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Jim Gracey:Sunday Life Sports Editor

Billy Bingham was a font of wisdom on football and life – and he will be very sorely missed

Jim Gracey


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Billy Bingham led Northern Ireland to back-to-back World Cups

Billy Bingham led Northern Ireland to back-to-back World Cups

Northern Ireland manager Billy Bingham has words with his Irish counterpart Jack Charlton during the infamous November 1993 clash between the sides

Northern Ireland manager Billy Bingham has words with his Irish counterpart Jack Charlton during the infamous November 1993 clash between the sides

Northern Ireland goalkeeper Pat Jennings and manager Billy Bingham share a joke before a World Cup qualifying match against Romania

Northern Ireland goalkeeper Pat Jennings and manager Billy Bingham share a joke before a World Cup qualifying match against Romania

Billy Bingham received the NIFWA Hall of Fame award from Gerry Armstrong, Alan McDonald, Billy Hamilton, Jimmy Nicholl and John O'Neill in 2010

Billy Bingham received the NIFWA Hall of Fame award from Gerry Armstrong, Alan McDonald, Billy Hamilton, Jimmy Nicholl and John O'Neill in 2010

Billy Bingham

Billy Bingham

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Billy Bingham led Northern Ireland to back-to-back World Cups

Billy Bingham didn’t just shape the careers and futures of the nation’s footballers...

How lucky was I (a question Bingy himself would answer) to be taken under his wing as a fledgling reporter at the outset of his fantastic rollercoaster ride to two British Championships and two World Cup Finals?

Despatched by my late boss, Malcolm Brodie, to the Northern Ireland team headquarters at the Culloden Hotel one morning in 1980, I journeyed in awe of the man I had been sent to interview, knowing his reputation as manager of Linfield, Everton, Panathinaikos in Greece and now Northern Ireland for a second time.

Mr Bingham is at breakfast, I was told, and didn’t dare disturb him. But told by that late, great IFA character Derek Wade that I was waiting and that Derek could vouch for me, Billy motioned for me to join him at his table.

And then he began interviewing me. Where was I from, what school I went to, what my father worked at and then, ‘How did you get your job on the Telegraph?’

“I guess I was lucky,” I started to reply.

“Stop right there,” Billy ordered. “In this life, you make your own luck. Malcolm doesn’t employ people by chance. He must have seen something in you that he thought he could make something of.”

It was to be a lasting impression and an observation I have oft repeated, not least when the occasional begrudger would mutter that Bingy was a lucky manager.

Fortunate indeed to have a group of players of the calibre of the classes of ’82 and ’86. But Armstrong, McIlroy, Jennings, Hamilton, Nicholl, the O’Neills, Whiteside et al would tell you he made more of them.

Later, I was to realise Billy was conducting a character assessment on me and ‘luckily’ I must have passed.

A decade later I would read how, before he would sign a player for Manchester United, Alex Ferguson would carry out a thorough background check. I thought, ‘Bingy was doing that years ago’.

From that first meeting, Bingy welcomed me into his sanctum around the international team — what a privilege and education that was for a football-mad, cub reporter just out of my teens and living my dreams.

In those days, the media stayed in the team hotels, travelled on the same planes and sometimes even hitched rides on the team bus. We had the manager and players’ home phone numbers (no mobiles then). We were there on trust and we all knew it was woe betide anyone who broke his rules. No one did.

Billy was The Boss and didn’t need an army of media officers to remind us he was in charge.

To this day, I cherish my good fortune to have been allowed to stand alongside him on the touchline at Clandeboye Road, Bangor for the Northern Ireland team’s home training sessions.

Billy would point out things about players, positions and tactics I’d never have spotted had he not directed me where to look. It was a priceless schooling and so perceptive, not always in a way I wanted to hear.

Once, having watched Norman Whiteside, in his early 20s, blast a wonder goal past Pat Jennings in training, I excitedly remarked to Billy that we’d be watching Norman do things like that for years to come.

Sadly, Billy related, Norman had been detected with a degenerative knee condition and would be unlikely to play beyond 26. Equally sadly, he called it to the precise year.

Still, Billy had the courage of his convictions to make Norman the World Cup’s youngest player to this day, aged 17 years and 41 days at Spain ’82.

He never shied from tough decisions either. Having included a fading George Best in his original squad of 40 for the Spain World Cup, Bingy travelled to Edinburgh to make a final assessment on George’s form for Hibs.

It would have been a popular decision to include an even half-fit George as a morale booster. But George, being George, turned up the worse for wear, didn’t play, and his chance to grace the greatest stage of all was tragically lost.

And, yes, Bingy could be fiery, too, never more than in his very public, in your face clash with Jack Charlton on that febrile night in November 1993 when the fates decreed the Republic’s USA World Cup qualifying hopes would hinge on their visit to a Windsor Park tinderbox in the midst of one of the worst killing sprees of The Troubles in the wake of the Shankill bomb.

Charlton went to his grave regretting the episode, as does Billy, but it showed, when the blood was up, not even two of the strongest football characters could keep their emotions in check.

What few people realised, lost in the fog of bitter recrimination, was how quickly they made up, Charlton going ahead with a planned post-match presentation to mark Bingy’s retirement.

Everything about Bingy stemmed from his frugal upbringing in Bloomfield in wartime East Belfast when every pound was hard earned and even harder to hold onto.

Yes, he was notoriously ‘careful’ with his money and voracious in his pursuit of what he considered his worth — and it wasn’t what the IFA were paying him.

For perspective, Billy earned less from a life in football than some recent Northern Ireland managers banked in a year.

The legendary stories are true and still funny with the passage of time.

How he sold sun cream to the players preparing in Brighton for the ’82 World Cup in Spain, including to the player who had taken delivery of the sun cream from a marketing man who had dropped by the team hotel in search of a promotional opportunity. Bingy was way ahead of him.

He would charge his team hotel haircuts to the IFA and it was said he was an honorary member of Fifa.. fee for this, fee for that!

At the time, the BBC paid a flat £100 fee for a post-match interview. On the night we qualified for Spain, beating Israel at Windsor, the late BBC Sports Editor Terry Smyth ventured that Billy might want to shed a tear on camera.

“Terry, dear boy, tears are extra,” he replied.

I recall at the 1990 World Cup in Italy, where he travelled as a Fifa observer, sitting in his Rome hotel room while he brewed tea from a pot and teabags he had brought from home because “it’s such a rip-off here”. He was on $300 a day.

Bingy may have perfected a Malone Road accent to aid him on his journey but he was hewn from solid working-class East Belfast stock.

He kept himself and those around him grounded.

Once, believing I had an exclusive on my hands, I phoned Billy to breathlessly relay the news a player had confided that he was retiring from international football.

“No, Jim,” he replied calmly. “International football has retired him.”

Billy’s motivational and man-management skills have been well documented these past few days.

But there are two perfect examples of his art that stand out for me.

One is of the night he masterminded a famous win over 1982 World Cup finalists West Germany at a storm-lashed Windsor Park that November.

With a gale blowing down from the mountain across the then terraced Kop, and rain coming in sideways, Billy observed the Germans in their smart suits and shiny shoes, tiptoeing their way through a pre-match pitch walkabout.

The great Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, in particular, he noted, had his hands shoved deep into his suit pockets and his ears buried in his shoulders.

Back in the dressing room, he painted that picture for his players and told them: “That lot don’t fancy it here, go out and get stuck into them.”

And so another famous victory was inspired, won by Ian Stewart’s superb strike at the Railway End.

But the incident that, for me, most sums up Bingy’s astute management style did not occur on the pitch or in a stadium but in the car park of a nondescript motorway hotel, miles from any town, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA where he had taken his team for altitude training ahead of the ’86 World Cup.

Bored with their monastic night-time existence, room-mates Billy Hamilton and Jimmy Nicholl gazed forlornly at a blinking Budweiser sign on a little roadside bar on the far side of the motorway... and decided to chance it.

Two nights in a row, they slipped down the fire escape, ducked below the level of the cars as they raced across the hotel car park, dodged the traffic on the six-lane motorway and ordered up two ice-cold beers.

Then back the same perilous way to their rooms until the third day, feeling guilty, they approached captain Sammy McIlroy, told him the story, and asked if he could persuade Bingy to let all the lads have a beer by a more legitimate route.

Put to him by Sammy, Bingy drew on his pipe, thought for a moment and said: “Yes, I think it would be a very good idea for team morale. Just two beers, mind...

“And ask Hamilton and Nicholl do they think I am f****** stupid.”

Bingy had watched the great escape at dinner by the hotel restaurant’s mirror-finish windows each night. They couldn’t see him but he could see them. And having assured himself they were barely gone until they were back, he decided to let things slide to see what would develop.

Billy Hamilton would later tell me: “If we’d overstayed, Billy would have been down on us like a ton of bricks. But, instead, the way he handled it helped bond the team even more. It increased our respect for him, knowing you could never fool him.”

I first realised something was amiss with that sharp mind when Bingy phoned one day to ask if I could dig out the match report from the fantastic 1-0 win in Romania (Jimmy Quinn the scorer) that put us on the verge of qualification for Mexico.

Billy was writing a thesis for a Fifa publication, wanted to check some facts and his mind was a blank.

“I’m afraid I am losing my memory,” he confided.

Typically he fought on but it would only get worse until his sad departure, aged 90. The cruel thief that is dementia may have robbed him of his memories but not his place in history or in the hearts of those privileged to have ‘worked’ with him.

Sorry, Billy, but I guess I have to say we were lucky.


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