We are approaching the conclusion of the Euro 2020 qualifiers, and it is looking a tough task for Northern Ireland. The final two games are going to take something special if Michael O’Neill’s side is going to clinch an automatic spot. There is a route through the play-offs, but that is far from straightforward, and it is out of their hands. O’Neill has undoubtedly done well, squeezing the performances and results he has from a squad lacking world-class players. In an effort to boost any flagging morale, here we look at (in no particular order) the 10 best players who have pulled on the green and white jersey.
There is nothing that can be said about Northern Ireland’s—and arguably football’s—greatest talent that hasn’t already been said a thousand times. It is easy to forget that, despite everything he achieved in his career, he all but retired from top-level football when just 27 years old. Admittedly, his performances for his country never hit the levels of his club career, and it is at Old Trafford that he will always be best remembered. In a season when Manchester United are more likely to go down than win the title (according to the latest trends and statistics), how they are praying for a talent of George’s ilk.
Perhaps the best indication of just how good a player Pat was between the sticks is that there is an ongoing debate as to who is Northern Ireland’s greatest player ever. Both Jennings and Best made their debuts on the same day, and though Pat may not have had the glittering tabloid attention that George received, there is little doubting that on an international level Jennings made far more of an impact. His 119 caps are a record, and it is a mark of the man that he is equally revered at both Arsenal and Spurs.
To be voted Tottenham’s greatest ever player you need to be special, and Danny certainly was that. He was part of the North London side’s greatest teams, picking up silverware both at home and in Europe, and he was capped 56 times by his country. Special mention should also go to his younger brother Jackie who was likely to have had an equally-glittering career had his life not been so cruelly cut short by the Munich air disaster.
Bingham was a winger who was a nightmare to defend against due to a rare combination of pace and industry. He played and scored consistently at the top level of English football and hit the net 8 times in his 56 caps. He also, of course, managed his country twice—his second spell seeing them not only qualify for the 1982 World Cup, but also topping their group in the finals.
If only Pele scores more goals than you at a World Cup, you know you are playing at the very top level. Those goals in the 1958 tournament in Sweden came against stellar opposition as well—namely West Germany, Czechoslovakia and Argentina—as Northern Ireland reached the quarter finals.
The Next Five
Selecting 10 players is always tricky—and for good reason. The aforementioned 5 practically pick themselves. The next, perhaps, are open to more debate. David Healy may not have had the domestic career that would turn heads, and he certainly did not possess the talent some on this list did. Something happened when he pulled on that green and white jersey, though, and as the record goal-scorer, we could not very well leave him out.
Norman Whiteside was the youngest player to play in a World Cup, and even though his career prematurely ended at just 26, the Manchester United midfielder/striker achieved an incredible amount for club and country. Martin O’Neill captained the side during their 1982 World Cup campaign, and in his 13-year career he won 64 caps, scoring 8 times.
Jimmy McIlroy falls just short of making the first five. A legend with Burnley fans (where he spent 12 years), the slick midfielder won 55 caps. Last but by no means least comes Joe Bambrick, who is unusual in that he played most of his career in Northern Ireland and only played for his country 11 times. He was a prolific scorer whomever he played for, though, and in those 11 games he found the back of the net 12 times.
A list like this is always going to raise more questions than it answers. For everyone who agrees with the choices, there will be two more who will dispute those we’ve included and pulled us up for leaving out their favourite. On a different day the ten may look different, but one thing this does show is that, despite our size, as a nation, we have an incredibly rich history that has consistently produced players who have graced the best and most competitive league in the world.