Billy Hamilton: When Northern Ireland hit the World Cup big time
Published 06/06/2014 | 11:30
Billy Hamilton played EIGHT times in the World Cup finals. That's eight times more than George Best, Alfredo Di Stefano, Duncan Edwards, Ian Rush, Eric Cantona, Liam Brady and Ryan Giggs combined.
And the same number as his Northern Ireland team-mates Jimmy Nicholl, Dave McCreery, Norman Whiteside and Sammy McIlroy, who played in all of their country's World Cup games in 1982 and 1986.
None of that fab four managed to score twice in the finals though. Hamilton did, securing his place as one of the most popular players ever to pull on the green shirt.
Everyone loves easy going, fun loving Billy, apart from defenders who took liberties with the Belfast-man and ended up regretting it.
Beginning his career at Linfield as a bustling forward, he moved to QPR in 1978, the same year he made his international debut, but it wasn't until he joined Burnley a year later that he started to make a major impression in full-time football.
It was while at Burnley, where he remains an idol with the fans, that he became a regular for Northern Ireland leading to him playing in attack with Gerry Armstrong in the 1982 finals in Spain.
It was to be the best experience of his footballing life, which kicked-off even before Billy Bingham's squad arrived in Espana.
Hamilton, who will write a hard-hitting column for the Belfast Telegraph during this year's World Cup, recalls: "While other teams were going off to exotic climes we went to Brighton for our pre-tournament training. It proved to be a masterstroke because Brighton was in the middle of a heatwave which helped us when we got to Spain.
"We trained from 9.30am to 12.30pm and then from 1.30pm to 3.30pm. It was tough going.
"There was an Ethiopian marathon runner at Brighton University and Billy Bingham got him to do stamina runs with us. Gerry Armstrong was the only one who could keep up with him!
"After working us hard during the day, Bingy was quite relaxed about what we got up to at night. Our curfew was around 11pm and groups of us would go out and have a couple of pints.
"That's when the craic and banter started. We really got to know each other. At the weekend Billy really allowed us to let our hair down and we didn't need to be told twice!
"Those bonding exercises were brilliant for team morale. It was a very happy camp, but we knew when to switch off the fun and switch on our serious side.
"Going to the World Cup was a dream for all of us and when we got to Spain we knew we really had hit the big time.
"There was so much media attention from camera crews and journalists around the world, especially when Norman Whiteside became the youngest player ever to play in the World Cup finals.
"Billy told us that for our own good we had to curtail our social activities and we weren't allowed outside the hotel.
"One afternoon Billy went to a factory which was making a replica of the World Cup and we were instructed not to go anywhere, so that day we all ended up beside the pool having a few cans of beer.
"One of our players Tommy Cassidy, a good midfielder, but who never looked the fittest, was sitting in a deckchair with a cowboy hat on him. We put our drinks close to him so he had a mountain of beer beside him with his belly hanging out over his shorts.
"A Spanish photographer took a picture of this and it appeared in a local paper with a big headline 'This is how the Irish prepare for the big game!'
"It was as if they were laughing at us. That backfired on them though because it gave us even more resolve when we played Spain."
Hamilton admits that the World Cup group matches were like a journey into the unknown.
"We took on Honduras and they were tremendously athletic and capable of changing the tempo from slow to quick in a flash. It was difficult to get to grips with that, but we drew against them and prior to that drew with Yugoslavia, when Norman made his debut, so we felt we were acquitting ourselves quite well," says Billy, now 57 and running a trophy shop in Bangor, located ironically in Bingham Mall.
"Then came the game with Spain. We were supposed to be lambs to the slaughter. We had to win to progress and with them being hosts, we knew it was going to be a mighty task. It was made harder of course when Mal Donaghy was unfortunate to be sent off.
"That match was one of the most physical I ever played in and that Spanish side was one of the most cynical and clever teams I ever faced. They could dish it out and were great at doing it off the ball.
"We worked like we had never worked before. I was the centre forward, but spent more time in my own 18 yard box than in Spain's. Billy had drilled it into us about the jobs we had to do and we did them. The bond and fellowship built up in Brighton played a huge role in that."
The spirit and togetherness inspired one of the greatest shocks in World Cup history with Northern Ireland famously winning 1-0.
Gerry Armstrong was the scorer. He's asked every day in life about THAT goal, but how does the man who created it remember that never to be forgotten moment.
"It came from one of our few forays outside our box," recalls Billy, trying to wipe the smile off his face to talk about it.
"Gerry picked up the ball in our half and I pulled wide to stretch the defence. He got the ball to me on a one-on-one with their defender Miguel Tendillo who had been kicking lumps out of me all night. I decided to take him on and got my arm in front of him making sure he could not get a tackle in.
"To be honest I didn't see Gerry's position in the box. All I wanted was to put the ball into a dangerous area and curl it away from the goalkeeper. Arconada did the rest, spilling the ball and Gerry smacked it into the net. It was fortunate, but a goal that was meant to be."
After the celebrations had finished, and as Billy recalls they went on for some time, Northern Ireland had another two games to play in the next phase.
There was talk about bringing out wives and family for the matches against Austria and France, but those plans were shelved due to the 'hellish costs'. Money could not buy the joy Hamilton experienced in the 2-2 draw with the Austrians, scoring twice as the feelgood factor continued.
"Against Austria my contribution, bar the goals, wasn't as good as it had been against Spain," he says modestly.
"But to score twice was incredible. I couldn't believe I had scored in a World Cup finals. It was Gerry who made my first with a storming run and cross. I knew if I met it right I would score. When I did I didn't know what to do. I think that's why I produced every goal celebration possible."
Northern Ireland were knocked out after losing 4-1 to France, but national heroes had been born.
Suffice to say, the boys enjoyed the journey home.
Billy Hamilton is a World Cup hero and he'll be writing exclusively about the 2014 tournament for the Belfast Telegraph. The Northern Ireland legend knows all about playing in the greatest show on earth having featured in the 1982 finals in Spain and 1986 finals in Mexico, taking on the greats of the game. He knows what it takes to shine on the biggest stage of all. Billy never shirked anything on the field and he won't shirk anything off it in his brilliant World Cup column starting next week. Don't miss it.
Questions for Billy
SB: Best player played against in 1982 World Cup?
BH: Michel Platini. He always had space and we couldn't get near him. France should have won that World Cup but in the semi-final the West German goalkeeper Toni Schumacher took out one of their players (Patrick Battiston) when he was going through to score and they ended up losing on penalties.
SB: When will Northern Ireland qualify for a World Cup again?
BH: I'd go as a spectator if we did but we could be waiting a while. Fifa have made it difficult for smaller European nations to qualify with the way they formulate the groups and how many qualify from the various continents.
SB: Tell us about the board game you invented in the 80s called Billy Hamilton's Football Academy.
BH: When I was injured and had a plaster cast on for four months I was sitting at home going stir crazy so I came up with an idea to invent a board game. Other footballers put their name to games but this was my game from conception to getting it on the market.
From start to finish the whole thing took around five to six months.
My production crew was my mother in law and father in law. I thought everything out and did the mathematics about how long it would take to get round the board.
It was designed as a journey through the life of a footballer with the winning player making it to the World Cup.
When I sold it to Toys R Us I thought I was going to be a millionaire! It didn't make it commercially but I am still proud of doing it. It was rewarding and a great learning process for me in terms of business.
I still have a few of the games left and sell them in my trophy shop in Bangor at Christmas.
SB: Best player played against in 1986 World Cup?
BH: Brazil, as a team, were on a different level. Individually probably Zico, though I'm not sure he got out of second gear against us!