Billy Bingham brought so much to NI, writes Evan Marshall
On a sad day for Northern Irish football, it is easy to overlook some of the achievements of the great Billy Bingham as tributes are deservedly showered upon him.
For a generation of people such as myself, who were at school when Bingham was defying all footballing logic to take our small country to two successive World Cups, his legend is assured, the most successful manager in our history and likely to remain as such forever.
However, this only tells half the story with Bingham. For our fathers before us he was already on the roster of the greats, having been to the quarter-finals as a player in 1958, long years before his famous pipe graced the dugouts and touchlines of football management. Bingham’s Southport home was a place bedecked with photographs and mementos across his glittering life in football and it was a career that he was proud of in its totality, from start to finish, from his early days in Irish League football through to the cauldron-like atmosphere of that unforgettable night in Valencia and beyond.
His humble beginnings as a shipyard apprentice from east Belfast were never forgotten and the terraced streets of Bloomfield could certainly have laid claim at one point to producing the highest density of soccer talent in the British Isles. From one house alone there came the duo of Danny and Jackie Blanchflower, and from a few streets away was Bingham.
His local side Glentoran, nurtured his footballing talents and he was snapped up by Sunderland to ply his trade in England. Context is everything. At this time, Sunderland were nicknamed The Bank of England for their ability to outspend all rivals in the pursuit glory. The Manchester City or Chelsea of their day. If the Bank of England team came knocking, it was recognition that you were one of the best and Bingham was a gifted, speedy, bouncing winger of quite some note. His playing career was distinguished and at Luton Town he scored in every round of the FA Cup, only to lose the final.
As an international, however, his career coincided with a glittering array of other local stars in what is undoubtedly the most talented team ever assembled by Northern Ireland. He played at Wembley as Northern Ireland defeated a seemingly invincible England side containing Duncan Edwards.
He braved the Battle of Belfast at Windsor Park as twice World Champions Italy were dispatched and Northern Ireland became the smallest nation to qualify for the World Cup. He played all five games in Sweden as the nation embarked upon a fairytale journey to the quarter-finals, emerging from a group ahead of Argentina.
These feats alone would have immortalised him in local soccer history. But the story wasn’t over. He picked up a First Division winner’s medal with Everton in 1963 and as a manager took them within a whisker of winning the league again in 1975.
In between he had enjoyed a successful spell as manager of Linfield, winning the Irish League and three other trophies in his single season.
He also managed Northern Ireland during this period and sent George Best out onto the pitch in 1967 for his fabled demolition of Scotland, and again in 1971 for the famous disallowed goal against Gordon Banks.
However, there is no escaping the legacy of his second spell as Northern Ireland manager which began in 1980 with the nation’s fortunes at a low ebb. Despite not being on the initial shortlist for the job he had won the British Championship within a few months of taking over.
He was simply the right man, in the right place, at the right time, his years of experience in the game giving him an insight into how Northern Ireland’s strong but shallow pool of talent could be corralled into a fighting force which negated their weaknesses and maximised their strengths.
He brought steel, grit, spirit and a gameplan to the squad and embarked upon a three-year unbeaten home record as he guided the team to that night of destiny in Spain. While it will always be that famous victory over the host nation and Gerry Armstrong’s goal which remains after all else has faded from memory, it should be noted that his great achievement wasn’t just a one-off moment of glory, but maintaining Northern Ireland as a footballing force beyond that glorious summer.
West Germany, runners-up in the 1982 World Cup and then current Euro Champions, were beaten home and away in the next qualifying campaign, with Northern Ireland remaining the only team in history to inflict this stat upon the Germans in any group stage. And then he guided his nation to another World Cup with an aging team and a goalkeeper who was 40 years old and no longer playing club football.
As a player, Bingham was a talented individual and part of an ensemble of Irishmen who remain untouchable in their accomplishments.
As a manager, he lifted a nation weary from over a decade of unrest, hurt and division and had throngs of people celebrating simultaneously on the streets of the Falls and Shankill.
His famously mixed squad were the epitome of what Northern Irishmen could achieve on a world stage with a unity of purpose and he had the vision to shrug off threats to his person to appoint the nation’s first Catholic captain in Martin O’Neill.
He told me that he also liked to pair up Catholic and Protestant players together when he was sorting out the rooms at hotels in order that there could be no forming of cliques and that everyone formed one unit of Northern Irishmen. The results of his forward thinking can be seen in what was achieved on the pitch.
Not enjoying great health in recent years, the sad news of Bingham’s passing was inevitable, and yet it is still a moment which has rocked the fans and ex-players alike. However, his place in the history books of Irish sport already long certain, he is being saluted all over again for the pride he brought to a team and to a country and for a remarkable series of moments as a player and manager that will live on until the last of us who witnessed them have gone. And even beyond.
Billy Bingham collaborated with me in telling the story of his international successes in recent years. Fields of Wonder, telling the story of the 1982 World Cup, has just been published and is available in bookshops now and as a documentary later this year. Spirit of ’58, telling the story of the earlier triumph when he was a player, has just been reprinted