A LURGAN family have found themselves at the centre of a bizarre piece of international football trivia.
On Friday night eight-year-old Ben Mitchell was due to walk out with the Northern Ireland team as a McDonald’s player escort for the World Cup Qualifier against Russia, which was postponed hours before kick off.
It was the first match at Windsor Park to be cancelled since 1957 when a World Cup Qualifier against Italy was ‘put off’ when the man who was set to referee the game ended up fog-bound in London.
Rather than abandon the match completely, it was played as a friendly with a well-known Lurgan man stepping in to referee. That man was Tommy Mitchell - Ben’s great grandfather.
The match was scheduled for December 4, 1957 with a 2.30pm kick off. Reports say there were 40,000 supporters at the game, but others estimate it was closer to 50,000.
Tommy’s son Walter told the ‘MAIL’: “My father had been working in Gilltraps bakery in William Street when the police came to see him at about 12.30pm. The police station was just across the road from the bakery. The reason the police were sent was because there was no phone in the bakery.
“They told him he had to get home right away and that he needed to phone Billy Drennan, the Irish League Secretary.
“Billy told him the Hungarian referee (Istvan Zolt) that was supposed to be doing the game was fog-bound in London. They were trying to get Arthur Ellis, but they needed Tommy to go on standby.”
Tommy was first bitten by the refereeing bug when he offered to stand in for the referee for a game between Lurgan Rangers and Belfast Airport Workers at a muddy pitch on the Gilford Road. He went on to get his FIFA badge and his son Walter also refereed at a Mid Ulster level.
Walter recalled the race to Windsor in 1957: “My father got his boots washed and his rig smoothed and I drove him to Windsor Park in my Morris Minor. I was 18 at the time. We were going to the match anyway, but just as spectators.
“We got a police escort from Lisburn. Because of the crowd they left us on the wrong side of the bridge at Adelaide and we had to walk to the ground with the rest of the crowd.
“Billy Drennan was waiting at the gate. He explained to Tommy that Arthur Ellis was also fog-bound and the Italians had refused a local referee so the game would have to be played as a friendly.”
When the crowd found this out 15 minutes before kick off there was a riot.
Given the circumstances the game was an ill-tempered affair, nicknamed the Battle of Belfast. It finished 2-2 with Lurgan man Wilbur Cush scoring both of Northern Ireland’s goal. Fellow town man Norman Uprichard also featured in goals for Northern Ireland.
During the game Tommy was left with no choice but to send off Italian player Giuseppe Chiappella though he needed the help of an interpreter to order him off the field.
Walter said: “There was a lot of bad blood in the game. The Italians didn’t want to be there and they were up to no good. Northern Ireland gave as good as they got. There were some fierce tackles going in. I remember one in particular from Wilbur Cush.”
He added: “If they’d stuck with my father as ref they’d have qualified for the World Cup in Sweden. When the game was replayed in January Northern Ireland won 2-1 so we qualified instead of Italy.”
And so to the present day. Ben, a pupil at King’s Park, found out he’d been selected as a McDonald’s player escort two weeks before the Russia game, due to be played on Friday night.
He said: “I was looking forward to it and I was disappointed when I found out it was off. I knew my great granddad was a referee but I didn’t know anything about the game with Italy.”
He said he found it interesting to learn that two members of the same family had been involved in the last two Northern Ireland games to be called off at Windsor Park 56 years apart.
Walter’s son and Ben’s father, Walter Jnr joked: “They’ll not be wanting the Mitchells back at Windsor Park.”