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Footballers' Lives with Gerry Armstrong: 'I've suffered hard times like the loss of twin babies and my mum, but Deborah has brought real happiness to my life'

Northern Ireland legend Gerry Armstrong on being a late starter in football, the moment that changed his life and coping with tragedy

Family life: Gerry Armstrong with wife Deborah and daughter Marianna
Family life: Gerry Armstrong with wife Deborah and daughter Marianna
Iconic moment: Gerry Armstrong says scoring for Northern Ireland against Spain at the 1982 World Cup changed his life
Wedded bliss: Gerry and Deborah married in Thailand in 2004

By Graham Luney

Q. Was your first love gaelic football?

A. I've been very lucky because I have been going for 44 years since I became a professional and I've achieved a lot for someone who didn't play football when I was a kid.

I only took it up when I was about 16 and three years later I signed for Spurs, which is crazy. A year later, I was playing for Northern Ireland. Three years after that, I was at the World Cup and then played in Spain against Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Doors just opened for me and I took the opportunities. I grew up in the Springfield Road and was big mates with Tom Finney, who went on to play for Northern Ireland.

I moved to Beechmount and played gaelic and hurling. I loved gaelic and was a decent player, but I couldn't train and commit time to all the sports. We didn't wear helmets in the hurling and used to get a lot of cuts so maybe it was time to try something different!

I was suspended from gaelic for fighting. I could throw a right hook and those days were crazy. It was a rough, physical game but it was honest too.

It taught me a lot, and I thought football was a soft game in comparison.

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St Paul's Swifts was my first football team and I scored 35 goals in one season.

Q. Who were your football heroes growing up?

A. Our family were big Leeds United fans and they remain my team.

I could rattle off the whole team to you, including the great Jack Charlton, Norman Hunter, Johnny Giles, Billy Bremner, Eddie Gray and Mick Jones, a big strong target man.

Q. How did the move to Spurs happen?

A. I had been at Bangor and was learning fast, including when I got sent off in my first appearance after coming on as a substitute for the reserves.

I scored a goal and made one, but the centre-half said he was going to break my leg so he got a dig in the face and I was sent off.

Bertie Neill and Billy Neill were the two coaches and they helped me to learn the rules and keep me on the right track. Jim 'Stick' Thompson was there and I loved it.

I went to trials with Johnny Jameson but heard nothing for weeks and Arsenal looked set to sign me. But then on a Sunday, when I had a game at Casement Park, I was told to report to the back of City Hall where I was taken to the Dunadry Hotel and Bertie helped me negotiate the deal with Terry Neill, the Spurs manager.

Q. Were you homesick in the early days?

A. No, I was 21 and training every day. I loved the competitive side of it and I was getting fitter. It was also a nice opportunity to get out of Belfast.

I was living in Beechmount and Belfast in 1975 wasn't a pleasant place.

The barricades were up, there were shootings, killings and it was hard to get in and out.

I had just got married and it was a good time to leave. It was in my mind, could I play at a higher level? It took me a few months to adjust as I didn't understand the strengths I had.

I was looking at Glenn Hoddle and Neil McNab and thinking how could I match their skill level? But I trained hard, knowing I had to up my game.

These guys have been doing this since they were kids, I've only been playing football for just over three years. But I did have power and pace, combined with the right attitude and determination. That's how I worked my way to the front of the queue.

Q. What advice would you give to a young player hoping to make it in the professional game?

A. I think it can be easier now for players to be noticed, but you've got to be hungry. Ability is not enough. I know many Irish League players who were better footballers than me but they didn't have my attributes, and you can't coach someone to be quick and strong, you have to work at it.

You either have the right attitude or you don't and my gaelic background set me up well for the transition to football.

My first goal for Spurs was a brave diving header against Royal Antwerp in a friendly at White Hart Lane. But my versatility was my problem as I could play in virtually any position, from defence to midfield and attack.

I played a lot of games as a centre-half. I was a good jumper and had pace. One time I marked Cyrille Regis, and when I did well I was told to stick at it, even though I didn't like playing there.

Q. You played for many clubs, what was your happiest time?

A. Watford was good, I enjoyed playing for Graham Taylor. He got an extra five or 10 per cent out of me and his mentality was incredible. He believed in training harder and being stronger than the opposition.

I had to up my game and Graham taught me a lot about preparation. I turned into a better centre forward and my level of fitness went up a lot. It worked because we won a lot of matches in the last 15 minutes.

Set piece play was important too and Graham put a lot of thought into that. I can remember he interviewed me when Northern Ireland played England at Old Trafford and I told him he deserves a lot of credit for how fit I was when we went to Spain for the World Cup in 1982.

I was mentally and physically in good condition and Graham gave me belief. He called me up when I was in Spain and told me my pace was scaring teams and they couldn't handle me. Graham filled my head full of positive thoughts and the players had great respect for 'the boss'.

Q. Did you survive the parties with Elton John?

A. We had lots of parties with him and in his house. On the Sunday before the season kicked off, there was a party at his house and all the families would go.

The groundsman, the kitman, the cleaners were all invited and looked after. Elton was a top man and we'd get invites to his concerts as well.

He loved being with the footballers. We looked at Elton, the superstar, and he looked at us thinking he'd like to be a footballer.

His uncle played for Watford and he bought into Graham Taylor's dream. Graham pulled the strings but Elton provided the money, and he was a fantastic person to be around.

Q. You played in Spain for Real Mallorca after the 1982 World Cup when Diego Maradona was at Barcelona, what was that experience like?

A. The Spaniards had different skills and techniques so I was learning again. Their football philosophy was different from the English game, which was more direct and physical.

It took me five months to get to grips with the language. I also played against Maradona and scored my first goal for the club against his Barcelona side. He took off after that and his acceleration from the first five yards was explosive.

He was past people before they saw him, and what a left foot he had. Needless to say, we lost 4-1. I also played against Michel Platini in the World Cup but Maradona must be the toughest opponent I've faced.

Now I think Lionel Messi is a better player because he has more skills and his goalscoring record is phenomenal. I also played with George Best on my debut against West Germany and he had more ability than anyone.

Glenn Hoddle and John Barnes could also do anything. The 'greatest of all time' is an interesting debate, but I feel if George was playing today he'd be like Messi and at the top of his profession.

Maradona was a character and I've had a few drinks with him. The Argentinian guys at Mallorca invited me out to chat to Diego and he was really funny, good fun and a character. That was before the famous handball!

Q. George was unable to beat his alcohol problems. Did you try to help him?

A. No-one wanted him to go down that road, and at different times we thought he could beat it, but he just couldn't and he told me that privately.

He'd say 'Gerry, that's the way I'm made. I've tried but I'm not someone who will sit in front of the fire with a pipe and slippers.'

His lifestyle was different and he never even made 60. Everyone tried to help him but I didn't see him all the time.

I got him as a guest speaker when I was a manager at Worthing and it was a great night, they still talk about it.

George was a special, unique man, and it's just sad we couldn't help him.

Q. What was special about the 1982 Northern Ireland side that reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup?

A. We worked very hard as a unit and our strength was that togetherness. We were only as good as our team-mates, from Pat Jennings in goal to myself and Billy Hamilton.

There was a great camaraderie and still is today.

The lads keep in touch and many good lads like Derek Spence and Terry Cochrane missed out on the squad. I felt sorry for the guys as they were a big part of the group.

Michael O'Neill's side has the same spirit and I was disappointed with Ronald Koeman's comments after the defeat in Holland. With 10 minutes to go it was job done, and I was never a big fan of Ronald, that was sour grapes - big time - for me.

Q. I'm sure you've probably forgotten about that goal against Spain in Valencia at the 1982 World Cup, but did it change your life?

A. It did because it was the main reason why I got the move to Mallorca. They wanted a British-style centre forward and it was a good experience for me once the new signings started to gel.

It gave me greater knowledge of Spanish football, which got me a commentary and analysis job at Sky TV for 22 years.

I'm still analysing the game today. The fans did give me stick, I had tomatoes, apples and oranges thrown at me at Valencia, which was fun, but I scored in a 2-2 draw.

Q. What was special about Billy Bingham?

A. Billy had a knack for picking the right player and putting him in the right position. Four months before the World Cup, he moved me to the right wing to use the power and pace I had while offering more support to the midfield.

We also had no naturally left-footed player. Mal Donaghy at left back and Sammy McIlroy at left midfield weren't left footed, and Billy brought in Norman Whiteside who had matured so much.

Norman went to the left, Billy to the right and I went right side of midfield. Billy had worked on that formation and implemented it on the training ground in Brighton.

He also brought in John McClelland to use his pace and you have to give him credit for all those intelligent changes.

We had a run of five-and-a-half years undefeated at Windsor Park. You don't get that without a strong bond between the players. Two World Cups and two British Championships within a six-year period - special times.

Q. You assisted Northern Ireland managers Bryan Hamilton and Lawrie Sanchez. Would you have liked a crack at the job?

A. I put myself in the frame a few times and would have liked to have a crack at it. I had managed Worthing and Crawley and was moving up the ladder.

I would have liked the Northern Ireland job 20 years ago - not now!

Michael's done a fantastic job from a tough start and it will be very sad when he leaves, but we wish him even more success at Stoke.

Q. How supportive has your family been?

A. My mum Kathleen and dad Gerald, from Fintona, were big advocates of me playing sport. Mum's family had a big gaelic background and both liked to see me play sport.

Once I hit 15 they took more interest in my development and were always really encouraging.

My wife, Deborah, was a gymnast and also played netball for Northern Ireland at the age of 15.

When we went to Spain she picked up tennis and became a good player. We have always been sporty and push that onto our daughter Marianna (13).

Caitlin is 19 and at university in Glasgow. Marianna wants to be an actress or a singer, that's her goal.

She's been playing different sports including netball.

Her teacher mentioned to me she's a bit too physical as she said her dad said 'if you can't go around them, go through them!'

Q. Why did you leave Spain and come back to live in Northern Ireland?

A. To give Marianna more opportunities. From the singing and acting point of view, Northern Ireland is a great place. We have so many talented people here, despite having such a small population.

I've been blowing the trumpet for so long and some people are starting to listen. We have a lot to offer and I believe this country can have a bright future.

Marianna's education was the main reason we came home. I still own part of Quarteirense, a Portuguese football club and keep myself busy.

I'm working for Virgin and don't want to slow down, you're a long time dead! The commentary is fun, I really enjoy it.

Q. How important is Deborah in your life?

A. I couldn't get anyone to support me better than Deborah. She's the rock for me and has always been there for me. It's not easy taking step children on board but she did that 16 years ago and blown everyone out of the water with what she's done.

She's a good girl and kept me right, we sing off the same hymn sheet and it's good when you work together like that. Life isn't always smooth but you get through the rough times.

I see her as a female equivalent of me which is a scary thought!

She's a big heart and all my friends have seen the qualities she has.

It's been a very, very good 16 years.

Q. Have you been through hard times in your life?

A. I've had a few bad days. When mum died seven years ago that was a bad day. It was a really bad day. She was as fit as a fiddle but, at the age of 82, I got a call from my younger sister Grainne in the early hours of the morning to tell me mum had collapsed and was rushed to the hospital.

She lived in Omagh and was always on the go but had a blood clot and didn't recover. I came home with Deborah and it was a big shock and loss to the family. I never got a chance to say goodbye.

I see my wife as very like my mum, with similar habits and qualities, even in the way she moves her thumbs as a habit. My mum had a good heart too.

Going back to my youth when I was only 19 and married to my first wife, Anne, we had twins who died within a few days. They were born premature, Gerard Peter lived for a day and Jennifer Anne lived for two days.

That was hard, and getting away from Northern Ireland was another opportunity to make a fresh start. I was still a teenager going down to the morgue to identify my two kids and they were the size of my hand, lying there.

It was crazy, and a harsh lesson to learn at such a young age. You question everything, and every so often it flashes back in your mind. After that I had two sons, Brendan and Ciaran, who live in England.

I've another daughter, Aishleen, who is a nurse in London, and Caitlin with my second wife, Caron. Deborah adopted Caitlin, now a big sister to Marianna.

Life is a learning curve and I've had to learn from the experiences.

When I was a teenager I thought I knew everything but I was very wrong.

Q. If you could invite four people to dinner, who would you chose?

A. Throughout history, I'd go for Muhammad Ali - I loved him - and Nelson Mandela. Also, John Lennon as The Beatles were my favourite group in the 60s and George Best.

There's some talent and intelligence around that table.

George was a humble, unassuming and intelligent guy and you never had a dull night with him. Our birthdays were one day apart so it was an excuse to party.

Snapshot

Date of birth: May 23, 1954

Place of birth: Belfast

Previous clubs: St Paul's Swifts, Cromac Albion, Bangor, Tottenham, Watford, Real Mallorca, West Brom, Chesterfield, Brighton, Millwall, Crawley Town, Glenavon, Bromley, Worthing, Whitehawk.

Northern Ireland record: 63 appearances, 12 goals

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