A beautiful señorita, shocking refereeing and relief that Northern Ireland didn’t put Spain out of the 1982 World Cup Finals are Billy Hamilton’s recollections of the most famous night of football for the country.
Friday, June 25, 1982 was the night Billy Bingham’s boys beat the Spaniards 1-0 in Valencia, thanks to an unforgettable Gerry Armstrong goal that rocked the hosts to the core. Northern Ireland had been drawn against Yugoslavia, Honduras and Spain in Group 5 and, after two draws, desperately needed a win against the mighty Spain in a febrile Luis Casanova Stadium in Valencia.
Hamilton set up Armstrong’s goal with a surging run and cross from the right flank which his strike partner slammed home when Luis Arconada failed to control the cross, and the 1-0 win ensured both teams progressed from the group.
With the 40th anniversary of the famous victory approaching, Hamilton today tells STEPHEN LOONEY about his memories of the occasion.
I remember the build-up well.
Yugoslavia were up first and it was a hard game because they were a very strong team.
But it was a good time to play them because opening games are usually cagey. It ended 0-0 and we took a point from it.
We were pleased with that because we were optimistic about beating Honduras in the next game, but it didn’t work out that way.
They were physical and technically better than we expected and they gave us a bit of a shock, but the game finished 1-1 to give us another point.
Because Spain were the host nation, it was the hardest game of the group and expectations weren’t particularly high going into the game.
But Billy Bingham had a good group of players and he nurtured the camaraderie by taking us to Brighton ahead of the Finals, and the craic and the spirit were so high in the camp.
We really bonded, players from both sides of the community, which I am very proud of, and you knew that if someone in your team was targeted by an opponent, retribution was guaranteed.
There were no egos, no superstars, no shirkers, we all knew we had to work very hard and be difficult to beat if we wanted to be successful, and that is what we did.
I remember the night of the game, a hot Friday night in Valencia, and the streets were packed two and a half hours before kick-off with Spanish fans milling around the stadium, they were out in force.
Bobby Campbell was on the bus as we approached the ground and he was always a raker, always ready with a smile or a quip.
There was a beautiful Spanish girl near the bus wearing a bikini top and a short skirt, and Bobby just opened the window to say, ‘What about ya, darling?’
The boys were laughing but Sammy Nelson didn’t find it funny. He said, ‘For God’s sake sit down Bobby, the Spanish will be thinking this is a cattle truck!’
It helped ease the tension ahead of the game and, once we got out onto the pitch, you could then feel how intense the atmosphere was. It was electric, you could almost touch it.
The referee was Hector Ortiz from Paraguay, a Spanish-speaking country, and Billy didn’t like that. He was right to be concerned because the ref let Spain away with murder in my opinion.
It was a very physical game and there was no love lost between the two teams at all. Sammy McIlroy got raked down the back of his leg and Dave McCreery was bodychecked but nothing happened.
Miguel Tendillo kneed me in the face after I won a flick of the ball and when I went after him, the referee booked me!
Then there was Mal Donaghy’s red card which was absolutely ridiculous. Camacho wouldn’t give him the ball, Mal gave him a little shove in the chest and was sent off for it. Ridiculous.
For me, there were question marks about the referee but at the time we had to get on with it, but Gerry’s goal was the shot in the arm we needed.
I can remember looking around at my team-mates after the goal and something triggered. We believed we could go on and finish the job and that’s what we did, but we had to work very hard for it.
They were losing in their own backyard, the stands were very close to the pitch in that stadium and we could feel the hostility towards us.
I can clearly recall the hairs standing up on the back of my neck and that didn’t happen too often.
I also remember the stadium was one of the first to have an electronic scoreboard, I looked up and saw there were 10 minutes left. After what I thought was a few minutes, I looked up and saw there were still 10 minutes left!
We could hear our supporters in the ground and they really gave us a lift but I was also concerned about their safety.
Had we beaten Spain 2-0, they were out of the Finals and I feared there would have been trouble then because the Spaniards were quite confrontational that night.
I spoke to some of our fans afterwards and they told me the Spanish supporters were making threatening gestures like drawing a knife across their throats, so it could have gotten out of hand.
At the final whistle, the Spanish players walked off immediately. They weren’t humiliated, but they were humbled, and they didn’t want to stay on and shake our hands.
I never bumped into any of them after that in my career and frankly I didn’t want to. As I said, there was no love lost between the players. It was a brutal game.
But Billy had a game plan that worked. He wanted us to be solid at the back and stop Spain from getting into the box to play intricate one-twos that could open us up.
He was happy for us to keep Spain at arm’s length and limit them to long-range shots that Pat Jennings would deal with, and that’s exactly what happened.
Looking back, it was undoubtedly the highlight of my career. It was all down to Billy and I was very sorry to hear of his passing recently.
He showed faith in me when I was playing in the old Third Division of English football with Oxford when most of the lads were in the First Division.
Billy believed in me and gave me an opportunity, one I will be forever grateful for.
But perhaps the thing I was most proud of when I remember beating Spain is that the team was drawn from both communities in Northern Ireland, and for an hour and a half the country was brought together for that game.
Not many sportspeople can boast of that and it is something I will always be immensely proud of.