We’re now reminded of this obscure sporting fact in James Erskine’s Shooting For Socrates, a sprightly recreation of the days when the Northern Ireland football team played at the highest level.
Jointly produced by NI Screen, RTÉ and Channel 4, Shooting For Socrates is both a recollection and celebration of how far matters have improved since the days of the Troubles.
Fullerton is played by Conleth Hill (ever watchable), who depicts him as a mix of comical fop and thoughtful sage.
Fullerton’s voice is the flowing conscience of the movie, excitedly commentating on Northern Ireland’s success in qualifying for the Mexico ’86 World Cup Finals.
Interspersed with archive footage of civic mayhem — rioting, petrol bombs, tanks and guns — Fullerton’s reports reflect not only that football was an unexpected popular unifying force, but the delighted amazement that the team could actually play.
Of course, footie fans will recall that the team had qualified for the previous tournament in Spain, in 1982.
Their highlight at that World Cup came on a scorching night in Valencia, when they overcame the odds to beat their Spanish hosts.
The home crowd was feverish and partisan, and the referee sent off Mal Donaghy for reasons that still escape logical explanation.
Nevertheless, the team triumphed when Billy Hamilton crossed from the right and Gerry Armstrong ripped the ball into Spain’s net.
From 1982 the sense of achievement and optimism continued over the following four years. By the early 1980s sporting stars had long held a sacred position somewhere above the sectarian divide.
Joey and Robert Dunlop, Mary Peters, Alex Higgins, Dennis Taylor and Barry McGuigan all brought jubilation in their victories.
But football, being a collective sport, allowed, indeed demanded, that religious differences be set aside for the good of the team overall.
As success required a collaborative effort from both Catholic and Protestant, such distinctions had to be denied.
This sensibility of joint endeavour and desire rose up from the pitch to the terraces, and beyond into the streets and homes.
Though the spirit of reconciliation mightn’t have lasted long after the final whistle, football yet displayed a togetherness that was inspiring.
As Fullerton’s commentary resounds: “Everything stopped — no rioting, no shooting. The team united the country… at least they did that.”
However, as fans will also recall, the Mexico ’86 campaign didn’t give the cause for celebration of Espana ’82.
Northern Ireland faced a Brazilian side that played sumptuous football, including players like Zico, Careca, Josimar and, as the movie’s title indicates, the inimitable Socrates.
The outcome of the match, ending in a 3-0 defeat and elimination from the competition, seemed somewhat inevitable.
It’s a tricky task for a filmmaker to maintain interest in a story that viewers are aware will end in disappointment, but Erskine just about succeeds.
He does so by sustaining Shooting For Socrates as, well, a “philosophical” narrative.
The attitude throughout waves a flag for looking on the bright side and being thankful for small mercies. Still, Erskine and fellow scriptwriter Marie Jones do include some Ulster grit.
We see footage of George Best’s infamous “non-goal” from 1971, when he whipped the ball off Gordon Banks and headed into an unguarded net.
The referee disallowed Best’s goal, for reasons still unexplained. The clip is shown here to express a prevailing sense of injustice.
As Northern Ireland manager Billy Bingham (John Hannah) declares: “What unites us all, Catholic and Protestants, is wanting to beat England.”
Erskine previously made the documentary One Night in Turin (2010), which recorded how the Italia ’90 World Cup shifted public perception of football as a social concept.
Previously considered a decaying bastion of racial bigotry and male thuggery, the traditional game transformed in a trendy fashion wave, championed by rock stars, politicians and women.
However, a scripted drama on football is trickier than a documentary.
Recreating the spontaneity of emotional delight or dejection isn’t simple and Erskine’s movie doesn’t fully convince.
Also, it’s a pity that the action from the actual matches has been reconstructed for the film, as original footage is readily available on YouTube.
Considering that the story is conceived as a reminder of historic events that are popularly familiar, it’s confusing to be watching action that’s never been seen before.
It must also be said that some of the dialogue is too on the nose and sometimes falls into sentimentality.
But though Shooting For Socrates isn’t a classic sports movie like The Bad News Bears (1976) or Fever Pitch (1997), it’s still a film to raise a smile.
It’s an inspiring reprise of some happy moments in Ireland’s past that lightened a dark time.
As the footballing Socrates says: “Beauty comes first, victory is secondary, what matters is joy.”
Like the Northern Ireland football team itself, Shooting For Socrates is more than the sum of its parts and spiritedly finds the back of the net.
Shooting For Socrates is released in British cinemas on Friday, June 5, and in Ireland on Friday, June 12