Billy Hamilton: You can get bored at a World Cup... it happened to Northern Ireland in Mexico
Published 06/06/2014 | 11:30
If Espana 82 provided the greatest moments of Billy Hamilton's career, he recalls Mexico 86 as the tournament in which the Northern Ireland players became bored off the pitch and were taught harsh lessons on it.
Hamilton was only just passed fit to be part of the squad having previously suffered a serious knee injury, which would eventually lead to his premature retirement.
"The 1986 World Cup was different to 1982 for me because I was plagued by injury. I had been playing the best football of my career with Oxford United, but then suffered a cruel blow sustaining a knee injury," said Hamilton.
"Billy Bingham told me if I got through training in Albuquerque he would take me to Mexico. It was hard but the knee stood up to the test. I was 90 per cent fit going into that World Cup.
"Billy brought in a stricter regime for Mexico. He'd taken advice from medical experts about the difficulties of playing at altitude and there was a ban on going out – although on some occasions some of us did manage to sneak away.
"There had been a family bereavement in the squad and the atmosphere wasn't the same. It was not as hopeful or lively as four years earlier.
"People will say how do you get bored in a four or five star hotel, but believe me you can. I think we became bored and stale out there and it told in our play. Maybe that is an excuse, but we didn't perform the way he could have done.
"The heat and humidity, of course, didn't help us. We were fit guys, but we weren't conditioned to playing in those temperatures – and that was despite all our training beforehand.
"There may have been air conditioning in our hotel, but there wasn't any out on the pitch. The Northern Ireland game was all about hustling the opposition and in Mexico we couldn't do that.
"I started the draw against Algeria and didn't do too well and came off the bench for the Spain and Brazil defeats.
"The Brazil game was a stark lesson for us. We lost 3-0 and hardly got a kick. Had it not been for Pat Jennings it would have been really embarrassing for us."
Hamilton, who scored five goals for Northern Ireland, didn't know it at the time, but his 41st international appearance against Brazil turned out to be his last with the troublesome knee giving out a couple of months later.
At 28, devastated, he retired from professional football and felt for Ulster rugby star Stephen Ferris this week having to quit his sport at the same age due to injury.
Hamilton would go on to play in the League of Ireland and Irish League, manage Limerick City, Distillery and Glenavon and act as chairman of an Irish FA Task Force, formed to shape the future of local football.
Nothing though would come close to his World Cup experiences.
He says: "In 1982 I was with Burnley who weren't even in the top division in England and I wondered if I really should have been there, but it was a great incentive to prove yourself against the best players in the world and also to learn a lot about yourself.
"When I look back now I realise what a great achievement it was for a country like ours to qualify for two World Cups in a row. To be part of both was magical."