The memory of the British football fan, who is relentlessly exposed to the England-focused football media is forever shaped by two World Cups:1966 and 1990, the most successful for the England team. The tournaments between those two endlessly-memorialised tournaments are therefore reduced to snapshots of memory, being far more distantly recalled.
1970 was the World Cup of Pelé, of that save by Gordon Banks, of technicolour Brazilian football perfection. 1986, also in Mexico, was the World Cup of Bobby Robson’s Lineker-inspired England, of Maradona’s brilliance and deviousness putting them out in the quarter-finals, and of Scotland’s frustration at the hands of a thuggish Uruguay. 1974 was a distant World Cup, shorn of British involvement except for a brief Scottish involvement ¾ regardless; the verve of Cruyff and the steel of Beckenbauer dominates the memory of that tournament. Scotland would take centre stage, from a British perspective, in 1978, with Ally MacLeod talking about retaining the World Cup before it started, and the squad having an open-top bus parade even before they left for Argentina. The team produced one moment of magic in the form of Archie Gemmill’s goal against the Netherlands, but once again exited early on goal difference, the traditional Scottish exit.
1982, however, belongs to neither Scotland nor England: The Keegan and Robson-led English exited meekly with a 0-0 draw with West Germany in the second stage, while Scotland, again drawn with Brazil, were again knocked out on goal difference. Those two campaigns have been largely overshadowed in the imagination by the ones which came before and after, leaving Spain ’82 to be the domain of the British team who had by far the most memorable campaign: Billy Bingham’s Northern Ireland.
The phrase ‘Golden Generation’ has become something of an overused cliché, with Wales’ current crop the latest to bear the unfortunate title. The phrase was not part of sporting parlance in the early 1980s, but if it was, it could well have been applied to that Northern Ireland squad. Captained by a European Cup winner in the shape of Martin O’Neill, containing defensive muscle in the form of Jimmy and Chris Nicholl, and striking prowess in the form of Gerry Armstrong and a teenage Norman Whiteside, there was quality all over the pitch. The defensive capabilities were bolstered by the legendary Pat Jennings, entering his eighteenth year of international football and still a top performer at the top of the English First Division.
The squad could have even been stronger still: George Best, possibly the most talented footballer the British Isles have ever produced, was only 36 at the time and was still playing football, having made his international debut in the same game as Jennings. Billy Bingham briefly considered him, but ultimately decided that, given that he was ten years or so past his imperious peak, it was not worth the distraction.
The squad was formidable, but the task was even more so: Northern Ireland were drawn into a group with the hosts Spain, a Yugoslavia team that had topped a group containing Italy and a rapidly-improving Denmark, and Honduras, who had eliminated Mexico in qualifying. To stand a chance of qualifying, Northern Ireland would have to grind out results, which they did by holding Yugoslavia and Honduras to 0-0 and 1-1 draws, respectively. Their final game, however, was a far more daunting task: playing not only eleven Spaniards who had something to prove on their home turf, but playing the 49,000 die-hard Spanish fans in the stands. (give or take the few who had made the journey from Northern Ireland and had managed to get tickets) Moreover, the mathematics said that they had to win: A draw would have left them behind both Spain and the victor of the Honduras-Yugoslavia game, leaving them on the first plane back to Belfast.
Despite the lack of a colour clash, Northern Ireland stepped out into that sticky Valencia evening in their away kit of white shirts and green shorts, a look that would soon become iconic. The clean lines of the Adidas-designed kit would become an archetype for any future away kits ¾ despite brief experiments with blue or black, the white away kit has become a mainstay of the Northern Ireland team’s wardrobe, with it once again being used for Euro 2016. Those kits, shiny and tight and typically 1980s as they were would be immortalised forever in perhaps the greatest moment of Northern Ireland’s footballing history.
Forty-six minutes in, and Gerry Armstrong is quick enough to intercept a pass and burst into the Spanish half, leaving the Spanish midfield in his wake, looking up, and seeing massed ranks of defenders, he plays a short pass to Billy Hamilton on the right, and runs into the box. Hamilton knocks the ball to the by-line, dropping his shoulder to give himself the yard of space he needs to swing in a cross. Luis Arconada, the Spanish captain and goalkeeper, gets to it, but its awkward height causes him to parry it, not catch it, in the direction of a white shirt…
What follows is a mere instant of time, just a few tenths of a second where the ball falls out of Arconada’s hand and bounces once on the turf. It’s just enough for the spectators to realise what is happening, for the millions of television viewers to realise what is happening, and for John Motson, high in the commentary gantry, to take a breath. Meanwhile, in the eye of the storm, Gerry Armstrong calmly, but authoritatively, is able to connect a flying right boot with the errant Adidas Tango football, blasting it through Arconada’s legs and into the net for the game-winning goal. 44 minutes of disciplined defending later, and Northern Ireland had topped their group.
That goal, though it was definitely a singular moment of brilliance from Armstrong, is often seen as the encapsulation of Northern Ireland’s whole campaign, but the truth is that it was much more than that: not only should credit be given to the defensive performance that neutered Spain’s attack, but more attention should be paid to the second stage which it sealed qualification to.
The format of the 1982 World Cup was never repeated, which is probably the reason why it is less well-remembered as a tournament. Six groups of four were reduced to four groups of three, from which the semi-finalists emerged. This format did have its advantages, in the form of avoiding third-place teams making it out of the group whilst not increasing the number of games played. It also produced the purest example of a “Group of Death”, as Group C of the second stage contained Brazil, Italy and Argentina, where only one could progress.
Yet, despite this, the format meant that the tournament didn’t have official quarter-finals ¾ even though all four of the final games of the second group stage featured teams playing to avoid elimination and gain passage to the semis. This meant that a critical fact of Northern Ireland’s participation in the 1982 World Cup has been lost: that, after a back-and-forth 2-2 draw which eliminated Austria, the Northern Irish team stepped out at the Calderon Stadium in Madrid just a single victory away from a World Cup semi-final, an incredible achievement for such a small football nation. The campaign’s timing, at the peak of the Troubles, only adds to the romanticism of the story.
That game, seldom remembered in comparison to the victory over Spain, took place under the late-afternoon sun rather than the floodlights, but was still as important a stage as any for Northern Ireland to express themselves.
They were more than willing to cut loose and express themselves, too: half an hour in, the impudent teenager Norman Whiteside was able to flick the ball into the path of Martin O’Neill, who surged forward before exchanging a quick one-two with Armstrong before despatching the ball over the French goalkeeper into the net to give Northern Ireland the lead.
That lead would only last a second or two, as the Polish linesman had already ruled the goal out, judging O’Neill to have been offside when receiving the ball back from Armstrong. With the television equipment of 1982, it was clear this was a fairly awful decision ¾ O’Neill was a yard onside, at least ¾ and one can only imagine how scorned a linesman making a similar decision in a high-profile game would be today. One can also imagine, having taken the lead, Northern Ireland performing the same rear-guard action they had done against Spain, and clinging to that lead, to set up a semi against West Germany…
This is, of course, conjecture: France were a superior team, running out 4-1 winners as a result of an irrepressible midfield anchored by Michel Platini, and would go on to lead the semi-final 3-1 before being pegged back and eventually beaten on penalties by the Germans. Eventually, a largely unchanged team would win Euro 84 on home turf at a canter.
They had been beaten by what turned out to be a spectacular team, but the Northern Irish contingent could still hold their heads high: They had gone toe-to-toe with the World’s best, and finished in what was effectively a quarter-final spot. They would go on to do more great things ¾ Beating the West Germans home-and-away during Euro 84 qualification, winning the final British Home Championship in the same year, and qualifying for Mexico 86 ¾ but, in our memories, they will always epitomise that summer.
This summer, Lafferty, Davis, McAuley, Evans and the rest created new memories, and their names, exploits and shirts will go down in history in the same way that the generation of players that graced the footballing stage thirty-four summers ago did.
Author: Richard Hunter, May 2016Follow @NotThatHunter