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'What would Roy Keane have made of it?' - Martin O’Neill reveals the IFA’s lack of faith in Northern Ireland’s 1982 World Cup squad

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Northern Ireland's World Cup heroes - back row - Felix Healy, Jim Cleary, Jimmy Nicholl and Martin O’Neill. Front row - Bill Hamilton, John McClelland, Gerry Armstrong and Pat Jennings - relive the glory of Espana 82 at a special 40th anniversary reunion on Saturday night in Belfast

Northern Ireland's World Cup heroes - back row - Felix Healy, Jim Cleary, Jimmy Nicholl and Martin O’Neill. Front row - Bill Hamilton, John McClelland, Gerry Armstrong and Pat Jennings - relive the glory of Espana 82 at a special 40th anniversary reunion on Saturday night in Belfast

Gerry Armstrong

Gerry Armstrong

Roy Keane

Roy Keane

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Northern Ireland's World Cup heroes - back row - Felix Healy, Jim Cleary, Jimmy Nicholl and Martin O’Neill. Front row - Bill Hamilton, John McClelland, Gerry Armstrong and Pat Jennings - relive the glory of Espana 82 at a special 40th anniversary reunion on Saturday night in Belfast

The ‘band of brothers’ were back together 40 years on from the ‘time of their lives’. Paul McCartney rocked the crowd at Glastonbury on Saturday night and Northern Ireland’s legendary 1982 World Cup heroes did the same thing at the Europa Hotel in Belfast.

Derry City great Felix Healy even provided a stirring rendition of Danny Boy as the people in attendance in the Library Room lapped up stories from captain Martin O’Neill, goalscoring hero Gerry Armstrong and goalkeeping giant Pat Jennings exactly four decades after the epic 1-0 victory over Spain in Valencia.

Armstrong was determined to have a reunion to celebrate the ‘Spirit of 82’ and just like that unforgettable evening in the Luis Casanova stadium, when he smashed the ball past Luis Arconada, he delivered.

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Gerry Armstrong

Gerry Armstrong

Gerry Armstrong

Sadly inspirational boss Billy Bingham passed away earlier this month. Some of the players from the 1982 World Cup are also no longer with us, others are battling illness and some couldn’t make it, but listening to O’Neill, Armstrong, Jennings, Jimmy Nicholl, Billy Hamilton, John McClelland, Jim Cleary and Healy, who were part of the panel that stunned football and united Northern Ireland during the Troubles, was a joy to behold.

O’Neill, a league champion and two-time European Cup winner with Nottingham Forest prior to Espana 82, was in fantastic form bringing the house down on occasions with his wit and wisdom.

He recalled how the Irish FA did not think Northern Ireland would qualify for the second phase, a feat they achieved thanks to the shock success over host nation Spain.

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“Did we think we would get through? I don’t know when we set out if we did or didn’t, but certainly the Irish FA didn’t think we would get through because we didn’t have any hotel to go to after we beat Spain,” said the midfielder, who would go on to be a successful manager with Leicester City and Celtic among others and guided the Republic of Ireland to Euro 2016.

“We were waking up in the morning, absolutely delighted, thinking we were heading to Madrid and news came back around the breakfast table that we had no hotel to go to. That’s absolutely true. Unbelievable!”

Mischievously referring to his friend and assistant boss with his Republic and a certain incident in Saipan before the 2002 World Cup, Martin added: “Can you imagine what Roy Keane might have thought of that?”

Cue roars of laughter and applause all around the room.

With a twinkle in his eye, O’Neill added: “Roy Keane went home because they didn’t have any bibs. We didn’t have a hotel. We didn’t mind about bibs.”

More laughter.

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Roy Keane

Roy Keane

Roy Keane

In a serious and touching moment O’Neill paid tribute to Bingham who made him skipper all those years ago. Martin, Jimmy Nicholl and Sammy Mcilroy had attended Billy’s funeral in England the day before.

“Jimmy Nic, Sammy Mac and I went to Billy Bingham’s funeral on Friday and I just want to say we had some really good players, but without him I don’t think we could have done it,” stated O’Neill.

“Definitely not because he instilled discipline and he made us play to our strengths, hid our weaknesses, and we had some, and played strongly every single time. The camaraderie between us was absolutely sensational. All of that combined helped us get to where we were.

“It was the time of our lives. It was really, really fantastic. I couldn’t be more proud.”

On the evening itself, Martin added: “It is a big treat for us to be back together celebrating 40 years. It was Gerry’s idea and when Gerry says something you go with it.”

Armstrong, a charismatic and generous character, paid tribute to all those who helped make the night a hit including his wife Deborah and their friend Michelle McTiernan, who worked hard behind the scenes, chief sponsors SmartPayNI and host Stephen Watson, who did a fine job posing questions to the players with thousands of pounds raised for chosen charity Dementia NI.

Gerry’s new ‘Spirit of 82’ whiskey was on the table for everyone to sample along with sweets from that decade and sombreros.

There was pride in Armstrong’s voice as he told the crowd: “We were a band of brothers and loved playing together and competing. We had something special and 40 years on I think our greatest achievement as a team was to bring the country together during that World Cup.”

You could see the chemistry between the boys which is a key component of any successful side.

There was much chuckling on stage and in the audience when Billy Hamilton and Jimmy Nicholl spoke about their escapades and leaving hotel rooms for some down time during the World Cup.

“What you have to understand is you were in a hotel room for six weeks and you were watching flies crawl up and down the wall and it was like Colditz wondering how are you going to escape this but Jimmy always found a way,” said Hamilton with a knowing smile.

“Well, you only live once don’t you?” was Nicholl’s brilliant reponse.

Jimmy Nic also spoke wonderfully about Bingham as a man manager and the discipline he instilled on and off the pitch.

McClelland gave an insight into the close nature of the relationship between the players, saying: “If we called on each other we would be there for one another. We all did the hard work together and got the rewards together.”

He added to much hilarity that when he first came into the squad as a Mansfield player and roomed with then Forest star O’Neill that he had to make the tea for the captain and “carry his cases from the room.”

O’Neill’s reply: “Fast forward a few years when John was playing for Glasgow Rangers and I was at Notts County... I was carrying his bags.”

In the 1982 World Cup, Northern Ireland had four Irish League stars, Cleary, Healy, George Dunlop and Johnny Jameson.

Glentoran’s greatest player Cleary revealed he went to Spain having got off work from Shorts minus pay.

“When the squad for Spain was selected I had to go into work and ask for time off to go to the World Cup which my employer granted to me without pay. It was leave without pay,” said gentleman Jim from Fermanagh.

“I was a Northern Ireland supporter and on the terraces in 1981 the night Gerry scored and we qualified for the 1982 World Cup. It was May 1982 when I was firs called into the Northern Ireland squad.

“I came from a different background to these guys. They had experiences of the full-time game, but I was very, very proud to be in the 1982 World Cup squad.”

They all were, even an icon like Jennings who had achieved so many other feats in his glorious career.

“I’ve been lucky enough to play in a lot of big games at club and international level but I can honestly say I’ve never been more proud to be part of a team as I was with the boys that night when we beat Spain,” said Pat summing up the mood on another magical evening 40 years on.


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