16/04/1975 Belfast Yugoslavia 1-0 Bryan Hamilton
Pat Jennings, Pat Rice, Sammy Nelson, Allan Hunter, Chris Nicholl, Dave Clements, Bryan Hamilton, Martin O’Neill, Derek Spence, Sammy McIlroy, Tommy Jackson
Northern Ireland 1 Yugoslavia 0
Published: Happy Days Issue 7
Ten Greatest NI Matches. No.5
16/04/1975 Belfast; Attendance: 25,847
Northern Ireland 1- 0 Yugoslavia (ECQ)
Belfast has never had a great reputation at the best of times, but at the height of the Troubles in the early 1970s it was particularly negative. So much so, that for four years international opponents didn’t appear at Windsor Park, and Northern Ireland were forced to play their ‘home’ games up and down the mainland at grounds like Highfield Road and Goodison Park. Incredibly, in Terry Neill’s three year reign as player-manager his team only played at Windsor Park once; a 1-1 draw against the Soviet Union in October 1971 which proved to be the last international match in Belfast for almost four years. It was a depressing reminder of the situation at home, so when the Yugoslavian FA casually agreed to fulfill the fixture it was greeted with great cheer as well as relief that some sense of normality would be restored.
An early 5pm kick off was arranged to minimize the number of intoxicated spectators as well as facilitating the poor floodlights. As the Yugoslavian players emerged they were greeted with a huge roar of approval from an emotional and appreciative crowd, who were touched by the enormity of the gesture. Northern Ireland fielded a full strength team. Indeed, nine of the starting eleven hold places in the 30 most capped Irish internationals of all time, and three have managed the national side. The match itself began as a predictably cagey affair, although Northern Ireland dominated proceedings against a strong Slavic team. Complimenting now player-manager Dave Clements was Martin O’Neill, instrumental in the middle of the park. Here was a player who had improved greatly since his debut in that match against the Soviets some four years previously. It was a shame that the fans had missed witnessing the development of players like O’Neill and the mesmerizing skill of favorite son George Best. Another honorable performance was put in by debutant Derek Spence, who was playing above his third division status and causing the experienced Yugoslavian defence plenty of problems.
With the team keen to impress and show the home crowd what they had been missing, they were creating plenty of chances which were either fluffed or saved by the in-form Ljupko Petrovic. The solitary goal belied the classy nature of the performance, a scrappy left foot shot from Bryan Hamilton greeted by a huge cheer from the Spion Kop. The relief and joy were tangible, for a crowd which had waited nearly four years for a home goal.
Sammy McIlroy – who knows all about goal droughts – was on the receiving end of some more Slavic hospitality. Going down with cramp in the Yugoslav penalty area, play continued without the trainer being allowed on as at that time it wasn’t convention to kick the ball out of play. With the match continuing at the other end of the pitch, Petrovic came out of his goal to help McIlroy stretch. It was that kind of day.
The game itself may not have been a great spectacle, but the significance was far reaching. In the years following, only neighbours Scotland refused to play in ‘unsafe Belfast’ in 1976. It is a decision which still holds bitterness amongst some Northern Ireland supporters, although it is speculated that the IFA did not object too much with the prospect of increased revenue from a ‘home’ game at Hampden. How teams like England, Portugal and Spain would love to use politics as an excuse nowadays to avoid the wrath of Windsor.
Team: P. Jennings, P. Rice, S. Nelson, A. Hunter, C.Nicholl, D. Clements, B. Hamilton, M. O’Neill, D. Spence, S. McIlroy, T. Jackson
Author: Robin Peake
The back page of the News Letter carried a welcome (in both languages) to the Yugoslavs on the morning before the game.
It read: “Northern Ireland sports fans welcome the Yugoslav team and it’s officials to our country. We thank you for bringing international football back to Belfast after a gap of four years and wish you good luck for tomorrow’s match. Your decision to play here is something we will never forget. We hope you have a pleasant trip. You will always find a welcome here should you wish to return.”
Naturally, the Irish Football Association took on special security precautions. Player-Manager Dave Clements was quoted as saying: “We must have driven 50 or 60 miles to find a training pitch. Everything looked normal and you would not believe there was any trouble here at all.”
A large crowd of 28,000 witnessed a Northern Ireland win on their return to Windsor Park with Bryan Hamilton scoring on 23 minutes, nodding the ball into the net following a fierce header from Allan Hunter, direct from a Tommy Jackson corner. Northern Ireland had two disallowed goals and a blatant penalty appeal turned down by the French referee.
‘No-one should ever forget the Yugoslavs for breaking down the barriers’ said one local newspaper.
Goal scorer Bryan Hamilton:
“Quite simply it is one of the most outstanding memories of my career, a wonderful, really special occasion which I’ll treasure as long as I live. I rank the occasion alongside the other big moments in my life like the League Cup final at Wembley with Everton, my first international match against Turkey and the day I led out my country for the first time.”
“I remember if well. How could anyone forget it… a beautiful sunny day, a full house in full cry. Just walking down the tunnel to that famous Windsor Park roar brought tears to the eyes. The players were more tense than usual for this was the great homecoming. We didn’t want to let down the fans.”
“It was a great team effort and I was particularly pleased to get the winning goal although to this day my then Ipswich teammate Allan Hunter still banters me about it and claims his header was going in anyway!”
Player Manager Dave Clements:
“The noise they made; the welcome they gave us made me think there were more like 50,000 in the stadium [the actual attendance was 28,000], it was all very touching. The ovation we received coming out was amazing. You couldn’t help but be moved by it all. Big Allan Hunter even threatened to kiss me!”
“They gave us tremendous encouragement and really spurred us on. I had to tell them [players] to ignore the crowd and not play to the gallery or sink into sentimentality. ”