04/12/1957 Belfast Italy 2-2 Wilbur Cush (2)
Harry Gregg, Dick Keith, Alf McMichael, Danny Blanchflower, Jackie Blanchflower, Bertie Peacock, Billy Bingham, Jimmy McIlroy, Billy McAdams, Wilbur Cush, Peter McParland
This fixture was originally scheduled as a World Cup qualifier, but the Hungarian referee and his linesman were stranded at London airport in the fog on the morning of the match. The Italians would not accept neutral British officials and so the match went ahead as a ‘friendly’ with a local referee. The 60,000 crowd who turned up, expecting to see Northern Ireland qualify for the finals, were angered by the announcement made just 5 minutes before kick-off that the match would be non-competitive and, during the course of the game, the Italian team became resentful of the charges on their goalkeeper made by the Irish forwards. A sending off of an Italian player in the last minute led to an ugly pitch invasion at the final whistle with police truncheons flying and Italy’s defender Ferrario being carried to the dressing room injured after being attacked by the mob.
It was to be Northern Irelands most important game to date. A win against Italy would see us trough to the World Cup finals in Sweden for the first time. The Italians, World Cup winners in 1934 and 1938 only needed a draw. Unfortunately the Hungarian referee and his two linesmen, were fog bound in London after missing their connection to Belfast the previous evening. All morning, efforts were made to get the party flown from an alternative airport to Belfast but the fog blanket on the mainland prevented this. In the Midland Hotel the IFA and Italian manager were meeting to discuss the alternatives. Meanwhile Lurgan referee Tom Mitchell and linesmen Sammy Carswell and Willie Strange were put on stand by and asked to report to Windsor Park.
As the kick off time approached and it became obvious that the referee would not make it, a decision had to be made. Under World Cup rules the referee had to be from a neutral country so the IFA and Italian management agreed the match was to be a friendly using Tom Mitchell and his linesmen. The World Cup game to decide the place in Sweden would be played at a later date. Rumours buzzed thought the 50000 crowd making their way to Windsor for the 2:15pm kick off. At 2pm an announcement was made over the PA system to those already in the ground by Billy Drennan the IFA secretary.
“The Hungarian referee has not arrived. A further announcement will be made later”.
It was also indicated that the Italians had agreed to a local referee. Five minutes before the kick off a further announcement was made.
“Due to the unfortunate circumstances of the non-arrival of the referee and linesmen an agreement has been reached whereby this match will be considered as a friendly international. The cup match will be played here on a date to be arranged. This is all that can be done in the circumstances to maintain friendly relations between the Associations.”
The atmosphere was electric and the crowd had drowned out the second half of the announcement with boos and catcalls. For almost 5 minutes this booing was kept up with those in the stand stamping their feet and jeering.
As the Italian team came onto the pitch they were booed, but as the teams lined up for the National Anthem calm was restored. God Save the Queen finished only for the jeering to start up again, drowning out the Italian anthem! The match started 5 minutes late and straight away the Italians showed they were not particular in how they stopped the Northern Ireland attacks. The crowd grew more incensed, and every decision to the Italians was greeted with boos. Soon Northern Ireland had the Italians under serve pressure. In the first 15 minutes they attacked 12 times compared to the Italians twice. Personal battles were beginning to develop. Bingham and Cervato, Keith and Montuori, McParland and Corradi.
The Italians took the lead in the 30th minute, only for Cush to equalise 3 minutes later. Cush was then laid out by Segato. All this was going on with a background of booing every time the Italians touched the ball, even the taking of Italian goal kicks were booed.
At half time as the Italian team walked to the dressing room they were subjected to a shower of orange peel and apples. They got the same treatment as they returned first to the field in the second half. The first Northern Ireland attack saw the Italian goalkeeper, Bugatti, bundled over his line. He then kicked the ball into the crowd. The crowd went into a frenzy! Another attack ended in a fist fight with only Gregg not involved. The Italians scored again on the break but this was soon answered by another Cush goal. Keith and Gratton then became involved in a pushing match during the goal celebrations which raised the wrath of the excited crowd even more.
The last 30 minutes saw no let up in the action, with both teams going for the third goal. The crowd roared their approval as Keith put Gratton on the floor, tempers on and off the pitch were at boiling point. The excitement was spine tingling.
Bingham was then fouled in the penalty area but only a free kick was given which came to nothing. With two minutes to go McParland was trough on the keeper when Chiapella made a two footed running jump tackle into his back. This resulted in another fist fight between the players and Chiapella was ordered off, but refused to leave. Only with the persuasion of the Italian officials and the RUC escort did he leave the pitch. Even then some spectators still tried to attack him, others threw more apples and orange peel at him.
Two minutes later the final whistle blew and the players started shaking hands. The match itself even with the constant fouls and fights, had been one of the best seen at Windsor.
The Italians made an attempt to go trough the then usual continental drill of lining up in the centre circle to salute the crowd. About 2000 of the crowd at this point were spilling onto the pitch with the intention of saluting the Italians back Ulster style! The bubbling resentment among the supporters over the game being declared only a friendly and the rough tactics of the Italians had spilt over. The Northern Ireland fans started attacking the Italian players!
Ferrario, the main target, fought a rear guard action as several of his team mates went down under a hail of fists and boots. Danny Blanchflower was picking off like flies the spectators who were clinging onto Ferrario’s back. In the end Ferrario passed out under the barrage of fists and boots and was carried from the pitch unconscious by several RUC men. Other policemen and even some of the Northern Ireland players fought with the supporters on the pitch to ensure no further attacks on the Italians. As they rushed to the dressing rooms the Italians once again came under a barrage of items of fruit. RUC reinforcements, batons drawn, soon rushed onto the pitch, made several arrests and restored calm.
Meanwhile a RUC guard was placed on the Italian dressing room in which the unconscious Ferrario lay. After being out cold for over 5 minutes Ferrario recovered enough to walk unaided onto the Italian team coach.
The Irish FA barred manager Peter Doherty and the players from talking to the press afterwards and the Italian FA president Dr Barassi also declined to comment. That evening, however, at a meal in the Grand Central Hotel Dr Barassi stated that the reception of the Italians was “Something like meeting the enemy”. Questions about if the World Cup match would be played in Belfast were being asked. Would the Italians even come back to Belfast?
The Italian press and public went mad. The ‘Gazzetta Dello Sport’ said “An atmosphere of prejudice hung over Windsor Park. The scenes were wild and disgraceful.” Turin’s ‘Gazzetta Del Popoolo’ stated “This match was the most disgusting ever recorded in soccer history.” In Milan the ‘Corriere Bella Sera’ added “We never saw such a way of playing and never met such a people.” The Rome newspaper ‘Messaggero’ called the Northern Ireland fans “Barbarians of a primitive epoch”.
The British press also had their say. The Daily Telegraph saying that it was “one of the most disgusting exhibitions of mob hooliganism ever seen at a British football ground.” The Times added that “The baying of the crowd, mass hysteria, anger growing blindly, the whole becoming an evil infection.”
Questions were even asked in the Italian senate over the incident as well as at Stormont. Even the Government in the Republic got involved with it’s Charge d’Affaires in Rome pointing out that it was a ‘six county team’ playing! Closer to home Frank Hanna an Independent MP for central Belfast apologised on behalf of the nationalist people of Belfast for the riot. The reaction of Hanna and the Republic government makes very interesting reading today.
As far as I can discover the IFA escaped punishment over the trouble but got blamed in the press for not getting the referee to Belfast sooner and not delaying the game for 24 hours. In the end, the Italians returned to Belfast the following month and without further incident were beaten 2-1 to send Northern Ireland to the World Cup finals for the first time.
* Trivia –
Referee Tommy Mitchell who officiated the game because the Hungarian referee Istvan Zoltz and his linesmen were stranded in London due to fog:
“My gear had not even been laundered from the previous Saturday. I rushed home to get it together and clean my boots. Then it was off to Windsor by car and a hectic dash from Lurgan. I thought the stand was going to come down round those sitting in it such was the volume and ferocity of the foot stamping. I had to call in their [Italian] captain and eventually managed to calm things down but there was plenty more rough stuff and the late Wilbur Cush had his stocking ripped.”