home international against England at Windsor Park.

"Bengt now lives half of the year in Australia and the other half in Sweden. Peter McParland and Harry Gregg met him last summer at Harry Gregg's house and Bengt was very touched by it, he has treasured these memories all his life.

"It was now three elderly men together, Bengt pointed to the middle of Harry Gregg's chest and said 'I only used to come up to there on you'."

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