Norman Uprichard: Goalkeeper who helped Northern Ireland reach the 1958 World Cup quarter-finals

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The Independent Online

The Northern Ireland goalkeeper Norman Uprichard was a courageous performer, even to the point of foolhardiness, some reckoned, ready to dive head-first where many men would hesitate to hazard even a foot.

That valour, combined with not a little natural ability, was instrumental in securing his country a place in the quarter-finals of the World Cup in Sweden in 1958 and contributed to his status of folk hero at Portsmouth for the better part of a decade.

Internationally he operated in the shadow of his slightly younger, even bolder and more talented pal, Harry Gregg, but at his club he was top dog, his popularity enhanced by a willingness to engage in banter with the fans behind his net. At 5ft 9in Uprichard was small for a goalkeeper, even in the years when the average height was lower than today, but he compensated with remarkable agility. He didn't charge from his line to command his area in the manner of the imperious Gregg, but he was a spectacular shot-stopper who entertained royally.

As a teenager Uprichard had shone equally at football and Gaelic football, earning a medal at the Irish code only to be denied his prize and banned for life because he had signed for Glenavon FC of Lurgan. The Gaelic association's rules prohibited adult members from playing or even watching so-called foreign games, and more than half a century was to pass before he was awarded his medal, in 2004.

Undaunted, the young Uprichard worked to develop his skills with Glenavon, with whom he had played as a right-winger until one day he stepped between the posts in an emergency and saved two penalties. Thereafter he flourished as a 'keeper, switching to Distillery – then a Belfast club, now located in Lisburn – and making his senior debut in March 1947.

Although second-choice to Billy Smyth, with whom he would later vie for a place between Northern Ireland's posts, he excelled sufficiently for Arsenal to take him across the Irish Sea for £1,500 in June 1948. But the daunting competition at Highbury – veteran George Swindin, the experienced Ted Platt and rising star Jack Kelsey – proved too much and in November 1949, having never represented the Gunners at League level, he was sold for £750 to Swindon Town of the old Third Division South.

In the comparatively modest surroundings of the County Ground his career took off. Indeed, such was his club form that in October 1951 he was awarded the first of his 18 full caps in a 3-0 defeat by Scotland at Windsor Park, Belfast. Northern Ireland were a poor team at the time, so Uprichard had plenty of chance to impress, and he played seven straight games without a win. His athleticism, reflexes and bravery began to attract attention, though, and a fabulous display in a 1-1 draw with Scotland at Hampden Park in November 1952 induced Ports-mouth – then a powerful member of the elite division, albeit on the verge of decline – to acquire his services for £6,000 the following day.

Such was Uprichard's intrepid approach that injuries were inevitable and he damaged a hand in his second outing for Pompey in a 4-3 victory over Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough. It happened in a collision with the Owls' prolific centre-forward Derek Dooley, for whom calamity was lying in wait three months hence, when he was to have a leg amputated after another footballing accident.

Uprichard was more fortunate. Though broken knuckles kept him out for most of 1953-54, he returned as Pompey's regular keeper for the next four and a half seasons. On the day of his comeback, in a 3-1 win against Manchester United at Old Trafford in August 1954, he was in such fine fettle that he earned a glowing tribute from the Red Devils' manager Matt Busby, who waxed lyrical over his courage and professional prowess.

That term Portsmouth temporarily arrested their slump, finishing third, four points behind champions Chelsea, but then struggled ever more desperately, culminating in relegation in 1959. Throughout that process, Uprichard found himself under protracted pressure, to which he reacted with serial excellence until the depressing final season, during which he was dropped at the midway point by the toiling manager Freddie Cox, then released in the summer to join Third Division Southend United.

On the international front he had fallen behind Gregg but still, as the Manchester United man's deputy, Uprichard wielded key influence on two of the most crucial occasions in his country's footballing history. First, when Gregg was fogbound in Manchester, the eager reserve performed with characteristic pluck and competence in the 2-1 defeat of Italy in Belfast in January 1958 which earned Northern Ireland a place in the World Cup finals in Sweden that summer.

Then, when Gregg was nursing an injury which kept him out of the play-off against Czechoslovakia in which a quarter-final place was at stake, Uprichard performed heroics in another vital 2-1 win. Despite smashing his hand against a post while saving a shot from Jan Dvorak, so that he was in agony every time he grasped the ball, and also twisting his ankle, he soldiered on – no substitutes were allowed in those days – and ended the contest grimacing with pain but still magnificently defiant.

For the last-eight tie against with France, manager Peter Doherty faced an impossible dilemma: did he go with Gregg and his gammy leg or Uprichard with serious hand and ankle issues? In the end he chose Gregg and France won 4-0, though the handicapped keeper went on to be voted best in his position in the tournament. That was a glowing and deserved accolade for the first-choice man, but also a vivid illustration of Uprichard's status as a more-than-adequate No 2 in the greatest of all Northern Ireland teams, which contained the illustrious likes of Danny Blanchflower, Jimmy McIlroy, Peter McParland and Billy Bingham.

That November Uprichard played in his last international and after spending 1959-60 with the Shrimpers he left the Football League, going on to assist Hastings and Ramsgate before laying aside his gloves.

Later he worked as a pub landlord in Sussex and as a barman in Belfast before retiring to live in Hastings. Back at Portsmouth he was still revered, both as a high-quality goalkeeper and as such an accessible character that he was willing to sign autographs for young fans who knocked on the door of his home, just along the road from Fratton Park. Rather a lot has changed in professional football since then.

William Norman McCourt Uprichard, footballer; born Moyraverty, Lurgan, Northern Ireland 20 February 1928; played for Glenavon 1944-47, Diistillery 1947-48, Arsenal 1948-49, Swindon Town 1949-52, Portsmouth 1952-59, Southend United 1959-60; capped 18 times by Northern Ireland 1951-58; married (two daughters, one son); died Brighton 31 January 2011.