28 June 2015

Hall of Fame: The Big Red Book

Outside of being honoured by the Queen, perhaps the greatest distinction anyone in the UK could receive was to appear on TV's This Is Your Life. Three Northern Ireland internationals were surreptitiously approached by Eamonn Andrews or Michael Aspel during the show's near fifty year run on the BBC and ITV.

1961 - Danny Blanchflower
The first to be surprised by Eamonn Andrews was Northern Ireland and Spurs captain, Danny Blanchflower. The man himself wasn't too keen and in February 1961 answered Andrews' familiar refrain of: "Tonight Danny, This Is Your Life" with the retort: "No it isn't!" before running off, so the story goes. This was the first time anyone who had been approached refused to partake.

1971 & 2003 George Best
It was a full decade before Andrews found the courage to approach another Northern Irish footballer. George Best went from his element at a fashion show surrounded by pretty girls to an uncomfortable slouch in front of the TV cameras.

He became one of the few individuals to be featured twice when caught out by Michael Aspel in 2003. This was shortly after his liver transplant, and the filming of a liver disease appeal was used as a rouse to entrap him. By 2003 Best, as a regular football pundit and chat show doyen, had become much more confident in front of the cameras.

1983 Pat Jennings
In 1983 Eamonn Andrews strode onto the White Hart Lane turf to surprise Pat Jennings following a North London derby between Jennings' then current side, Arsenal and ex-club, Spurs. The ever shy but polite Jennings sat among his playing colleague from club and country, but it was clear he was happiest to be among his family.

This Is Your Life was cancelled as a regular series in 2003 (a 2007 one-off special aside). A full list of footballers to have featured on the show can be found at the Big Red Book website. While some of the biggest names in British football were featured, it seems a shame that more Northern Ireland players didn't appear, or perhaps there was a fear that any of the potential subjects might just have done a Blanchflower!

26 June 2015

Player Transfers Summer 2015

Sam Morrow (Linfield to Coleraine) story story
Jonny Tuffey (Linfield to Glenavon) story story
Alan Blayney (Glenavon to Ballymena United) story
Adam Chapman (Newport County to Mansfield Town) story story
Andrew Mitchell (Southport to Crusaders) story
Greg Tempest (Notts County to Lincoln City) story
David Buchanan (Preston North End to Northampton Town) story
Carl Magnay (Grimsby Town to Hartlepool United) story
Cameron McGeehan (Norwich City to Luton Town) story
Rhys Sharpe (Derby County to Notts County) story story
Nathan Hanley (Crusaders to Ballymena United) story
Johnn Gorman (Barrow to AFC Telford) story story
Michael Carvill (Linfield to Crusaders) story story
Trevor Carson (Cheltenham Town to Hartlepool United) story
Chris Baird (West Bromwich Albion to Derby County) story story
Adam McGurk (Burton Albion to Portsmouth) story
Rory Donnelly (Swansea City to Gillingham) story story
Chris Turner (Dumbarton to Hamilton Academical) story
Billy Kee (Scunthorpe to Accrington Stanley) story
Josh McQuoid (AFC Bournemouth to Luton Town) story story
James Gray (Accrington Stanley to Wrexham) story
Jason Mooney (York City to Accrington Stanle) story
Paddy McCourt (Brighton & Hove Albion to Luton Town) story story
Jamie Ward (Derby County to Nottingham Forest) story story
Eddie McCallion (Bangor to Institute) story

Conor Brennan (Kilmarnock to Stranraer) story

Aaron Hughes (Brighton & Hove Albion) story
Peter Thompson (Linfield) story
Jeff Hughes (Fleetwood) story
Liam Nolan (Crewe Alexandra) story
Jamie Sendles-White (QPR) story
Ryan Brobbel (Middlesbrough) story
Sammy Clingan (Kilmarnock) story
Matt McClure (Wycombe Wanderers) story
Chris Johns (Southampton) story
Paddy McLaughlin (Grimsby Town) story
Joe Dudgeon (Hull City) story
Gary Browne (Coleraine) story
James McQuilkin (Torquay United)
Johnny Steele (Minnesota United) story

21 June 2015

Spanning the Decades

Last week NIFG published a piece on the members of the 50 Cap Club, this week we  look at those 21 players who had an international career spanning more than (fairly arbitrarily) thirteen years. While there is an obvious overlap with those who have won 50+ caps, it is not as large as you might think. Twelve of the players listed below did not make the 50 Cap Club, with seven (a third!) not even reaching 25 caps!

Pat Jennings in 1964 and 1986
Unsurprisingly the Northern Ireland player with the longest international career was Pat Jennings, with 22 years and 58 days between his first and last caps. That's an average of over 5 caps per year.

Next on the list is another famous name to those who know their football history, Newcastle United legend Bill McCracken. Right-back McCracken was a 19 year-old with Distillery when he made his Ireland debut in 1902 and had passed his 40th birthday when he won his 16th and final cap in 1923 shortly after he was appointed manager at Hull. That was a return of just 0.76 caps a year. So what happened? The First World War put international football on hold for over five years, but likely had little effect on McCracken's cap total. In 1907 he fell out with the Irish FA over match fees, arguing that he was worthy of the same £10 as his England contemporaries received. The IFA balked at the suggestion, so banishing one of the most famous footballers of his age until a post-war reconciliation in 1919. The gap of nearly 13 years is the biggest between caps for any Ireland international. Even with the War interrupting football, if McCracken had played in every possible international he would have won 51 caps. If football hadn't been suspended that total could have been 66.

Next on the list is our current goalkeeper, Roy Carroll. There are parallels between Carroll's and McCracken's international careers. Both were just 19 when first capped, and both suffered long exiles from the international set-up. Initially Carroll became frustrated with his role as back-up to Maik Taylor and requested not to travel with the squad unless he could play. There then followed a period of injury and upheaval in his career until he rebuilt his form and confidence on the continent, and was recalled after a six year gap in 2012. Currently he holds 41 caps, playing in just 28% of the 144 matches Northern have played since his debut against Thailand in 1997, 18 years ago.

Billy Gillespie c.1913 and later with less hair
Donegal-man Billy Gillespie was capped 25 times in a near 18 year international career, but he too had his career stymied by the Great War. His appearances in 61% of the possible matches between 1913-30 was respectable, particularly considering he suffered a couple of serious injuries and was on several occasions withheld from international duty by Sheffield United where he was captain of a successful side.

Aaron Hughes's international career is now in its 18th year and we all hope he can get at least one more season out of it!

Liverpool and Belfast Celtic legend Elisha Scott also could have won many more caps if not for the First World War and club pressures during an international career that spanned just two days short of 16 years and 31 caps.

The finest player of his age (according to Bill Shankly no less), Peter Doherty claimed 16 caps in a 15 year international career interrupted by the Second World War. He also fell foul of IFA's selection committee at times. They regarded him as a "luxury" player and refused to select him with more "solid" options chosen instead. The fact that Ireland were regularly hammered with or without him in the team meant that the fans were denied the one bright spot they may have seen on the Windsor Park turf.

Contrary to the table below, Billy Lacey's international career actually spanned over 21 years. Capped 23 times by the Irish FA between 1909 and 1923, his career was stretched past his 40th birthday when he won another three caps for the fledgling Free State international team between 1927-1930. His career was also interrupted by WW1, but his appearance in 66% of possible internationals while playing with successful Everton and Liverpool sides has to be admired!

Linfield's Johnny Darling was a player that Ireland looked to on-and-off over a fifteen year international career. His 22 caps equates to less than half of the internationals played between 1897 and 1912. He was an early example of an Irish League professional and won multiple honours during 20 years as a player.

Derek Dougan 1958 and 1973
Derek Dougan's international career began as a raw 20 year-old at the 1958 World Cup finals and ended nearly 15 years later, either due to a falling out with Harry Cavan over his All-Ireland team ambitions or due to him being over the hill, depending on who's word you take. Not really ready for the international game when injuries to more likely number nines thrust him into the team in Sweden, it took Dougan another few years to establish himself in the Northern Ireland team. His career was further interrupted as Bertie Peacock was unwilling to select a player playing in the Division Three as Dougan did with Peterborough from 1963-65. A return of 43 caps from a possible 79 does look a poor return for such a gifted player.

Sammy McIlroy appeared in 88 of a possible 107 matches during his 14 year international career, which began when he was just 17 and included all of the early-80s glories, many with him as captain. Although some did feel McIlroy had been dropped too soon in the wake of Mexico 86, in reality his career had stalled since he'd been released by Stoke in 1985, though he kept his Football League playing career going into the 1990s.

Dave Rollo's earliest caps were won as deputy for more illustrious names in the years leading up to the Great War, but he did play twice in Ireland's 1914 British Championship success. Post-war he established himself in the Ireland team, winning his 16th and final cap as a 36 year-old in a 3-3 draw with England.

Keith Gillespie 1994 and 2008
From teenage starlet, to supposed waster, to seasoned pro, Keith Gillespie was a Northern Ireland regular, barring disciplinary issues, for 14 years, yielding 86 caps. Although his days were probably done, the manner of the ending of his international career by Nigel Worthington in 2009 rankled with player and fans alike.

Peter Doherty probably saw something of himself in Jimmy McIlroy who, although sometimes failing to effectively transfer his club form to the international stage was a regular in the Northern Ireland team for 14 years. He played an important role in getting Northern Ireland to Sweden in 1958 and in an historic 1957 win over England.

Mal Donaghy was pretty much always in the Northern Ireland side for a little over 14 years. Had he been awarded his first caps a couple of years earlier, as he probably deserved, he might have been the first outfield player to reach 100 caps.

Alex Stevenson was just 19 when first capped by the Irish Free State in 1932, it would be fourteen years before the FAI capped him again. In those intervening years he was a regular for the Irish FA's team, barely missing a game in a 14 year career that was interrupted by WWII. He won his 17th and final (Northern) Ireland cap at the age of 35 and the last of 7 Eire caps a year later.

Dave McCreery was another teenage international who was to star in two World Cups during his 14 year international career. Sometimes underrated by fans, and at times undervalued by his managers, to look at him you'd say 67 caps wasn't a bad return, but then looks can be deceiving.

George Best 1964 and 1976
The mercurial talent that was George Best had an international career that spanned over 13 years, but yielded just 37 caps. He turned out in just 47% of possible games during that period as he was often rested by Sir Matt, suffering the knocks that went with the game in those days or had went "Missing". Whether he could've went on a bit longer (to 1982?) if he'd looked after himself is something that can only be speculated.

The fact that Danny Blanchflower's career suffered a slow-ish start is perhaps overlooked. He was 23 before becoming a full-time pro, but within six months he was an international... and quickly dropped for being out of his depth. Of course Ireland couldn't afford to over-look any player, especially one as cute as Blanchflower! He quickly learnt the game and was a regular until injuries began to curtail his career as he approached the age of 37. He couldn't have done much more than win a then record 56 caps in those 13 years.

Pat McCourt was a highly promising 18 year-old when he came off the bench for his debut in a inglorious 5-0 defeat by Spain in 2002. There followed a gradual fall and a gradual rise spanning seven years before he returned to the international scene in 2009. He remains a squad regular, but has been seldom trusted for more than the odd cameo in the past six years as his cap tally has crept to 17, just 16% of possible matches. He was spectacular against the Faroes in 2011 though!

From his first cap as an amateur at Distillery in 1971 to his 64th and last while captaining Northern Ireland in what would eventually be a second successive successful World Cup qualifying campaign, Martin O'Neill was an incredibly valuable Northern Ireland player during those glory days. His appearances in British Championship matches were sporadic, though this was often due to club commitments during a successful career with Forest.

% Apps
Caps/ Yr

14 June 2015

The 50 Cap Club

Chris Brunt on the occasion
of his 50th cap, vs Romania
13th June 2015
Last night Chris Brunt played his 50th game for Northern Ireland, becoming the 33rd player to reach this landmark. With no slight intended to Chris, statistically he is the "least regular" player to have reached that landmark, playing in just 54% of games since his debut against Switzerland in 2004.

50 caps used to be an incredibly difficult landmark to reach, the first person to so so was Danny Blanchflower in 1961, 79 years after we'd played our first international match. Up to the 1950s (Northern) Ireland, with only a few exceptions, played just three games a season, so a player would have had to not miss a match for nearly 17 years to reach the landmark. Indeed, prior to Blanchflower the record stood at 31 by Elisha Scott (1920-36) who, although his career almost stretched to the appropriate length, often struggled to secure his release from club duty. World War One also got in the way, he had made his First Division debut for Liverpool in 1913 but had to wait seven years to make an international appearance, years that might just have brought him to the magical mark.

The 30 caps won by Olphie Stanfield between 1887 and 1897 was perhaps more impressive as he missed just 3 matches in 11 seasons (playing 91% of the possible games) as an international player, most, if not all, while an amateur player. When Stanfield started his international career Ireland's record cap holder (Billy Crone) had ten caps. That record lasted 39 years until surpassed by Scott.

Since the 50 cap barrier was finally broken more and more players have been able to join the club, aided by World Cup qualifiers (and finals), the European Nations Cup/Championships and more and more friendlies. It is notable that the first three members of the club had the benefit of five World Cup finals appearances, though in reality, none of them needed these games to surpass the mark. Billy Bingham played in a remarkable 93% of available games during his international career, including a still record run of 43 consecutive games.
The first three members of the 50 Cap Club show off watches awarded to them by their former club, Glentoran in 1963
The 1970s presented just three more 50-cappers, but bear in mind that Northern Ireland rarely played a friendly match in this era and enjoyed no qualification successes. However, many of the players who went on to top 50 caps in the 1980s built a solid caps foundation in the otherwise fruitless decade, notably Bryan Hamilton who was gifted his landmark, and final, cap during the IFA's Centenary tour of Australia despite having barely played a club game the previous season. Also, pity poor Pat Rice who's career stalled at 49 caps in 1979, despite still playing another 5 years as a regular for Arsenal and Graeme Taylor's Watford.

The 1980s saw ten players awarded their half-century of caps, with three of those players only reaching that landmark courtesy of appearances at the 1982 and/or 1986 World Cups. Only four of those ten played in more than 80% of the available matches, with Sammy Nelson playing in just 60% games during his 11 year international career as he scraped over the line to 51 caps in Spain courtesy of Mal Donaghy's red card against the hosts. Other than that blot, Mal played in 91% of possible matches, a figure only bettered by Bingham and Blanchflower who played during a very different era.

As the quiet late-80s ticked into the even quieter 1990s a a couple of stalwarts of the World Cup sides joined the club. Notionally, Alan McDonald would not have made it if not for those three games in Mexico in 1986, but then Bryan Hamilton may have taken sympathy and offered Big Mac a couple more run outs, remembering he was still a regular for QPR in Premier League at the time of his last appearance and would enjoy a few more seasons in the first team in the lower leagues with QPR and then Swindon.

Maik Taylor
In 1998 Iain Dowie became the first post World Cups "Anglo" to reach the magic-fifty and he was soon joined by three players who had been blooded as youngsters in the early-90s - Michael Hughes, Gerry Taggart and Jim Magilton. Each of these three could have reached higher totals if not for various fallings out with club and country managements.

The golden era of the mid-2000s saw a clutch of new club members. The remarkably loyal Anglo/German import Maik Taylor played in 81% of possible matches having had to initially share goalkeeping duties with Roy Carroll and latterly Lee Camp. David Healy played 86% of possible matches, including a run of 38 consecutive appearances - he would surely have surpassed Bingham's record of 43 had he not been ridiculously red-carded in a World Cup qualifier against Wales.

James Quinn also limped over the line with a "sympathy appearance" as a late sub against Latvia in 2006. This illustrates another factor that eases players towards higher cap totals, for 15 of Quinn's caps were won as a substitute, while this was not an option at all prior to the 1960s, and even then initially only a single substitute was allowed, whereas nowadays virtually the entire team can be replaced during friendlies.

Of the current players, particular kudos must go to Steven Davis who has played in 85% of possible matches in the past decade. The next players who might join the club are Kyle Lafferty and Jonny Evans, both of who currently hold 43 caps. The real question might be, can anyone join Pat Jennings in the 100 Cap Club?
Pat Jennings, the only member
of the "100 Cap Club"

50 Cap Club Members (by year joined)
1961 Danny Blanchflower (total 56 1949-62) 91.8%
1962 Billy Bingham (56 1951-63) 93.3%
1962 Jimmy McIlroy (55 1951-65) 76.4%
1972 Terry Neill (59 1961-73) 86.8%
1974 Pat Jennings (119 1964-86) 81.0%
1979 Allan Hunter (53 1969-79) 82.8%
1980 Bryan Hamilton (50 1968-80) 65.8%
1981 Sammy McIlroy (88 1972-86) 82.2%
1982 Sammy Nelson (51 1971-82) 60.0%
1982 Martin O'Neill (64 1971-84) 67.4%
1982 Jimmy Nicholl (73 1976-86) 90.1%
1983 Chris Nicholl (51 1975-83) 73.9%
71 caps, but Michael Hughes
could have won many more
1983 Gerry Armstrong (63 1977-86) 84.0%
1985 David McCreery (67 1976-90) 66.3%
1987 Mal Donaghy (91 1980-94) 91.0%
1988 John McClelland (53 1980-90) 67.9%
1994 Nigel Worthington (66 1984-97) 78.6%
1995 Alan McDonald (52 1985-95) 77.6%
1998 Iain Dowie (59 1990-99) 86.8%
1999 Michael Hughes (71 1991-2004) 73.2%
2001 Gerry Taggart (51 1990-2002) 57.3%
2001 Jim Magilton (52 1991-2002) 64.2%
2003 Keith Gillespie (86 1994-2008) 74.8%
2005 Maik Taylor (88 1999-2011) 80.7%
2006 David Healy (95 2000-13) 86.4%
2006 Aaron Hughes (96 1998-2015) 68.6%
2006 James Quinn (50 1996-2007) 58.1%
2009 Damien Johnson (56 1999-2009) 64.4%
Emma Higgins' 50th cap
2010 Stephen Craigan (54 2003-2011) 74.0%
2011 Chris Baird (72 2003-15) 69.9%
2011 Steven Davis (74 2005-15) 85.1%
2014 Gareth McAuley (53 2005-15) 63.1%
2015 Chris Brunt (50 2004-15) 54.3%

In the women's internationals six players have reached the fifty mark. Kelly Bailie, Nadene Caldwell, Emma Higgins, Ashley Hutton, Julie Nelson and Demi Vance.

Who was Northern Ireland's Greatest World Cup Player & Team? (select up to eleven players)

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