Northern Ireland qualified for the world cup of 1982 by finishing runners up to Scotland in the UEFA qualifying Group 6. It began with a 0 – 0 draw away to Israel (who were then managed by Salford native Jack Mansell), in the late March of 1980. They were managed by Billy Bingham who had just been installed as the national team boss of Northern Ireland, Billy had little time to get comfortable in the managers hot seat before he was off to Israel with his Northern Ireland team. It was Bingham’s second time in charge of his home country’s national football team. The first time was back in the late 1960’s when after impressing as manager of Southport he was named team manager of Northern Ireland late in 1967. Bingham had very recently guided the Division Four Lancashire club to promotion for the first time in the clubs history. So back to 1980, after returning to Belfast with a point from the Ramat Gan Stadium they wouldn’t take to the pitch again for another six months or so in their quest for a place in Spain, the world cup still more than two years away.
In those intervening months leading up to Northern Ireland’s second world cup qualifying game under Billy Bingham they lifted the British Home Championship Trophy, Bingham was quickly turning them into a very decent side indeed. That second fixture was played the following October during the evening of Wednesday the 15th, Northern Ireland were at home to Lars Arnesson’s Sweden. The game was played at Belfast’s Windsor Park, Bingham’s men running out comfortable winners to the tune of 3 – 0 the goals coming Blackburn winger Noel Brotherston and Sammy McIlroy and Jimmy Nicholl of Manchester United. A few weeks later Northern Ireland boarded the plane for the Iberian Peninsula for their next qualifying fixture against the Portuguese national side at the Estádio da Luz in Lisbon. Bingham’s side would suffer a narrow defeat to their Portuguese hosts; Jordão of Sporting Lisbon scored the only goal of the game to give Portugal all the points.
The next qualifying game for the boys in green was in the following March. They were away to Jock Stein’s Scotland, the game played at Hampden Park in front of almost 80,000 fans. It was a closely fought game between the two teams, when half time the fans had yet to see a goal. It was Burnley striker Billy Hamilton who broke the deadlock for Northern Ireland with only about twenty minutes left of the game, unfortunately for Bingham’s boys Scotland’s John Wark gained parity for the home side six minutes later and that’s how it finished, the two sides earning a point a piece. Just over a month later in April Northern Ireland welcomed Portugal to Windsor Park. The Irish were eager to gain revenge over their Portuguese opponents following that narrow defeat in Lisbon the previous November. The Irish boys did indeed beat the Portuguese but they left it late in game, Gerry Armstrong scoring with only about fifteen minutes of the game left. A couple of months later in early June Northern Ireland were in Sweden for a match with their hosts at the now defunct Råsunda Stadium. The Swedes were able to gain some measure of revenge over Northern Ireland after their 3 – 0 defeat in Belfast some months before with a 1 – 0 victory, their goal scored by Hasse Borg of Eintracht Braunschweig. Next up for the boys in green was the visit of Jock Stein’s Scotland to Belfast, the game took place in the mid October of 1981, in front of just over 22,000 fans the game finished goalless, a disappointing night for the Irish, Scotland finishing the game the happier team.
With Sweden winning in Portugal 2 – 1 on the same night, it meant that Northern Ireland had to win their last game of the qualifying group phase to make sure of their place in Spain. That last game of the qualifying group was a match at home at Windsor Park against Israel. Like I said the Irish had to win the game, Sweden had recently beaten Portugal in Lisbon, the Irish could not afford any mistakes. That final game of the qualifying group stage took place on a Wednesday night in the mid November of 1981, at home at Windsor Park. When the Spanish referee blew for full time Northern Ireland had qualified for the world cup finals for only the second time in their history, Gerry Armstrong the Watford striker had found the Israeli net just after the half hour mark, it was enough to send Northern Ireland to Spain where they would become in many people’s eyes, the team of the tournament.
Without a shadow of a doubt Billy Bingham is a legend of Northern Irish and British football, the man who would lead Northern Ireland to Spain. Bingham was born in Northern Irish capital in 1931, in the Bloomfield area of Belfast. As a youth Bingham began playing football for St Donard’s Youth Club in East Belfast, near his home. It was at this time that he was regularly playing alongside fellow Irish Great Jackie Blanchflower on the playing fields of Orangefield and the Castlereagh waste grounds, back in those days shortly after the war, anywhere where there was room enough for a kick about would do. He captained his school Elmgrove to cup success in the Ulster Schools Cup, shortly after that he was picked for Northern Ireland schoolboys where he scored a couple against the Republic of Ireland during a game in Belfast and he scored himself another brace in the return fixture at Dalymount Park in Dublin.
He began his football career in earnest when he signed for Belfast club Glentoran. The young Bingham joined Glentoran’s youth side which was then managed by Johnny Geary. Bingham was thrown in the deep end to a certain degree as his first task a member of the Glentoran youth side was to take part in the S.J. Taylor Cup, a tournament that Glentoran went on to win. After impressing in that tournament Bingham signed amateur forms with Glentoran’s third team known as the Co Op Rec. It was there where he played alongside Billy McNeill and Jimmy McIlroy in the Irish Amateur League. It was at this time that Bingham began to come to the attention of the English clubs, many of whom had scouts in Northern Ireland. However Bingham was becoming a prize asset of the Belfast club and Glentoran team manager Frank Grice stepped in to secure Bingham’s services for a while longer by offering Bingham a professional contract which would earn Bingham six pounds a week. The following season of 1948 – 1949 saw Bingham continue to do well with Glentoran, indeed during the March of that season Bingham made his first team debut for the Belfast club during a 1 – 1 draw with Ballymena United. About a month after that debut Bingham was off abroad with the Northern Ireland youth squad travelling to The Netherlands for an international youth tournament. Bingham did well for Northern Ireland in The Netherlands scoring a couple of goals during a 3 – 3 draw with England. During the 1949 – 1950 season Bingham continued to show good form with Glentoran by now an established first teamer with the club, it was in that season that Bingham won his second honour in Irish football when Glentoran defeated fellow Belfast club Linfield in the County Antrim Shield.
It was during this season that Bingham won his first full international cap for Northern Ireland; Bingham would go onto to play for Northern Ireland in Sweden for the 1958 world cup. The following season featured another milestone in Bingham’s playing career when he was picked for the Irish League side for an Inter League mini tournament with the Scottish and English leagues. The Northern Irish didn’t fare that well, losing all their games but the young Billy Bingham impressed enough for him to be sold to English club Sunderland although at the time Bingham knew nothing of it only being told of his transfer by a complete stranger whilst on international duty with the Irish League in Blackpool. So, as 1950 was coming to a close Billy Bingham travelled the 238 miles to Sunderland for a fee said to be around £8,000. Bingham was at Sunderland for eight years scoring over forty goals. He then went to Luton Town where he spent a further three years scoring twenty seven goals. In 1961 he was sold to Merseyside club Everton for a fee of around £15,000. The Toffee’s won the Division One title at the end of the 1962 – 1963 therefore giving Bingham his finest hour of his playing career.
Shortly after the title win Everton brought in Glasgow Rangers right winger Alex Scott which sounded the death knell for Bingham at Everton no surprise then that Billy was again on his travels when he was sold to Port Vale again for £15,000 becoming the Staffordshire clubs then record buy. Bingham’s career came to unexpected end early in the 1964 – 1965 season during a 4 – 0 defeat for Port Vale in west London against Brentford, after a lengthy recuperation he left for Southport to work as a team coach. Bingham would go on to enjoy a varied career in football management, even managing the Greek national team for a couple of years during the early 1970’s. So as I briefly mentioned earlier Bingham was named Northern Ireland team boss for the second time during the early part of 1980 with very little time to prepare for his countries first qualifying game for Spain ’82, after a successful campaign the boys in green were booking flights for sunny Spain.
Billy Bingham took a twenty two man squad to Spain, a squad full of experienced players and youth. Bingham’s squad was made up of three goal keepers, six defenders, nine midfielders and four strikers. The goal keepers were Pat Jennings of Arsenal, George Dunlop of Linfield and Jim Platt of Middlesbrough. Jennings needs no introduction, without a shadow of a doubt a legend of Irish and British football. He born in Newry (a city about twenty five minutes from Belfast) in the summer of 1945 as the Second World War was coming to an end. His football career began in 1960 when he signed youth terms with Dublin club, Shamrock Rovers. He wasn’t at Shamrock Rovers long before he moved back home to Newry City, sadly the club has since gone out of business. It wasn’t long before the English clubs over the Irish Sea began to take notice of the developing Jennings and indeed it was Division Three club Watford that managed to secure his services. However, Jennings wasn’t long at Vicarage Road before he was on his travels once again, after forty eight games for the Hertfordshire club he was signed by Tottenham Hotspur for a fee of just under £28,000 in the summer of 1964. Jennings enjoyed a very successful thirteen seasons at White Hart Lane, winning numerous silverware which included the FA Cup in 1967 and the UEFA Cup in 1972 when in the final Spurs beat fellow English club Wolverhampton Wanderers 3 – 2 over two legs.
Pat has many distinctions but two of the more notable ones of his time at White Hart Lane? Well, one is that goal in the 1967 Charity Shield match against Division One champions Manchester United. Jennings scored Tottenham’s second goal from inside his own eighteen yard box after he kicked the ball up field, the ball bounced directly in front of United goalie Alex Stepney going right over Stepney’s head into the United goal! His other notable distinction is that a few years later in 1976 he was named the PFA player of the year, the first goal keeper to win the award which went with the Football Writers player of the year award he won three years previous. During the close season of 1977 he was on the move again, this time not very far to Highbury and Arsenal. Jennings was a regularly featured for Arsenal in finals back then although the Gunners would lose more than they would win. It was during his time with Arsenal that Big Pat notched up another impressive milestone when in early 1983 West Bromwich Albion welcomed Arsenal to The Hawthorns, it was the game that saw Jennings notch up a thousand senior appearances in English football, the first player to do so. By the time Pat hung his boots up he had earned 119 international caps for Northern Ireland, which was a then record. Bingham’s defensive contingent was a talented one to say the least. John McClelland played for a host of clubs during his playing career, the time world cup ’82 came around he was turning out for Glasgow Rangers. McClelland had moved to the Glasgow club only a few months before the world cup took place when Rangers paid Mansfield Town about £90,000 for the big Irishman’s services.
Jimmy Nicholl had began his playing with Manchester United winning an FA Cup winners medal in 1977, he was a reliable full back, strong and good in the tackle. By the time the world cup camera around Jimmy was playing his football in North America with Toronto Blizzard. Macclesfield born Chris Nicholl of Southampton made Billy Bingham’s squad after proving himself a dependable full back at Southampton. John O’ Neill of Leicester City also went to Spain, he would go on to play for Queens Park Rangers and Norwich, sadly for John his playing career would be brought to a halt following an horrendous tackle by professional dickhead John Fashanu. O’ Neill would successfully claim damages and was awarded a testimonial by Norwich City during the 1988 – 1989 season.
Sammy Nelson of Brighton & Hove Albion was also in there. Sammy made his name at Arsenal during the 1970’s, a popular player on and off the pitch, Sammy would go on to win over fifty international caps for Northern Ireland. Mal Donaghy of Luton Town was also on the plane to Spain, an accomplished full back who would become one of the most respected players in the British game. Northern Ireland’s midfield contingent boasted some of the best midfielders around, one of them of would go onto set world records and go on to prove a legend of Irish football. Noel Brotherston from Dundonald (which is about a twenty minute drive from Belfast) was turning out for Blackburn Rovers when he got the call up for Bingham’s world cup squad. Noel was famous for his “mad professor” hair style; he was a popular member of Billy Bingham’s Northern Ireland side. Noel is perhaps most fondly remembered for scoring the winning goal against Wales in 1980 that handed Northern Ireland the British Home Championship incidentally in the centenary year of the Irish Football Association. Very sadly, Noel succumbed to a fatal heart attack in 1995 aged only thirty eight years of age.
Belfast born Tommy Cassidy of Burnley was in there too. Cassidy, along with Gerry Armstrong, was the subject of quite a humourous episode during Spain ‘82 after a game in Valencia regarding a hard to come by urine sample but more on that later. As a player and later as a manager Cassidy would have quite a successful career, winning a variety of interesting silverware. His piece of silverware came during the 1969 – 1970 season at his first club Glentoran when they lifted the now defunct City Cup (formerly the Dunville Cup). Cassidy was transferred to Newcastle United in 1970 and whilst he was St James Park he was part of the Newcastle team that won the Anglo Italian Cup in 1973 when the North East club beat Italian side Fiorentina 2 – 1 at the Stadio Artemio Franchi, the home stadium of their opponents. Whilst at Newcastle Cassidy also won the Texaco Cup a couple of times. The Texaco Cup was a cup tournament designed for teams from England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland that had not qualified for European competition. Cassidy was in high spirits as he made his way to Spain and no surprise really as his side Burnley had just won the Division Three title so therefore had just been promoted to Division Two. After the Spain ’82 he left Burnley for foreign climes, going to Cyprus to join APOEL Nicosia winning yet more silverware winning the Cypriot Cup and the Cypriot Super Cup. In 1985 Cassidy was named team manager of APOEL, in his first season he guided them to the Cypriot title and the Super Cup. In 1994 he signed on the dotted line to become the team manager of Glentoran and it was there that he steered his side to the Gold Cup in his first season and then winning the Irish Cup the following season.
David McCreery, like Jimmy Nicholl, was playing in the NASL in North America when he was named in Billy Bingham’s twenty two man squad for Spain. McCreery was at Tulsa Roughnecks in Oklahoma. David spent five years at Manchester United at the beginning of his career but with being unable to hold down a regular place in the team he was sold to London club Queens Park Rangers in 1979. He was at Loftus Road for only a couple of years before moving to America and he wouldn’t be in Oklahoma that long before he was sold to Newcastle United where he spent quite a few seasons.
The team captain was Martin O’Neill. O’ Neill began his playing career at youth level with Derry Town and after a brief stay at Derry he moved to with Lisburn Distillery of County Down. It was at Lisburn where he won the first of many trophies during his playing career when the club won the Irish Cup during the 1970 – 1971 season. After impressing at Distillery he was sold to Nottingham Forest in 1971 for a fee of around £15,000 and it was at Forest where his career really took off, winning a clutch of major trophies. During his ten years at Nottingham Forest O’ Neill won a Division One title, two League Cups, a Charity Shield, an Anglo Scottish Cup, two European Cups and a European Super Cup. With Northern Ireland he won the British Home Championship in 1980 and would again in 1984. As a manager he took Wycombe Wanderers to promotion in 1993, he also took The Chairboys to victory in two FA Trophy finals as well as victory in the Third Division Play Offs. In 1995 he was appointed team manager of Leicester City and took them to two League Cup Final wins. In 2000 he took charge at Glasgow Celtic and took them to three Scottish Premier Division titles as well as three Scottish FA Cup final victories and a win in the Scottish League Cup final. O’ Neill guided Glasgow Celtic back to European prominence when he steered them to the UEFA Cup final in 2003, unfortunately they lost in the final 3 – 2 to Portuguese side Porto in Seville.
Tommy Finney of Cambridge United was also on the plane for the 1982 world cup as was a seventeen year old Norman Whiteside of Manchester United. Named in the senior Northern Ireland squad for the first time Whiteside had yet to take to the pitch for the senior team. The young Whiteside, known as the Shankill Skinhead was about to hit the headlines with Northern Ireland and he was also about to enjoy some great times as part of Ron Atkinson’s Manchester United. Also in the midfield contingent was Johnny Jameson and Jim Cleary, both players from Glentoran. Manchester United Great Sammy McIlroy, another player from Belfast, was also on his way to Spain. McIlroy had been in the United team for years and had proved himself a great player, quickly becoming a crowd favorite. In 1969 the fifteen year old McIlroy was Sir Matt Busby’s last signing as United manager, making Sammy the last Busby Babe. With United he was part of the team that won the Division Two title at the end of the 1974 – 1975 season as well winning the FA Cup in 1977. In later years Sammy as manager of Macclesfield Town would take The Silkmen to two Football Conference titles and FA Trophy cup glory. Northern Ireland’s forward line was decent, full of hard working players who were quite capable of surprising a few people, which indeed they did in Spain.
Billy Hamilton was at Burnley back in the early 1980’s, joining them from Queens Park Rangers in 1979. He began his professional career with Linfield in the mid 1970’s, he would go on to return to the Emerald Isle after a stint in England to play for Limerick and Coleraine before ending his playing career as the player/manager of Lisburn Distillery in the early 1990’s. Hamilton’s time as player/manager of Distillery was quite a successful time in the clubs history, scoring many goals and taking the club to Gold Cup glory during the 1993 – 1994 season.
Felix Healy was another classy midfielder of Northern Ireland; Healy would enjoy a twenty year playing career, a career that apart from the couple of years that he spent at Port Vale in the late 1970’s took place entirely on the Emerald Isle. His career started at Sligo Rovers in 1974 and as mentioned he spent time in England with Staffordshire club Port Vale, he then went on to have a couple of spells with Coleraine he also turned out for Lisburn Distillery, Finn Harps and Derry City. In the early 1990’s he went into management with Coleraine and Derry City before going on to manage Finn Harps. Gerry Armstrong was at Watford when Northern Ireland went to Spain, Armstrong would go on to play in Spain in later season’s obviously impressing one or two people in Spanish football. In 1983 he was sold to The Vermilions of Spanish football, Real Club Deportivo Mallorca where he found the net on a regular basis. Bobby Campbell of Bradford City completed Billy Bingham’s world cup squad. Campbell was a prolific scorer for Bradford scoring over seventy goals in nearly a hundred and fifty games.
Once arrived in Spain Northern Ireland were initially based in Zaragoza in the North East of the country about 197 miles from Madrid. They were drawn into Group Five along with host nation Spain, Yugoslavia and Honduras. Their first game was against the much fancied Yugoslavia, favourites with Spain to progress from the group. The game took place on the 17th of June at Real Zaragoza’s home stadium, La Romareda. Yugoslavia started the brighter side, their position of one the highly fancied teams in the tournament justified made us of their clever football down the middle which called for goal keeper Pat Jennings to called into action numerous times, Nikola Jovanovic of Montenegrin club FK Budućnost Podgorica proving himself particularly dangerous. The Irish eventually got into their rhythm, forward Gerry Armstrong and Sammy McIlroy in midfield showing to have a good understanding. The Yugoslav team continued to press, the one touch football they were producing quite excellent at times. Chris Nicholl and Sammy McIlroy had chances to score but it was to no avail, as the first half came to an end the game had yet to see a goal.
The game finished 0 – 0, each side taking a point with Northern Ireland leaving the pitch the happier side. The game was most notable for a certain Norman Whiteside, the Shankill Skinhead taking Pele’s record for being the youngest player to play in a world cup finals aged only seventeen years and forty one days old. Whiteside applied himself well in the game, putting himself about certainly not fazed by the big occasion. Four days later at the same venue Northern Ireland took to the pitch for their game against Central Americans Honduras. Honduras had earned themselves a creditable 1 – 1 draw in their opening game at the Mestalla Stadium in Valencia against host nation Spain, back in those days the stadium had the name of the Estádio Luiz Casanova.
Upon the conclusion of the opening games in Group Five it was difficult to ascertain which two teams would be going through to the next stage, the Spanish media and fans massively disappointed they had only took a point from Honduras in a tournament where they were expected by many to win. It was obvious from the start that Northern Ireland would have an easier time breaking down their Central American opponents in front of goal; the Hondurans defenders were less disciplined than their Yugoslav counter parts. Captain Martin O’ Neill had a wonderful chance to put his team ahead in the game following a high but accurate cross from young Norman Whiteside, O’ Neill unchallenged headed way over the bar. Northern Ireland took the lead in the tenth minute after Sammy McIlroy fired in a great shot from a free kick that hit the Honduran cross bar, the ensuing melee in the six yard area playing into Irish hands as Gerry Armstrong was able to head in from less than a yard from the goal line. The boys in green walked into their dressing room at half time 1 – 0 up, they had been the better team, deservedly in the lead. However, on the hour mark Honduras drew level following a goal by Eduardo Laing of Honduran club Platense. Northern Ireland had the ball again in the back of the Honduras goal but the effort was deemed offside by the referee. The game finished 1 – 1, it was the turn of Bingham’s boys to be the disappointed when the game finished all square.
Northern Ireland’s final match of Group Five was a fixture in Valencia against host nation Spain. The Spanish national side had finally gotten their world cup underway in their second game after they beat Yugoslavia 2 – 1 in Valencia so that put them top of the group, now looking and expected to go through to the next phase, it was Northern Ireland who need to win to make sure it was they who would be one of the teams to progress in the tournament. The Spanish team that took to the field in Valencia was full of class players from the top teams in Spain. In goal for Spain was Luis Arconada of Real Sociedad, in defense was Jose Camacho of Real Madrid, Rafael Gordillo of Real Betis, Miguel Tendillo of Valencia and Jose Ramon Alexanco of Barcelona. In midfield was Miguel Angel Alonso of Real Sociedad, Enrique Saura of Valencia and Jose Vincente Sanchez of Barcelona. Up front for Spain was Juanito Gomez of Real Madrid and Jesus Maria Satrustegui and Roberto Lopez Ufarte (yes, you read that right) of Real Sociedad. Northern Ireland lined up with Jennings, Jimmy Nicholl, Donaghy, Chris Nicholl, McClelland, McCreery, O’ Neill, McIlroy, Armstrong, Hamilton and Whiteside. The game started with Spain on the attack, quick out of the blocks almost catching Northern Ireland off guard, the Spanish gave the Irish plenty to worry about in the opening minutes of the match in Valencia.
As the first half wore on the Irish came into the game a lot more, they had some big lads in their team, they knew how to deal with the rough house tactics the Spanish team were beginning to exert on the game. The Paraguayan referee, Hector Ortiz, would have his work cut out that night in Valencia. In the 20th minute Juanito was yellow carded as was Northern Ireland’s Billy Hamilton and Sammy McIlroy in the closing stages of the first half. As the first half was coming to a close Spain’s world came crashing down. About half way into the Spanish half Billy Hamilton had the ball; he broke into a run down the flank and crossed a ball into the Spanish eighteen yard box. Arconada made a total hash of the save as he came out to claim the ball, the ball landed straight in front of Gerry Armstrong who drove the ball low into the Spanish goal, it was 1 – 0 Northern Ireland. The Spanish began the second half like they did the first, quick and assertive, only this time they were chasing the game against a country that many people watching this match around the world knew nothing about.
As the second half progressed the Spanish were becoming increasingly agitated and frustrated that they hadn’t drawn level, Latin temperaments were becoming frayed. The referee by this point had pretty much lost the game, Hector Ortiz was very much out of his depth, this culminated in the totally undeserved sending off of Mal Donaghy in the sixty second minute, the Irish were now down to ten men. Northern Ireland to roll their sleeves up and go up a gear in their work rate to prevent the Spanish from drawing level and that’s exactly what they did. Justice prevailed, when the idiot in black blew for full time Northern Ireland, against all the odds, had won the game and deservedly so.
Following victory over Spain in Valencia second half substitute midfielder Tommy Cassidy was taken aside by world cup officials in order to undergo a drugs test, a urine sample would be required, only it didn’t go as smoothly as FIFA would have hoped, as Tommy related not long ago…
“One of the things I’ll never ever forget was immediately after the game finished, myself and Gerry Armstrong were taken away for a drugs test, obviously, we’d love to have gone straight into the dressing room to celebrate with the rest of the lads, but there wasn’t an issue with me and Gerry giving a urine sample. The only problem was that we were both so dehydrated that it took us an hour and a half to give a sample. We were sat under armed guards, next to FIFA doctors and officials, and it was just so funny that it took us so long. We simply couldn’t pee! We tried and tried, drinking water, lager and even wine to help us. Gerry drank so much alcohol that he was little bit drunk. He was singing ‘Danny Boy’ and all sorts. It was hilarious – even one of the guards began to sway to his singing. That will stick with me forever. All the other lads waited for us and it took us so long that we didn’t have time to change before getting on the coach to travel back to our hotel as quickly as possible. We just wanted to celebrate.”
“They were not like the Spanish teams of today that knock the ball around and play attractive football. They put themselves about. But the last 20 minutes were like the Alamo. It was wave after wave of attack and we’d be do anything to stop them scoring. I remember Sammy Nelson came on for the last 20 minutes. He’s a left back but was running all over the place. When we had a breather, I said to him: ‘What position are you supposed to be in?’ to which he replied ‘I haven’t got a f******* clue!’ Pat Jennings – a great friend of mine – was unreal. It wasn’t just his saves. He came out for everything, corners and crosses, and scooped them up with one hand. That night, I thought to myself that he was the best goalkeeper in the world. At the final whistle, we didn’t initially celebrate. We just looked at each other for about 10 seconds in amazement. We couldn’t believe what we’d done. We had beaten Spain in their backyard. It was unthinkable.”
“We knew people back home were celebrating. In 1982, we were in the midst of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, but for one day or so, religion was all forgotten about. It was a hell of a night in Valencia. I remember at about 6am the next morning, I walked out onto the balcony of my hotel room because I heard a clicking noise. As it happened, Malcolm Brodie, the famous Northern Ireland football reporter, was in the room next door writing up his match report on a typewriter. He said to me: ‘I’m just finishing off my piece and my final words are, ‘I was there’. He said it was the greatest match he’d ever been to. About 10 or 15 years later, I met up with him in Belfast. When we looked at each other, he pointed at me straight away and said again, ‘I was there!’ It showed how much that game meant to him and to people in Northern Ireland. His words encapsulated it.”
Gerry Armstrong recently related his memories of that night in Valencia…
“We had confidence and belief in ourselves. Martin O’Neill called a meeting the day before, when we were sitting by the pool after we had trained. We sat by the pool for an hour, talking about the game, and Martin basically said, “Look, all the pressure is on Spain”. They’d not performed well, they were at home and there was a lot of expectation on them. I think the pressure was really on them. Martin said, “They’re going to come at us for the first 15 or 20 minutes, we know that, and we’re good at absorbing pressure, taking things on the chin and getting out of it, so we can hit them on the break. And that was the plan. We’d absorb the pressure for the first 20-30 minutes, then we’ll create two or three chances, get one of them and beat them 1-0. That was just a general conversation by the pool and there were about seven or eight players involved in it. Players talk. There were people saying, “Tomorrow’s the last game” and we were saying, “Well, is it the last game? If we win the match, we go through.” Basically, we had a lot of belief in ourselves. People apart from ourselves didn’t believe, but we did!”
Northern Ireland topped the group and Spain were through by the skin of their teeth, courtesy of that win over Yugoslavia. In the next phase of the world Billy Bingham’s side were put into Group D, with two other teams, France and Austria with only one team going through to the knockout stage. It was France that won the Group and therefore went through. Northern Ireland drew their game with the Austrians 2 – 2 with both of their goals coming from Gerry Armstrong, the hero of Valencia, sadly for Northern Ireland they were soundly beaten in the next game by France to the tune of 4 – 1. So Northern Ireland’s world cup had come to an end, led by Billy Bingham, a man who had played for Northern Ireland the last time they were at a world cup finals back in the 1950’s. I said at the beginning that this Northern Irish team would become the team of tournament and they did.
They were a breath of fresh air to the tournament in general; they played all out attacking football gathering admirers everywhere they went in Spain, as did the Northern Irish fans themselves. I remember watching this tournament as a little kid back home in Manchester, it was my first serious world cup as the world cup of 1978 meant that with Argentina being in the Southern Hemisphere the games were on at stupid o’clock at night therefore way past my bedtime. Spain ’82 was the first world cup where in England the games were kicking off in the early evening and Northern Ireland really were the talk of the tournament both in the press and on TV. The Spanish were known to be cynical in their play, not adverse at trying to pull the wool over the refs eyes, the West Germans were super serious but the Northern Irish brought a smile to Spain ’82. Their fans were well behaved; they became popular and very welcome with their Spanish hosts in both in Zaragoza and elsewhere. It was a magnificent achievement for Billy Bingham, to lead his nation to a world cup as manager and to play the way they did with a smile on the face. Of course we can’t forget Norman Whiteside, going home to Manchester with a record or two under his belt, about to become a legend of the biggest club side in the world.