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Sporting lives and times: How Tele deadline cost Northern Ireland World Cup hero place in history

Northern Ireland's World Cup hero reveals the untold story of Spain '82 as he recalls the proudest chapter in a great career

By Jim Gracey

It is time to right a Telegraph wrong. History records that the great Gerry Armstrong finished top British goalscorer at the 1982 World Cup finals in Spain, taking home the Adidas Golden Boot award. But the man who now engraves trophies for a living is convinced his name should have been etched on the prize instead.

Big Billy Hamilton laughs now, 36 years on, as he explains how a Belfast Telegraph deadline cost him a place in the World Cup history books.

"It was our last match of the Spain 82 tournament," he recalls. "We are 4-0 down to France in Madrid and Gerry has a late crack at goal. The shot hits my ankle and is deflected into the net.

"I only half celebrated. We were going out of the World Cup and going home and the mood was very flat as we trooped into the dressing room.

"I was sat there deflated when Billy Bingham came in and asked: 'Who got the goal?'

"I said it came off me so it was my goal. I was claiming it.

"The late, great reporter Malcolm Brodie was with Bingie and he then says: 'You can't. I've already filed my report to the Telegraph and it says Gerry scored. It's his goal.'

"I was too shattered to say anything but in time it dawned on me. That goal was the difference between Gerry winning the Golden Boot and me getting it. He then had three goals and I had two.

"It would be nice to be able to tell your grandkids you were the top British scorer at a World Cup.

"There weren't the same multitude of camera angles then as now to clear up any doubts on the spot. But I have looked at the footage on You Tube and you can definitely hear a thud as the ball strikes me and goes in."

Billy is philosophical, as he is about most things, looking back at how bizarre it all seems that a decision could become binding because a paper had gone to print compared to today's instant replays and technological scrutiny of every kick.

His true reward, he says, is the treasure trove of memories he cherishes from a magical three weeks in time that he calls 'the proudest of my life in football'.

The constant photographic reminders of Spain 82 are with him daily, adorning the walls of his trophy shop in the apt location of the Bingham Mall, just off Bangor main street.

He particularly delights in reliving his football generation's finest hour... the night Northern Ireland's supposed no-hopers dumped the World Cup hosts and favourites on their backsides in their own Valencia backyard.

June 25, 1982 is engraved in the memories of all who were there or watching at home on television that incredible Friday night.

"When I look back at that time and that team, it makes me so proud to think of how we stood up and were counted against all the odds," Billy asserts.

"No one gave us a chance but there was a belief in that team. The script was written in Spain's favour and we ripped it to shreds.

"It was supposed to be a formality for the host nation with a hostile crowd breathing down our necks in stifling heat. They put us under a lot of pressure and then we had Mal Donaghy sent off and still we refused to buckle."

And this time, there was no dispute over the goalscorer. Gerry Armstrong's life and career path changed in that instant. Hamilton is just delighted to have played his part, saying: "Gerry was one of the fittest players at that World Cup. He had incredible stamina in that heat and I knew something was on when he broke into their half, passed to me out on the right and continued his run.

"I managed to get half a yard on my marker, Tendillo, but to be honest, I didn't look to pick out Gerry with my cross. I just wanted to create a bit of havoc in their box and their keeper, Arconada, did the rest. He famously palmed the ball to Gerry who drove it into the net between the keeper and the centre half.

"It was an exhilarating feeling. We had given our all and didn't take an ounce of energy back into the dressing room."

The World Cup was played on a peculiar basis that summer. The win qualified Northern Ireland from a group of four into another group of three with Austria and France.

Big, strapping striker Hamilton went on to score both Northern Ireland goals in a 2-2 draw with Austria, his famous fist pumping goal celebrations still mimicked wherever he goes to this day.

Then came the Sunday afternoon exit to France and that contested goal. He mentions it jokingly only because on the counter of his shop, rests a cut-glass football, the Malcolm Brodie Lifetime Achievement award, awaiting the name of the recipient at this Monday's Castlereagh Glentoran Supporters Club dinner.

There no hard feelings back then and most certainly not now.

Billy reveals: "When we came back here to live, Malcolm would regularly invite my wife Isabel and I to dinner at the Culloden Hotel where he held court. We discovered it was a honour indeed to be asked to Malcolm's table."

The pair became firm friends with Billy acknowledging: "Northern Ireland football owes him a great debt for the way he championed the game, particularly the Irish League. He kept it in the headlines when the Troubles were threatening to strangle the game."

It speaks volumes for Malcolm's standing and influence that he was even in that Madrid dressing room at all, let alone acting as arbiter on who scored a goal in a World Cup finals.

Hamilton must get credit, too, though he is reluctant to do so, for his part in shaping the thriving Irish League scene we now enjoy and the reform of the Irish FA into a businesslike body from the dysfunctional unit once deemed 'unfit for purpose' by an exasperated Sports Minister Nelson McCausland.

Hamilton headed up the Task Force set up in the early 2000s to forensically examine all aspects of the game's structures and administration here and to make recommendations for root and branch change.

It has taken the best part of two decades but that is when the seeds were sown for the present day regeneration of our domestic and international game and the improved facilities and coaching structures in place now, compared to 20 years ago.

Hamilton would contend the operation was not a complete success.

He was in favour, at the time, of a new National Stadium away from Windsor Park where his own Irish League career began with Linfield.

"Politics got in the way of the Maze proposal, which is ironic, because it was mainly the civil servants involved who were pushing it," he says.

"I felt it should have gone to the Titanic Quarter. In saying that, the redevelopment of Windsor Park as a stadium has been a great success. Getting in and out of it is still a nightmare.

"All things considered, football is in a better place now than when the Task Force began its work and I suppose you could say we drop-kicked the IFA into the 20th century."

Hamilton is a popular figure in Bangor, where he lives, often being asked to present the trophies he provides for sports clubs end of season dinners throughout North Down.

To his customers he is an accessible legend of two World Cups, always willing to talk football, past and present, with a steady stream of callers, especially at this time of year when most trophies are handed out.

Many will wonder why he needs to work at all, having played at the top level in England for a decade, starred at two World Cups with Northern Ireland and managed clubs here, north and south.

One reason is that he enjoys keeping occupied in mind and body as he approaches his 61st birthday next month. He and wife Izzy work as a team in the shop and love meeting the people coming in, remembering them on first name terms.

It's also a labour of love he returned to after selling up to his late international team-mate and friend Alan McDonald. Billy and his family had then gone to live in Canada for a spell as he toyed with the idea of emigrating permanently but Alan's sad passing saw them return to keep the business going.

The shop is their pension because Billy played at a time before SKY TV and Premier League riches began creating football millionaires in their teens.

He laughs again at the manner of his 1978 move from Linfeld to QPR in a deal that was to eventually net the Blues a very handsome, for the time, £58,000. It was also much to the chagrin of their rivals Glentoran who allowed the Oval season ticket holding Gilnahirk boy to escape their radar.

"I got a lot of stick from my mates for signing for Linfield but I just wanted to play Irish League football and theirs was the only offer," he says. "Billy Campbell was my first manager, very professional and he believed in giving young players, like me, their chance. Roy Coyle then came in and kept me in his team. QPR then became interested and I actually signed for them midway through my last season at Windsor with an agreement I would remain with Linfield 'til the summer as we were going for a league and Cup double, which we won.

"I was training to be a teacher at Stranmillis at the time and remember asking my tutor, the late Ulster Rugby coach Jimmy Davidson, what I should do, expecting him to advise me to finish my studies. Instead he told me to jump at the chance as I could always return to teaching. I never did. I don't think I was cut out for it, anyway.

"Linfield cashed in, too, when I made my Northern Ireland debut against Scotland in the old Home Internationals that summer. The Blues had a £15,000 stipulation in the deal if I was capped and I think strings were pulled as I was surprised when Danny Blanchflower sent me on as a sub.

"I was a big Leeds fans and when I saw players like Joe Jordan, Gordon McQueen, David Harvey and Peter Lorimer in Scotland shirts, I thought 'what am I doing here?'

"After that, Izzy and I packed our worldly possessions into the back of a two-door Ford Escort and drove from Stranraer to London to join QPR.

"When you think of how players are looked after now, those 30 years seem light years away.

"And to be honest, it wasn't a happy time in London. It was a strong dressing room with top names like Paul Parker, John Hollins, Gerry Francis, Clive Allen and Paul Goddard but away from the ground, everyone tended to keep themselves to themselves.

"We were also paying 17% interest rates on London property prices. I was on good money, for the time, but most of it went on the mortgage. It was a struggle and I was glad to get out of London when Burnley came in for me after a season and a half.

"We settled very quickly and enjoyed life there in a much smaller, close knit community. It helped that there were so many past and present Northern Ireland players around the club, ex-players like Jimmy McIlroy, Alex Elder and Willie Irvine - I could see why they stayed on there - and guys in the team like Tommy Cassidy, Paul Dixon and the late Stevie McAdam.

"I had four and a half happy years at Burnley but I probably played my best football at my next and last English club Oxford United.

"I always had to work hard at my game but at Oxford everything clicked into place. John Aldridge was my strike partner and I had 19 goals to his 18 when I suffered a really bad knee injury. I was out for months and faced a real dilemma coming back. Oxford had reached the League Cup final and Northern Ireland were going to Mexico for the 1986 World Cup finals.

"I knew if I played in the League Cup final that I could then be out of the World Cup so I gave up the chance to play in a Wembley final. It was hard to watch as Oxford won their first major trophy, beating my old club QPR 3-0."

It was during that injury spell that Hamilton experienced his Del Boy moment, believing "this time next year I will be a millionaire".

To help pass the time, he devised a board game, called Billy Hamilton's Football Academy, and was convinced he was a made man when Toys R Us agreed to stock the finished article.

"I wasn't business minded then," he explains. "I didn't realise I had to meet the cost of supplying the game to their shops all over Britain."

The millions didn't materialise but the game still sells on eBay for £30 while Billy has his own stock he will let you have for a tenner from his shop.

Another, more painful legacy, from his years among the flying boots were the knee injuries that would eventually require replacement surgery.

"Back then, players took pain killing injections to get through games, not realising the lasting damage," he admits.

"I was in agony before the operations but if you ask any ex-pro who has been through the same as I have, they would tell you they would do it all again. I would."

Those knees still stood up to a season as player-manager at Limerick where he finished League of Ireland top scorer, followed by management spells at Distillery, to whom he brought respectability, and then Glenavon whose under-achievers he took to an Irish Cup final in 1998, losing to a Glentoran goal by John Kennedy, a player whose career he had resurrected at Distillery.

Another one that got away!

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