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Wednesday 02 Jan 2019
When knockout format was the order of the day for Euros qualification

As Northern Ireland prepare to face another Euros qualification campaign in 2019, it’s perhaps timely to take a look back at the boys in green and white’s first attempt to qualify for the European Championships, writes Andy Greeves. 

To date Northern Ireland have played 110 qualifying matches for the European Championships – plus four UEFA Nations League matches. Games in the Nations League can arguably be classed as qualifiers as the competition offers four places at the finals of the European Championships in 2020.

Northern Ireland’s first adventure on the road to the continent’s biggest international football tournament came in 1964.

In that year, on 10 October to be precise, Northern Ireland took on Poland in Chorzów in the first leg of a Euro 1964 preliminary round qualifier.

Goals from Derek Dougan and Billy Humphries gave Bertie Peacock’s team a two-goal advantage in the tie that day while strikes from Johnny Crossan and Billy Bingham at Windsor Park on 28 November 1962 saw them complete an aggregate 4-0 victory.

In contrast to the current European qualifying group format, the route to Euro 1964 was a straight knockout contest, with three rounds of matches (including the preliminary round) played over two legs. 

After their victory over Poland, Peacock’s men were paired with Spain in the draw for the first round proper. A 1-1 draw in Bilbao on 30 May 1963 – which featured an equalising goal from Willie Irvine – gave Northern Ireland real hope of progression to the final round of qualifying. 

Alas a second half strike from Real Madrid legend Francisco Gento at Windsor Park on 30 October 1963 saw the Spaniards triumph 2-1 on aggregate.

Along with Spain it was Luxembourg, Denmark, France, Hungary, Sweden, the Soviet Union and the Republic of Ireland that made it to the second and final round of qualification for Euro 1964 – which also doubled as the unofficial quarter-finals of the tournament itself. 

Spain hosted and ultimately won Euro 1964, beating the Soviet Union 2-1 in the final in Madrid in a four-team competition that also featured Hungary and Denmark. 

After their failure to make it to Euro 1964, Northern Ireland’s path to eventually securing a place at the finals of a European Championships was a slow and painful one. 

More than half a century of hurt (52 years) eventually came to an end when a 3-1 victory over Greece in Belfast on 8 October 2015 guaranteed Michael O’Neill’s men qualification to UEFA Euro 2016.

This article is adapted from a piece by Andy Greeves which first appeared in the matchday programme for the Northern Ireland v Bosnia & Herzegovina Nations League match in September 2018.

PHOTO Northern Ireland skipper 3-1 win over Greece in October 2015 ensured Northern Ireland would take part in the European Championship finals for the first time.