There are moments in life that never fade from the memory – imprinted forever.
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Where were you when President John F Kennedy was assassinated? Or Princess Diana’s fatal car crash in Paris?
The intimate details of the circumstances, the time, and the place cannot be erased. You remember them as if it had just happened yesterday. Sports fans have a plethora of them – those famous fights at the King’s Hall, Ireland’s triumphs at Lansdowne Road and Ravenhill, those dramatic All-Ireland finals at Croke Park, the Italians’ shock elimination from the 1958 World Cup at Windsor Park and that bitterly cold November night when Northern Ireland defeated Israel 1-0 to qualify for Spain 82 finals.
The visit of the Israelis for to-night’s friendly at Windsor Park will stir recollections of that historic occasion 28 years ago. More than 40,000 fans packed the stadium — what a comparison with today’s 14,000 imposed by Health And Safety restrictions. The victory ensured second place in the qualifying group, two points behind Scotland and one ahead of Portugal.
With Martin O’Neill, an inspirational captain, ruled out by a hamstring injury, Tommy Cassidy, celebrating his 30th birthday, replaced him. Everyone assumed that it would be a routine process to be one of the two teams reaching the finals as Israel were rated the group minnows although they had shocked Portugal 4-1, a result which helped Northern Ireland’s cause.
Not so the shrewd Billy Bingham who had carried out a meticulous assessment of Israel, who were coached by Englishman Jack Mansell.
“Don’t underestimate them,” was his stern simple message.
Windsor, with its vibrant crowd atmosphere, international tradition and heritage, became a cauldron of jubilation in the 30th minute with a roar heard in many parts of Belfast. Spectators suddenly realised they could be watching part of football history.
The late Noel Brotherston, who had played a major role in the 1980 British championship success, was fouled in a tackle from behind and a free-kick awarded.
Gerry Armstrong recalls: “We had worked repeatedly on that set piece during training. Noel gave the impression he would take the kick, but ran over the ball leaving Jimmy Nicholl to lob it into the box. Billy Hamilton headed it down to me. I pivoted and volleyed into the net.”
How appropriate that the goal was scored at the Spion Kop end as had all the others in the qualifying series. The terracing became a sea of waving flags and scarves as the sardine-packed fans chanted “Norn Ireland” “Norn Ireland”. Sweden 58 had been the glory era. Now Spain 82 loomed on the horizon.
There was, however, still a long way to go before that final whistle. Bingham, master tactician and motivator, opted for constant attack with the Israeli defence repeatedly pierced on the right flank by the pace, control, and flawless crosses from Brotherston and the overlapping of Jimmy Nicholl.
Nervous tension, not normally associated with Bingham’s teams, crept in towards the finish when Pat Jennings and Chris Nicholl hesitated going for the ball, an Israeli forward pounced only to fluff an equalising opportunity.
The danger had been averted. The big prize, the ultimate, World Cup Spain 82 was just around the corner.
Northern Ireland held out until the referee called a halt to ignite scenes of unrestrained euphoria.
In his book ‘Six Glorious Years’ Ronnie Hanna wrote: “I wasn’t aware of anyone leaving the stadium as the teams departed down the tunnel.
“The noise was terrific when Bingham and the players returned for the lap of honour. It was an opportunity for the team to thank supporters for the part they had played in helping Northern Ireland reach only their second World Cup.”
Players who had read about Sweden 58, who had listened to stories about Blanchflower, Peacock, Gregg, McIlroy and McParland, and had been inspired by them, were now part of another glorious chapter in Irish FA history.
Northern Ireland topped the Group Five finals table in Spain with four points; went through to the quarter-finals and held Austria to a 2-2 draw, but succumbed to France, just as they did in Sweden, 1958. Fate had struck again.
Spain 82 will always be remembered for Armstrong’s goal in the 1-0 victory over the host nation at Valencia – the night Northern Ireland streets were deserted – and his winner against Israel which put them through to the finals.
A dream had been realised as the squad portrayed a different image of Northern Ireland other than that of the bomb, bullet, murder and mayhem so often disseminated to the world in those troubled times.
Northern Ireland (v Israel, November 18,1981): Jennings (Arsenal), J Nicholl (Man United), Donaghy (Luton Town), McCreery (Tulsa Roughnecks), C Nicholl (Southampton), J O’Neill (Leicester City), Brotherston (Blackburn Rovers), Cassidy (Burnley), Armstrong (Watford), McIlroy (Man United), Hamilton (Burnley).
Qualifying Group Six Final Table: Scotland 11pts, Northern Ireland 9, Sweden 8, Portugal 7, Israel 5.