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Out of this world

Northern Ireland heroes of '82 and '86 look back on just what it’s like to be part of football's biggest show

By Graham Luney

Northern Ireland just missed out on making it to Russia for the World Cup finals, which kick-off today, but we were part of the greatest show on earth in 1958, 1982 and 1986.

The 1958 heroes reached the quarter-finals, and in 1982 Billy Bingham's side stunned hosts Spain as Gerry Armstrong's winner saw them reach the second round, where they were held 2-2 by Austria and lost 4-1 to France.

At the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, Northern Ireland were held 1-1 by Algeria before losing 2-1 to Spain and 3-0 to Brazil.

Three players who played in both the 1982 and 1986 World Cup finals for Northern Ireland - Sammy McIlroy, Jimmy Nicholl and Gerry Armstrong - share what it means to represent your country at the highest level.

Sammy McIlroy

"It's the biggest honour you can experience in football, representing your country at the highest stage, and coming from such a small country as Northern Ireland that feeling of pride is even higher. It was a great achievement just to qualify for the 1982 tournament in Spain and they are great memories.

"Obviously no-one expected us to beat the host nation, we were everyone's underdogs but our boys stood up to the test in what was a very physical game against a top-class side.

"Spain were favourites to qualify from our group, Yugoslavia, Honduras then ourselves. It took a very good French side to overcome us but there was already huge confidence in the side managed by Billy Bingham, and that carried us through to the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico.

"The Spain team wasn't as strong as the current group but it was still a huge achievement to beat them, and then playing against Brazil in 1986 was a special occasion… it's every boy's dream to play them in a World Cup. Although they had an ageing team they had players like Socrates, Careca and Junior. For this World Cup my dark horse is Belgium. I believe they can win it but Brazil, Germany and Argentina will have a strong chance. England have a young side and expectations are lower than usual for them, I think they can flourish more in four years' time. They can make the knockout stages but I wouldn't say they can win it."

Jimmy Nicholl

"When I was a young boy I just wanted to be a footballer, and a good footballer - I never thought about playing at the World Cup finals, so to be part of that special time in the 1980s just left me feeling that I was very fortunate.

"Billy Bingham was a fantastic manager, and sometimes with international squads or clubs sides you get a group that can do something magical. I was privileged to be part of that era for Northern Ireland.

"We hadn't qualified for a World Cup since 1958, so to make it in 1982 was incredible. It was an honour and a privilege to be part of something that special, so you were determined to go out there and play your heart out.

"Our victory against Spain in 1982 showed what can be possible in football and many times I have used it as an example to players of what can be achieved.

"We were down to 10 men when Mal Donaghy was sent off but we still managed to beat Spain in their own backyard through sheer guts and determination. I keep saying to players that though you may be massive underdogs you can still win. Sometimes adrenaline and a sheer will to win can be enough.

"I think when we played France in the second group stage in 1982 they beat us 4-1, and for the first time in my career I felt that the opposition was a real class apart. They had Michel Platini, Jean Tigana and Alain Giresse, and we couldn't compete with them. That team was simply absolutely brilliant and sometimes at a World Cup you will come up against the very best.

"For this tournament in Russia my head says Germany and my heart says Brazil, I'd like them to win it. It's the usual four or five teams you expect to compete for it, and I also like the way England have approached it, there's a quiet confidence there and I believe they will do well. The press aren't putting too much pressure on them and they could even reach the semi-finals."

Gerry Armstrong

"I've played in a lot of football matches and you can keep your European finals and big cup finals, nothing compares to a World Cup. That's the pinnacle of your career and I had a great run in the 1980s.

"These countries compete for two years to get through qualifying and at the finals you have the world's elite. You can either bottle it or stand up and be counted and I'm pleased to say Northern Ireland did the latter in both 1982 and 1986. We gave it all we could.

"The camaraderie was great, you can spend about four weeks together and I can assure you we had really good banter.

"People are writing off England this year but that's dangerous as they have good players like Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy and Dele Alli. We loved being underdogs and it inspired us. I can remember the television football pundits Ian St John and Jimmy Greaves saying Northern Ireland were great lads but they only needed to pack one tie and shirt. I felt that was disrespectful and it fired me up more.

"The France team we played were magnificent, and Platini was one of the finest players I have ever played against. But we also beat Germany home and away in Euro qualifying in 1982 and 1983 which was another brilliant achievement. The 1980s were a special time.

"In Russia, I think Spain have just suffered a lot of turmoil and it will be very difficult for them to win it now. France and Belgium are both strong contenders but Brazil and Germany must be my top two. I think England can reach the knockout stages and if Belgium can keep their big players fit they can go all the way."

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