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The Night Little Northern Ireland’s Ten Men Felled Mighty Spain...

Thirty-eight years ago yesterday, the author was in Luis Casanova Stadium, Valencia to see his country defeat the hosts in the World Cup

Gerry Armstrong rifles the ball past Arconada to set up one of the shocks of the 1982 World Cup finals...

The pictures are a little grainier, perhaps a tad more faded than what technology produces today... but the memories, they’re as sharp as ever.

I’ll go back to the late seventies when I told friends I’d plunge into the harbour of my little hometown should Northern Ireland ever win the annual British Championship, and at the same time declared, if they should qualify for the ‘82 World Cup, I’d definitely go to Spain... by hook or by crook.

Well, I didn’t fancy chill sea-water even in May, and thankfully by 1980, when Noel Brotherston’s goal in Cardiff ensured the British Championship was won, my pledge was long-forgotten. But I did honour the second commitment, despite a brief financial hesitation, nervously overcome by asking Mr Muirhead, my local bank manager, for a loan of 300 pounds.

My discomfort at going to the bank that morning to ask for money was matched only by a desperate desire to see Northern Ireland in a World Cup. It had only ever happened once previously, 5 years before I was born. And it might never happen again (it did!).

I was back out on the little High Street not five minutes later, hugely relieved, business concluded in my favour. Mr Muirhead didn’t blink when I told him I wanted the loan to cover the cost of a vacation. I couldn’t understand how easy it was. Why would a bank loan you money to go on vacation, I thought. Really should’ve asked for more.

But I was all set. I was on my way....

Some friends at home laughed that we would ruin a holiday by watching ‘Billy’s Goats’.

Former England great Jimmy Greaves, then a TV pundit, suggested Northern Ireland players should forget about taking suitcases to Spain. All they’d need according to Jimmy was their toothbrushes, so short would be their stay.

But Northern Ireland’s heroes of ‘82 were a tight band of journeyman footballers, a few special talents and a man-boy called Whiteside, who snatched away Pele’s record as the youngest-ever to play in a World Cup finals. At 17 years and 41 days, it’s a record that remains to this day.

FIFA World Cup...
Norman Whiteside (white shirt) on his international debut against Yugoslavia and the night he claimed Pele’s record as the youngest man ever to play in a World Cup finals.

His debut in the first match against Yugoslavia, a 0-0 draw, only one player was yellow-carded. Him... in the 62nd minute. Whiteside was up against an experienced international centre-back in Nenad Stojkovic and after 20 mins the signal went from the bench to Gerry Armstrong, a more experienced member of the team’s strike-force to calm the youngster down, or he would be in hot bother with officialdom. “I want to hit him before he hits me,“ Whiteside pleaded back to his strike partner.

There were no shrinking violets in that squad, every player, not least the youngest, could look after themselves. And it was just as well. The unprotected punishment and off-the-ball shenanigans dished out by underperforming, frustrated hosts in the third group match would have broken lesser men. All it did however to this Northern Ireland bunch, was to strengthen its resolve.

The Irish had drawn the second group game 1-1 with a Honduras side that were unlucky not to defeat Spain in their opening match. Surely Spain would improve as the tournament wore on and a nervous 2-1 victory over a decent Yugoslavia had them top of the group going into the last round of fixtures. Northern Ireland had to either defeat Spain or draw by a scoreline of 2-2 or higher to maintain an interest.

Four defeats and a draw in five previous meetings underlined the challenge facing Bingham’s men. Maria, joint-owner of the Dutch Bar which was our HQ in Cambrils, a little seafaring village on the Costa Dorada close to Salou, suggested there was a first time for everything. We laughed...

Playing against the host nation at a World Cup finals is always a special occasion. As fans we were all determined to enjoy the experience then go home two days later after a delightful couple of weeks under the Spanish sun. No-one dared hope we could win this one, not even the most optimistic amongst us.

I recall one lad from Belfast who’d found romance, waving our three coaches off on their way to Valencia for the big game. None of us would’ve missed this for the world, but he’d sized up his options and given away his match ticket; we’d lose anyway, were going home in two days and he’d a chance to make sweet music with one of the local señoritas... I hope his evening lived up to expectations, because he missed out on the greatest night in Northern Ireland football’s long international history.

The skippers, Arconada and O’Neill exchange pennants. Referee Hector Ortiz of Paraguay is in the centre of pic.

Irish fans reached Spain in various different ways. Our particular trip was fairly arduous and inexpensive. All travel and two weeks accomodation for about 220 pounds.

We were 150 mainly male fans spread over three coaches despatched from Cambridge, to collect us off the 9-hour Belfast-Liverpool ferry voyage on a sunny June Monday morning. Three hundred miles to Dover, another short ferry crossing to Calais and on again by coach to the Costa Dorada, some 900 miles south, interrupted only by a couple of hours break in Montpellier.

We were tired, but young, and Northern Ireland were at the World Cup, so it mattered not! But even at that for each of the actual games, there was a 3-hr transfer from our base to the stadiums, Valencia or Zaragoza, the two cities that hosted our group games.

Anyway, after arriving in Valencia for the meeting with Spain, there was a party atmosphere. The confident Spanish were simply going to win, roll over little Northern Ireland and secure first place the group, For our part we were full of what we all believed was misplaced and exaggerated bravado, extolling the virtues of our team, and proclaiming bold statements that we never really believed... as you do!

Inside, the Irish fans were dispersed in little pockets around the stadium, making it difficult to be heard. There may have been 1,000 - 1,500 in total, outnumbered by 56,000 Spaniards. It was heartening to realize some Scots and English groupings had taken the trouble too, arriving to add their support. The English were on their way to the next stage of the competition, the Scots, typically, were on their way home.

Amazingly, there was no segregation inside.

The Irish tried in vain to make themselves heard but it was all too easy for Spanish whistles to drown out the best beer-fuelled attempts to encourage our heroes in white. And if the whistles didn’t do it, then there was always Manolo’s drum!

It wasn’t long before a pattern was set. Spain had begun well as expected, but the Irish resolute and well-organized, frustrated their more illustrious opponents. The Spanish had five Basques from League Champions Real Sociedad, four and three respectively from Barcelona and Real Madrid too, in their 16.

Northern Ireland had four Irish League part-time professionals in their squad, one who worked alongside me in Shorts Aircraft factory in Belfast, later to become under the ownership of Quebec plane-maker, Bombardier Aerospace.

There were two NASL players, then the professional body for soccer in North America, which was staring bankruptcy in the face, several from the lower leagues in England, and some top players possibly just beyond the peak of their careers like captain, Martin O’Neill (a European Cup Final winner with Nottingham Forest), Sammy McIlroy (now at Stoke after several good years at Manchester United) and Pat Jennings (Arsenal).

Still scoreless after 20 minutes, the Spanish unable to penetrate became visibly frustrated, their crowd contributing more anxiety than assistance, and the rough stuff began. Mr Hector Ortiz, a Paraguayan was chosen to referee the game. That he favoured the Spanish was beyond question; Billy Hamilton recently has spoken of how the ref talked to the home players throughout, and obviously couldn’t with the Irish.

Incidents were going on off the ball and not all behind the referee’s back, but there was much he was prepared to let go.

FIFA World Cup 1982
Billy Hamilton seen here scoring one of two goals v Austria in the WC second stage, described some of the Spanish tackling as scary.
Photo by Mark Leech/Getty Images

Hamilton, then a striker with third-division Burnley takes up the story...

“He was very harsh on our players. Some of the tackling and some of the off-the-ball stuff in that game were scary.”

The Burnley man was a tall, physical striker, powerful in the air, never one to shirk a physical challenge and a player who could never be intimidated. It’s significant that he of all people uses the word scary to describe Spain’s ugly tactics.

“I’d had enough of Tendillo. We went up for a ball on the halfway line and I flicked it on, but he came through me and we both ended up on the ground. As I was getting up, he kicked me in the face. So I was getting up off my knees and was going to go for him and the referee seen me. He yellow-carded me.... even before I had retaliated.

“There was a tackle on Sammy McIlroy right down the back of his legs and Sammy kicked out at that, so he was yellow-carded too, yet nothing for the original tackle. David McCreery got body-checked by Alexanko as he was running down the centre of the park.

“There was no real punishment dished out to the Spanish. It was always to us, and what capped it all off was the incident with Mal Donaghy.

“Ball ran out of play. Both players flicked out with their arms, Mal perhaps a little more aggressively just pushed the guy and of course that was it. No yellow-card or whatever. Just a straight red card. Very, very harsh, I believe he was paving the way for the game to be a bit easier for the Spanish team, but it didn’t turn out that way.”

Mal Donaghy (left) and Billy Bingham behind him after the former’s dismissal in the 60th minute.

Captain Martin O’Neill also recently talked of the Donaghy red card and the refereeing in general.

“You have to remember how poor he [the referee] was. The crowd had got on to him certainly. They [Spain’s players] were going down for anything themselves and at the same time were hacking into us. You felt it was unlike a Spanish team, but I think they had lost their composure in a sense, and as a consequence the referee definitely lost it. He lost control of the game.

“Obviously the sending off of Mal Donaghy was ridiculous. He didn’t even see it and he went on the strength of a linesman. It was so innocuous it was untrue.”

Standing watching the game throughout the first-half, we fans came to realize Northern Ireland were in this if we could just get a goal from somewhere. The white shirts were far from those of surrender as Irish players stood toe to toe, resolute, able for anything the home players could throw at them, fair means or foul.

That’s when it became really frustrating. We could see everything unfold in front of us just as Billy Hamilton described. There was a huge sense of injustice, the refereeing was amongst the worst I’ve ever seen, even now almost 40 years later. It was blatantly obvious. It looked like the Spanish players had license to do as they pleased, but woe betide if an Irish player stepped out of line.

On one occasion Martin O’Neill had tried to shield the ball at the corner flag, Periko Alonso (father of Liverpool and Real Madrid’s Xabi) the covering Spanish player began kicking lumps out of the Irish skipper. Again no punishment.

The tension was becoming unbearable. I kicked through the back of a plastic seat in front (everyone was standing anyhow) out of sheer frustration and disgust at the catalogue of unfolding injustice. I hadn’t aimed to break it, but break it did, to this day the only time I’ve ever damaged anything at a football match.

If it was tense then, it was nothing against what was to come. Two minutes after half-time, Gerry Armstrong, voted Best British player at the World Cup that year and a late starter in football, having excelled in the gaelic code, set off on a run.

A centre-forward, Gerry had spent much of the game foraging just in front of right-sided defender Jimmy Nicholl, providing much needed defensive cover for his team. He picked up a misplaced Spanish pass and off he went eluding Periko Alonso’s ankle-snapping. Hamilton went wide right to create space, Armstrong continued to sprint between two defenders into the Spanish half, laying the ball off wide to Hamilton.

The big Burnley striker wasn’t known for beating a wide man and firing over a cross. He was more often on the end of them, but faced by Tendillo out on the right, he got the better of the Spanish defender holding him off with a strong arm and delivering into the box.

Arconada came for the cross and, despite having Camacho and Alexanko in support, made a complete hash of it, palming out into the path of Armstrong who had begun the move. Could he now finish it too?

“The ‘keeper came for it and he made his mistake and it came out to me. All I could think about was keep my head over the top of the ball and keep it low. Lady Luck did the rest for us after that.” says Armstrong who earned a move from Watford to Real Mallorca on the strength of his World Cup performances.

“The ball went through two pairs of legs, Arconada’s and also Alexanko’s, the centre-back. Two nutmegs and into the back of the net. But even then, I wasn’t sure it was a goal, because behind that goal it was all Spanish supporters and they weren’t going to cheer.

“I looked at Norman who put his hands up to celebrate, and Sammy McIlroy. Those were the first two I saw, and I turned to the referee and he was pointing to the halfway line to give the goal. And I thought, we’ve scored. We’ve got a goal! And that’s when the celebrations started.”

John McClelland (white shirt) was plucked from fourth division obscurity with Mansfield Town straight into international football. He formed a solid central defensive partnership with Chris Nicholl.

Tempers in the crowd became shorter and shorter still. There was now unbearable, tangible tension clinging to each and every contentious moment or decision, or non-decision. It was probably the closet I’ve ever been to seeing a fight break out without it not actually happening.

On the field, there was still much to do. Forty-three minutes left on the clock plus injury time. With thirty left there was the Mal Donaghy red card. It’s strange how the mind works in certain situations. The sending off gave captain Martin O’Neill a strange sense of security.

“As his [the ref’s] performance got worse, the only thing I drew from it was, you know how they were going into the penalty-area each time and dropping down and feeling this must be a penalty ref? Or if we do it five or six times in a period of twenty minutes you must give us a penalty?

“So the only consolation I drew at that particular time - I remember this thought going through my head - Mal’s got sent-off and yeah I know there’s 20 minutes to go, but it’ll have to be an absolute definite penalty for him to give it now.

“That may or may not have been the case, but it was the sort of thought that was going through my head at that time.

“We fought back again, almost as if we got a second or third lease of life again, a bit of energy to defend and we saw it out. It was awwwwh... just a magical moment to hear that final whistle,” a smile breaking across O’Neill’s face.

Spain’s football had become more frenzied as the second-half wore on. Dominant possession-wise, they failed to create much, but Irish nerves remained frayed beyond belief. We all knew how fragile the lead was, not through a lack of confidence in the team’s ability to defend. More to do with a Spanish side up to every trick in the book and a referee we felt that was all too ready to add complicity.

The tension in the crowd. I wasn’t sure I wanted reminding that another Northern Ireland goal and Spain were cooked, out of the tournament. Although I wanted less to be reminded that a Spanish goal and Northern Ireland were on the next plane home.

The huge scoreboard clock wore down as slowly as I can ever remember time passing. Fifteen minutes left. I looked again. Still fifteen. How could that be? Those last fifteen or so minutes are still the longest fifteen minutes of my life.

There was one more scare. Around the 88th minute a lobbed ball fell into the Irish box over Chris Nicholl’s head. Says Martin O’Neill, “I don’t need any replays to remember that. I absolutely remember that like it was half an hour ago. My heart was in my mouth as the ball was bouncing, I was saying ‘Pat c’mon, c’mon, c’mon, come out and deal with it’. It was frightening.”

The goalkeeper himself was the coolest man on the field, as he always was. Jennings came for the ball, stopped and allowed it to bounce. Quini the Spanish attacker ran in between Nicholl and Jennings, who flicked the ball over the opponent’s head with his right hand and caught it with his left.

Northern Ireland goalkeeper Pat Jennings and Northern Ireland Manager Billy Bingham
The first Northern Irishman to win 100 caps, the great Pat Jennings (left) pictured with his international manager, Billy Bingham after a victory in Bucharest, Romania.

Pat Jennings takes up the story... “A lot of people had a panic on in the last few minutes when I allowed that ball to bounce.

“I was frightened had we had a collision he’d [the ref] have given a penalty against me. And I knew exactly once it bounced, once it went up in the air, I knew exactly what I had to do. Knock it over the top of him and pick it up at the other side.

“But I think a lot of people were panicking thinking I hadn’t made a decision, but looking back I knew exactly what I was doing. And funny, the ref gave me a free-kick and I don’t know what that was about.”

Eventually the whistle did blow. Northern Ireland playing with ten men for a third of the match had defeated hosts Spain at the World Cup and won the group.

Exhaustion and jubilation all around. Players, fans coaching staff completely drained. I was more intoxicated on the Valencia air that night than any amount of alcohol could ever do.

The players came over, we climbed on the fence extending hands across to shake. Most of the Spanish left promptly on the final whistle, but plenty stayed to applaud the efforts of the Irish. It was as if all those earlier tensions had never happened. Many of our hosts offered heartfelt congratulations.

We’d a three hour coach journey back to base and it was already almost midnight. Didn’t stop most of us from cavorting in the fountains in a release and expression of sheer unadulterated joy! Soaked to the skin, madness all around, but a good madness and a damp journey back that bothered no-one.

We were glad to see Cambrils, finally. The Dutch Bar had remained open for our return. We drank and sang into the wee, small hours.

What an unbelievable night it was.

We’ll leave it to Martin O’Neill to apply the coup de grace...

Manager, Billy Bingham had become increasingly annoyed at some stories circulating in the Spanish press in the lead up to the game, regards drinking going on in the Irish camp. It seemed more of a ruse than anything else to try unsettle the Irish team, but it had become an issue and at least mildly contentious.

O’Neill raised the loudest laugh during some after-match media interviews...

“Imagine what we would’ve done to them had we been sober!” quipped the Northern Ireland captain.