Ahead of the release of his new book, Evan Marshall looks back on the incredible World Cup run that immortalised a squad that dared to dream
For every Northern Ireland football fan who witnessed the glorious World Cup campaign of 1982, the events are seared into our collective memory.
Gerry Armstrong’s winning goal against host nation Spain to progress to the quarter-finals has been deservedly passed down to generations born since that balmy night as one of the pinnacles of our nation’s sporting history.
Context, however, is everything. What if you were to discover that the achievements that summer were even greater than you imagined when the entire sum of background events are taken into account?
Or that the accomplishments might even have extended all the way to the World Cup final itself?
To say that the fortunes of the Northern Ireland international team were at a low point in January 1980 is something of an understatement.
In a four-year period, they had failed to win any of their 12 games in the British Championship and finished bottom each season.
Morale had been in short supply throughout the 1970s, a decade in which the Troubles had greatly impacted the international game — with Northern Ireland at one point being forced into playing 18 consecutive away games as other nations refused to play in Belfast.
As the decade turned, Scotland were the last side still holding out and refusing to make the trip across the Irish Sea.
The Irish Football Association (IFA) also seemed in no hurry to appoint a successor to Danny Blanchflower as manager, distracted instead by negotiations with their counterparts in the Football Association of Ireland about exploring options for uniting the two teams.
Only when the finances of this venture didn’t work out to the IFA’s liking in January of the new decade did the association heed the advice of an increasingly irritated local press and fill the vacancy ahead of the World Cup campaign starting in March 1980.
There is a misconception that Billy Bingham was the overwhelming favourite for the job he had relinquished in 1971. However, it is not borne out by any of the contemporary evidence.
In 1980, the press were reporting a shortlist of four names, with Bingham’s name not on it, and with the IFA seemingly determined to offer the job to Terry Neill — another former manager — who was having a successful spell at Arsenal. Even when Neill turned down their advances, it was somewhat out of the blue that Bingham was given the nod.
Nevertheless, it turned out to be inspired, with Bingham delivering Northern Ireland’s first British Championship for 66 years within months of his appointment and qualification for a first World Cup since 1958 by the end of the following year.
The surprise nature of Bingham’s appointment at a time when the local governing body was considering dissolving its team shortly ahead of what turned out to be an unparalleled run of success, which ran all the way to Spain in 1982 and beyond, is just one of the revelations uncovered in researching a new book on the era, Fields of Wonder.
And plenty more surprising and forgotten tales have been unearthed from the depths of history.
How close did George Best come to representing his country at the World Cup?
Fans have forgotten that he was actually named in the original squad for one of the final qualifying games against Scotland and that he was involved in discussions about re-signing for Ron Atkinson’s Manchester United at the same time.
What impact did the unrest in Northern Ireland have on the team’s attempts to qualify during 1981? The answer is more than could be expected with British Championship games that year cancelled.
This led to a derailing of the preparations for a must-win game against Sweden, which the IFA had bizarrely scheduled after the season had concluded — to the delight of the Swedes who played summer football. Northern Ireland lost the game and faced a barrage of criticism from a local press, which was often quite hostile towards them, with their qualification hopes seemingly left in tatters.
However, the recurring theme to emerge from new interviews with the players and by studying the contemporary reports is that of the togetherness of the team during this period and a belief in their own abilities.
It’s fair to say that it wasn’t a belief which was shared by their own organising association. Their lack of confidence in the team’s abilities meant that, with Northern Ireland knowing they would be using their white kit in the group stage games, they didn’t bring the famous green shirts which might be required for the quarter-finals and had to have them sent on.
Worse still, they had booked flights for them the morning after the Spain game. As the team celebrated their most incredible victory, they only informed Bingham at 1.30am that they had no hotel for the following night as they had made no plans for staying on.
Just as in 1958, though, the players believed, having forged strong bonds of companionship and camaraderie to match their fighting spirit.
And as in 1958 when Danny Blanchflower famously said during a post-match interview that their ambition was always “to equalise before the other team scores”, a thread of good Irish humour ran through so much of what they did.
With the Spanish press obsessed by the squad’s preparations and insinuating that they were a team of boozers, one Irish player remarked to a crestfallen local journalist after the 1-0 victory in Valencia, “Imagine what the score would have been if we’d stayed sober”.
Billy Hamilton, provider of the cross for that most iconic of goals — and scorer of two himself during the quarter-finals — reflects today: “It’s a testament to the achievement that people are still talking about it. It’s hard to explain.
“It’s a lot to do with the bonding. Meeting at the hotels, catching up with each other, playing pranks on each other, having a good laugh, going out for a pint together.
“Not only were they good teammates but they were good friends — and it’s stayed like that to this day.
“I don’t think that achievement would have been possible if that bonding wasn’t in place before the Spanish game.
“We were like brothers, more than friends, it was that intense. I think that’s what got us our glory on that night.”
And it might have been an even greater and more immortal level of glory but for a shockingly bad decision in the final quarter-final group game against France.
Despite requiring victory over one of the tournament’s most fancied and skilful teams, Northern Ireland had been holding their own for the first half-hour before scoring a beautifully-worked goal which began with the 17-year-old Norman Whiteside backheeling a ball into the path of Martin O’Neill.
After a quick one-two exchange with Gerry Armstrong, he rampaged through the static French back line to calmly slot the ball into the net for what should have been one of the most perfectly-executed goals in Irish footballing history.
The linesman flagged — wrongly — for offside and in the Spanish afternoon heat the brave players finally withered before a French onslaught.
Today, VAR would have declared the goal to be good.
And who would have ruled out Northern Ireland repeating their solid backs-to-the-wall performance against Spain to ease into the semi-finals? Their opponents?
West Germany, who, it should be noted, Northern Ireland managed to beat both home and away in the year and a bit following Espana ‘82. A World Cup final? It’s one of those delicious Sliding Doors moments of ‘what if?’
Martin O’Neill still laments the decision to this day, but is nevertheless philosophical about what the team achieved.
“I played for Nottingham Forest for 10 years with a great team spirit enhanced by a great manager, but I had the same sort of bonding with the Northern Ireland group who would fight tooth and nail for each other.
“To be captain of that team was fantastic.
“I can give up the moment of the goal I scored in that match against France — and I have to rue that for the rest of my life — for all the great moments I did have.”
As we prepare to celebrate 40 years since that never-to-be-forgotten night in Valencia, when a group of determined Northern Irishmen from mixed backgrounds showed the world what can be accomplished by togetherness, the story bears repeating to inspire those who might one day propel us forward onto the world stage again.
Fields of Wonder by Evan Marshall is available now. A special launch for the book is being held in 2 Royal Avenue (the former Tesco building beside Primark) on May 30 at 7pm with a talk on the subject and a memorabilia display