Unlikely lads bring back silverware from England

The JP Northern Ireland team - back from left - Jonny Simms, Brian Jenkinson, Graeme Cousins (captain), Michael Scott, Gary Devlin - front from left - Joel Byers, Mark Rainey and Sam McBride.
The JP Northern Ireland team - back from left - Jonny Simms, Brian Jenkinson, Graeme Cousins (captain), Michael Scott, Gary Devlin - front from left - Joel Byers, Mark Rainey and Sam McBride.

The last time a senior international team representing Northern Ireland won a football match in England, Chicory Tip were flying high in the charts and a pint of lager cost 13 pence.

The date was May 23, 1972.

This Sunday, the history books required amending when a very senior international team representing Northern Ireland, captained by yours truly, romped to victory on English soil.

I say romped, but stumbled is more accurate. Our victory has been questioned by some colleagues, but put simply, we came home with silverware and I’m not referring to a couple of forks from the hotel restaurant.

The tournament was open to Johnston Press employees from throughout the UK and Ireland. Led by ‘Yer Man’, our motley crew featured Mark ‘Safe Hands’ Rainey, Michael ‘Pot Shot’ Scott, Sam ‘Keep Calm’ McBride, Jonny ‘The Timewaster’ Simms, Gary ‘Bandana Man’ Devlin, Brian ‘The Enforcer’ Jenkinson and Joel ‘Party Animal’ Byers.

The tournament took place in Leicester and we travelled there a day in advance, making use of our early arrival to indulge in a spot of team-building. The following morning, the team were up with the lark for a breakfast of champions. Sadly, the breakfast of champions wasn’t on the menu so we had to make do with a fry.

We arrived at the Goals Centre to a heroes’ welcome from the other teams for having crossed the Irish Sea to take part. The fact we were dressed in the Northern Ireland away kit, kindly lent to us by the IFA, gave us an air of professionalism. It took a couple of matches for the other teams to realise our determination far outweighed our footballing attributes.

Not to be deterred, we approached each game with great gusto. Our keeper Mark was the star man, pulling off save after spectacular save. At the other end, myself and Jonny finished as our top scorers with four each.

After the group stages the teams were split into two sections and we ended up competing for the JP Plate, while the top scoring teams contested the JP Cup.

Having made it into the final we were drawn against a team from Sheffield. The full time score was 1-1 and the only way to decide the winner was penalty kicks.

Jonny, Mark and myself were our three penalty takers. With everyone having converted their spot kicks, the score was 2-2 and I was next up. I tried not to think about it, but in the moments leading up to the shoot out I thought I was going to see my lunch again. I took a deep breath, stepped up and hit the penalty to the keeper’s left. It found the back of the net. As I turned to celebrate, the ref reminded me he hadn’t blown the whistle so I had to take it again. D’oh! Thankfully I found the net a second time by going the other way. Glory was within our grasp.

Our victory was confirmed when their player blazed his spot kick over the bar. The crowd went wild and the JP NI team were carried off on the shoulders of our colleagues. Okay, that’s not strictly true, but Gary did need a hand coming off due to a pulled muscle.

When I got home on Sunday evening I located the stat about Northern Ireland’s last win in England. I celebrated our win by rolling the clock back to 1972. I located ‘Son Of My Father’ on my iPod, cranked it up to full volume and poured myself 13 pence worth of lager. Needless to say I went to bed thirsty and tired, but unshakably happy.