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When Billy Millen Sunk The Blues...

Beleagured Belfast, City’s relief and Linfield’s finest hour... and a half.

Linfield hero, Billy Millen bears down on Manchester City goalkeeper, Joe Corrigan...

Belfast, September 1970. Northern Ireland’s bad old days...

Football was bravely trying to persist in the province despite depressing, chaotic, civil disorder. Violence would eventually escalate so badly that two years later no Irish League club would enter any of the European competitions, and the national team was forced to play ‘home’ games on the British mainland, a temporary arrangement which lasted three years.

But back to 1970. Linfield’s Irish Cup win had propelled them into the following season’s European Cup Winners’ Cup competition and Belfast Bluemen eagerly anticipating the draw were left rubbing their hands. Linfield had only gone and been paired against the cup-holders, Manchester City, then as now, one of the glamour clubs in England.

The first-leg at City’s Maine Road stadium was played the evening after a significant and unwanted Northern Ireland landmark was reached: the province’s 100th bomb explosion of the year. The same day officers from the province’s police force voted by a narrow margin to remain unarmed as The Troubles worsened.

Still, the high profile match was an opportunity for Linfield to bring some positivity to a beleaguered people, but fearing the worst, no-one gave the Belfast Blues an earthly.

Not so William ‘Laurie’ Bingham who, in those days, combined managing Linfield with being the Northern Ireland national team coach.

City had won the English Championship in 1968, the FA Cup in 1969, and the double of Football League Cup and European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1970. Their players probably earned in the region of £10,000 per year, Linfield’s part-time professionals, six quid a week.

But ever since the draw was made Bingham drummed into his part-timers that they would indeed defeat their more illustrious opponents. Seventeen year-old full-back, Alan Fraser who played in both legs, takes up the story...

“When the draw came out, our manager Billy Bingham had us training five nights a week. He had it drummed into us that we were going to beat Manchester City.

“His motivational skills were unbelievable. We had a good side, were fit and pumped up for the game. City had all their big hitters on show - Colin Bell, Mike Summerbee, Francis Lee, Alan Oakes and Glyn Pardoe.

“I remember reading the local newspaper in Manchester the night before the [first-leg] game. Neil Young stated that if he didn’t score a hat-trick against the Irish League part-timers, he would class himself as a failure.

“We held them until about 10 minutes from the end. Isaac Andrews had been marking Colin Bell, but he had to go off injured - he was split open. We lost a little bit of shape and Bell scored the winner.”

City great Colin Bell scores past Derek Humphreys, the only goal of the first-leg at Maine Road, with just 7 minutes left on the clock.

The goal actually came in the 83rd minute. City’s aristocrats had been unable to breach Linfield’s dogged defence backed up by an inspired 20 year-old ‘keeper in Derek Humphreys. Afterwards Bingham beamed, “For eighty-three minutes we withstood the might of English first division football, and but for an unfortunate injury to Isaac Andrews, I firmly believe we would have held out for a 0-0 draw.”

Bingham was speaking with bloodied hand, having taken out his frustration on the fence, punching it forcefully when the only goal went in.

Meanwhile rioting continued in Belfast and on the weekend before the home leg at Windsor Park, serious trouble broke out when groups of protestant youths attacked the catholic Unity Flats. This led to four consecutive nights of mayhem and destruction in the protestant Shankill Road area, a hotbed of Linfield support.

The return match was the next day.

In the concluding minutes of a meeting of the Joint Security Committee held at Stormont Castle two days prior to the Windsor Park game, the game was declared ‘the next flash date’. The Ministry of Home Affairs decided to approach the IFA and/or Linfield FC with a view to bringing forward the kick-off time to 5.30pm or 6.00pm in the hope that ‘hunger would encourage people to go straight home after the game’.

Linfield FC was also invited to distribute a leaflet at the game (at government expense) pointing out that the very existence of the club was at stake and urging an orderly return home from matches in general.

A 49-year-old protestant man was shot dead at his home in the Shankill area on the night of the game by Loyalists; the political situation wasn’t improving nor the backdrop to the game pleasant.

Yet a determined Linfield were to come within a whisker of sending City’s stars back to Manchester with tails firmly tucked between their legs.

The match programme from Linfield’s home-leg at Windsor Park, the night Billy Millen sunk the Manchester Blues.
Ticket-stub from the first-leg at Maine Road, Manchester.

Having been asked pre-match about the security situation, City manager Joe Mercer told reporters, “The only thing we’re frightened of is this man they call Billy Bingham.” Perhaps though he should have been keeping an eye on another Billy, too.

City were rocked after only four minutes. Still not having settled properly, they were caught napping and when Glyn Pardoe tried to find his ‘keeper with a back-pass, former Arsenal reserve Billy Millen seized on the opportunity.

Millen takes up the story...

“I thought f***, I’m in here, he hasn’t hit it hard enough, I’ve a wee chance of getting this.

“So I got on my bike, big Joe came out and I just got my toe to it before big Joe and it must’ve been the slowest ball going over the line you ever saw in your life. I think there were 30,000 people sucking it in.

“Tony Towers tried to get back to clear it off the line, but thankfully he never made it.”

Manchester City’s Tony Towers tries in vain to clear Billy Millen’s 4th minute opener off the line.

But the Windsor roar would be punctuated only moments later. Stunned silence followed a shot by Francis Lee which eluded the diving body of Humphreys, Linfield’s first-leg hero had slipped up. City were level on the night, a situation that prevailed until the break.

Says Millen, “Francis Lee hit one from about 25 yards and it bounced about five times. It bounced up and hit big Derek on the shoulder and went in.

“But you shoulda’ seen Derek over there in the first-leg. Out of this world. Him and Tut-tut (Isaac Andrews). Tut-tut was brilliant. Coulda’ been 8 or 9 in Manchester.”

Linfield went at City from the restart and reclaimed the lead on 56 minutes, the gangling Millen, a defensive midfielder in the first match, now an orthodox striker, again grabbing the headlines.

Plugger’ latched onto a poor kick-out by Corrigan, advanced goal-wards and was brought down by the City ‘keeper on the edge of the box. The cup-holders lined up their defensive wall, but Millen and his team-mates, inspired by a TV goal from the previous weekend, were undaunted.

“‘Sinky’ (Billy Sinclair) and I were watching The Big Match on the Sunday on TV. Spurs came out with an inventive free-kick move from which they scored, and we thought, ‘... that would work’.

“On the Monday night training, we tried it with Dessie Cathcart. ‘Sinky’ was the decoy. And we played it out. So on the night when presented with an opportunity, we did the same.”

Cathcart played the free-kick short and Millen having won the award in the first place, did the rest, the ball arrowing low to Corrigan’s right and nestling in the corner of the net. Game on!

“I just hit it... and it flew in,” recalls the striker. “Ninety-nine times out of a hundred it woulda’ ended up in Sauchiehall Street or Donegall Pass somewhere, you know.

“If you look at the photograph it just happens to go underneath, I think, Francis Lee and somebody else. After that big Ivan almost scored again, with a header.”

ln an interview he gave to the Belfast Telegraph last year, City ‘keeper Corrigan plays down the significance, but there was little doubt he was distracted by a thrown bottle that accounted for his wayward clearance leading to Linfield’s winner on the night.

“Don’t remember, but that could be true,” says Millen. “There were bottles flying everywhere. It was like the Alamo.”

Indeed the bottle-throwing at one point caused the game to be halted. Billy Bingham recalled, “I was asked to speak to the police, but decided to see what I could do on my own.”

Corrigan in goal, the soft target for Linfield fans’ bottled armoury takes up the story...

“The referee saw what was going on and the game was held up. Billy Bingham knew we were not in our best mindset and they could pull off a shock win.

“There was a real threat of the game being stopped and it wasn’t helping Linfield’s cause. Billy got out of his dug-out and confronted the troublemakers. I can still hear him shouting: ‘Please Stop’.”

The intervention proved enough to allow the game to restart in front of a 24,000 crowd, and the Belfast Blues almost sealed the deal as they went all out for an unlikely winner.

City ‘keeper, Joe Corrigan in first-half action at the Railway End as Linfield go close.

Both Bryan Hamilton and Ivan McAllister went close, particularly McAllister, who met a corner eight yards out with a bullet-header. Time stopped right there, right then. That might have been it. But the ball shaved the outside of Corrigan’s post. City had led a charmed life just at that moment... and well they knew it.

Alas, it was the closest that Linfield would come, as City held on to proceed on the away goals rule.

Manchester manager Joe Mercer commented after the game:

“If this was one of the easy draws give me a hard one every time. You have got to hand it to this lot, they played magnificently and we’re just very thankful to be through to the next round.”

Reflecting on the match just a year ago, Joe Corrigan openly acknowledged how close his team were to being on the wrong end of a huge upset.

“We went over to Northern Ireland and I don’t think we realised as a team the situation we were in. A bit of complacency set in and again we didn’t perform as we should have done.

“Linfield were magnificent on both occasions. They ended up getting what they deserved - a win in Belfast and could easily have won the tie.”

Asked if events surrounding the game had much bearing on the result, Corrigan believes the holders were well beaten on the night and there could be no real excuses.

“We won the first leg 1-0 at Maine Road and didn’t really learn from that game. Everybody thought it was going to be a walkover.”

City went on to the semi-final by which time their form had dipped significantly. They lost both legs to eventual winners Chelsea, during a run of only one win in their last 18 games of a trophy-less season, which had actually begun brightly.

Linfield fared better, capturing the Gibson Cup for the Irish League Championship, the Gold Cup and the Ulster Cup.

But what of Linfield’s two-goal hero, Billy Millen?

Always one for the ladies, ‘Plugger’ would tell you he scored a hat-trick that day, the first one being the ‘wee secretary’ from a local engineering firm, who dropped him off to join up with his team-mates before the big game.

He would emigrate to South Africa not long after the bombs of Belfast made him think twice about staying home. He was back in Belfast before long though, but his return home proved only a short prelude to a new life in Australia where he’s remained ever since.

Once part of the same Northern Ireland squad, he acted as George Best’s minder on a six-week whirlwind trip the superstar took to Aus with his then partner Mary Shatila in the late 80’s. Best had been given £30,000 to do a series of shows. Big money, back then.

“It was like being in Belfast with him down here. Everyone knew him. I remember one day going to a remote island off Tasmania and betting George 10 dollars no-one would know him there. The first guy we met off the boat said, ‘What about you, George?’”

A planned return to Belfast this September for the 50th anniversary of that famous night at Windsor, Linfield’s finest hour (and a half), sadly has had to be shelved. Just another victim of these COVID-times.

But of course, pandemic-free, there’s always next year...