25/04/1957 Rome Italy 0-1
Harry Gregg, Willie Cunningham, Alf McMichael, Danny Blanchflower, Wilbur Cush, Tommy Casey, Billy Bingham, Billy Simpson, Eddie McMorran, Jimmy McIlroy, Bertie Peacock
Huge statues peering down from the Olympic Stadium in Rome greeted the Northern Ireland players as they entered the arena. Jackie Blanchflower and Peter McParland were missing for Northern Ireland as they were due to face eachother in the FA Cup with their respective teams, Manchester United and Aston Villa.
Northern Ireland’s manager Peter Doherty instead selected Wilbur Cush at centre-half. Wilbur played a great game and prevented Italy’s centre-forward Eddie Firmani from getting any shot on goal.
Harry Gregg also had a great game even though Italy eventually won the match 1-0 with the Italian crowd applauding him as he left the pitch after the game had finished. Cervato who took the free-kick for Italy which he subsequently scored with moved the ball a few feet and had taken it before the referee noticed.
On the back of Gregg’s performance Italian club Genoa enquired to his availability. Unfortunately for Genoa, Gregg’s manager as his current club of Doncaster Rovers was none other than Peter Doherty himself who refused to sell!
Who came up with the strategic idea of putting a wall in front of a free-kick?
“We tried to do things that nobody else had ever thought of. We had to because they were better sides. We put up the first wall at a free-kick. They seemed to be frightened by the tactic. It did have its teething problems though. The referee had never seen it either, so when the Italians picked up the ball and moved it five yards away from the wall and shot it into the net, he gave a goal!”
Source: Danny Blanchflower: A Biography: A Biography of a Visionary by Dave Bowler (ISBN: 9780575065048)
Cork born (he moved to Newry when 10 years old) Leslie Nicholl led out the Northern Ireland team for this match. Leslie would become infamous in Northern Ireland circles along with his friend Micky McColgan a year later, when they travelled to the 1958 World Cup in Sweden via motor scooter and pitched a tent on the lawn of the Northern Ireland’s team hotel. Leslie was the driver of the scooter and was Secretary of Newry Town FC while Micky was a Junior Official with the Irish FA (Coleraine).
Danny Blanchflower captain of Northern Ireland at the time remembers; “He [Leslie] booked himself into an apartment room and made himself a tall cardboard hat, covering it with green and white crepe paper and a triangular Union Jack. He also decorated a long stick and walked into the [Northern Ireland’s] team’s posh hotel. Peter Doherty, the Irish manager, thought Leslie was St. Patrick himself and insisted that Leslie lead out the team – which he did…”