I am going to start with a big claim. Billy Bingham was arguably the most important single figure in the history of Northern Ireland international football. Why? Because he was central to all three FIFA World Cup finals, we have been involved in.
He was a player in Sweden in 1958, when we made the quarter finals. He was manager in Spain ’82 when we beat the hosts at their own World Cup, probably our finest achievement ever. And he made it back-to-back successes when we qualified for Mexico 86.
As I was at two out of three, as a BBC commentator, I owe Billy, big time. And not just for the World Cups.
Billy also managed Northern Ireland to home and away wins against the then West Germany, in the 1984 European Championship qualifying tournament, making Northern Ireland the only nation in history to beat them twice in the same competition.
I remember Billy lifting my commentator’s notes from a coffee table in the foyer of the North Atlantic Hotel in Hamburg in 1983 on the afternoon of the away match.
We started talking, with me suggesting the German players would be out for revenge for the defeat we had inflicted the previous November in Belfast. “No” Billy corrected me. They were professionals. They knew there were games you won and games you should have won, but didn’t. The players weren’t out for revenge, but the crowd would be. The spectators would be demanding their team did us great damage.
He told me if we could keep the Germans at bay for the first quarter, the crowd would turn. I commented from an open-air booth in the middle of the main stand. With 22 minutes on my stopwatch and the football harmlessly nestled at the feet of a defender near a corner flag, I heard a “boo” from over my right shoulder. 23 minutes later, the first half finished goalless, and great sections of the crowd booed their team off. A different, determined Northern Ireland came out for the second half, Norman Whiteside scored the only goal of the game, and a remarkable double was achieved.
As we chatted in the hotel in Hamburg, Billy also reflected on the match in Belfast a year earlier.
West Germany arrived as the second-best team in the world, having lost the 1982 World Cup Final to Italy. The odds were not good.
Billy told me that as the team were changing, he went for a walk, but as he exited the home dressing room, the away door opened and the two superstars of the German team emerged, Karl Heinz Rummenigge, and Pierre Littbarski.
Billy hid in a recess and watched. Littbarski picked some flaking paint off the tongue and groove walls, while Rummenigge rubbed the old stone floor disapprovingly with the sole of his shoe. They were clearly not impressed with Windsor Park.
Billy followed them down the tunnel towards the pitch. The wind was blowing so hard the rain was coming in sideways and in seconds, the Germans were soaked from the collars of their Armani suits to the tips of their Gucci loafers. They looked at each other, and in that moment, Billy said the match was won and lost.
“They don’t want to be here” was the kernel of the team talk. The match is yours for the taking. Ian Stewart took it. We won 1-0.
I am very sorry to see Billy pass and how poignant that it comes just a fortnight short of the 40th anniversary of the greatest night of all, June 25, 1982, in the Luis Casanova Stadium in Valencia. Mal Donaghy got sent off. Pat Jennings did what he always did and kept guard in goal, and Gerry Armstrong scored the most famous goal in our history.
I heard the streets of Belfast were empty and I know the team’s only regret is that they couldn’t click their fingers and join the celebrations back home. But the celebrations in the Sidi Saler Sol Hotel were quite something. Billy not only allowed journalists to stay in the team hotel (most national teams didn’t), but he also invited the travelling fans back for the party.
In the dark days of the 1980s as we endured what we so euphemistically call our Troubles, there was a deep yearning for something uplifting. Sport sometimes provided that escape.
Dennis Taylor winning the World Snooker. Barry McGuigan becoming World Featherweight Boxing Champion. And Billy Bingham’s Northern Ireland taking on the world.
I hope you read and hear a lot about Billy Bingham in the next few days. If you do, I am confident you will be affirmed in the belief that he was not just a master tactician, he understood people, whether they were players or spectators.
Above all, he was a winner. As he began his second spell as Northern Ireland manager in the 1980s, he inherited a squad that had just lost 9-1 on aggregate to England in a European qualifying tournament. Within months, the same squad won the British Home Championship.
To his family and friends, I offer my deepest sympathy.
To Billy himself, borrowing a phrase that was well used at the time in another sport, Thank You very much, Mr Bingham.