As our song, “We’re not Brazil, We’re Northern Ireland” goes:
“My eyes have seen the glory of Espanha ’82, when little Northern Ireland showed the world what we could do.”
Well, little Northern Ireland are having a bit of a revival these days, as they stand on the brink of qualification to a major international tournament for the first time since the World Cup of 1986 in Mexico.
Memories of Espanha ’82 may not be so fresh in the mind of many people, but the fairytale like heroics of the Northern Ireland team under the canny guidance of Billy Bingham during the years 1980-86, will never be forgotten in the country itself.
Bingham started his second spell as Northern Ireland manager in March 1980, having previously managed the national side from 1967-71 with modest results. It is his second spell however, that will forever be part of the football folklore of the country.
Qualification for back to back world cups in 1982 and 1986 helped not only raise the profile of Northern Ireland as football nation, it also acted as a much needed distraction for the population who were entrenched in deep sectarian conflict.
Northern Ireland today, despite a 20 year peace process, remains nearly as uncomfortable with itself as it was in bad old days of the 1970’s and 1980’s. When Bingham’s Northern Ireland started to gel as a team, along with the exploits of boxer Barry McGuigan during the same time period, a very divided society started to unite through sport.
For the first time in my life I saw Catholics in Northern Ireland vocally supporting the national side, and likewise Protestants were very open in their support for catholic McGuigan – a lad from Clones in the Republic of Ireland, but fighting out of Belfast for the Barney Eastwood stable.
There was a feel good factor that had been absent from the country for a very long time. While the streets were still filled with riots, bombs, and bullets, sport was doing what generations of politicians past and present have failed to do, shifting the doom and gloom into some kind of community togetherness.
In 1982, Europe looked a very different place to the Europe we know today. There were two German teams, East and West, there was the old Soviet Union, plus Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia as single entities before they fractured into the many independent states we know today.
Some argue that it was much easier to qualify for a World Cup back then as there were fewer countries, but when you are a very small nation like Northern Ireland, qualification is always seen as a mountain given the tiny 1.5 million population and a team of very modest names.
Pat Jennings, Martin O’Neill, Norman Whiteside and Sammy McIlroy were the bigger names of the ’82 squad, but the unlikely stars of the show were to be Gerry Armstrong and Billy Hamilton, complete with his windmill celebration.
Against the odds, the totally unfancied Northern Ireland booked their place in a World Cup Finals for only the second time in their history when they emerged as runners up from qualification Group 6. Scotland ended up taking top spot, while Portugal, Sweden and Israel were the other teams who made up the group, but failed to make the cut.
Qualification, at the time, was seen of as some sort of miracle, but little did we know that what was to follow in Spain was the real miracle.
Bingham always played the media very well for a manager of that era, always humble, always lowering expectations publically, but driving the team to aspire to greater things behind the scenes. His famous line, which he used before every game, “we will settle for a draw” became a local buzz phrase of the time.
In reality a draw in some of these games would have represented progress for the team of that time, but his team caused quite a few upsets which saw some of the elite international teams being embarrassed by little Northern Ireland.
Host nation in ’82, Spain, were the first to get a taste of the new Northern Ireland brand of football. A ten man Northern Ireland team beat Spain 1-0 in Valencia with Gerry Armstrong poaching a winner which would launch a career for him playing in the Spanish League. The Spanish were in disbelief as Northern Ireland topped their group with the hosts only just making it by scraping into second.
While the Spanish may have been in shock at their defeat, so were the people of Northern Ireland with the win, albeit happily. Getting out of the group and into to the second stage of the World Cup Finals suddenly eclipsed qualification for the tournament proper. The second round saw a very respectable 2-2 draw with Austria, and it took the might of the French, led by captain Michel Platini, to provide the rock that Northern Ireland would perish on, losing 4-1. It was all over, but what a ride it was!
Happily, we didn’t have too long to wait for our next adventure. In 1986 Bingham again bucked the trend and managed to reach the finals in Mexico, emerging as runners-up from a group including England who finished first.
The English stole top spot with a smash and grab display at Windsor Park. Mark Hately bagged a 77th minute winner completely against the run of play as Northern Ireland battered the English, but couldn’t find a goal.
Also in Group 3 with the two home nations were Finland, Turkey and Romania complete with the illustrious Gheorghe Hagi. Even the young talent of Hagi could not save the Romanian’s from losing home and away to Bingham’s team.
The 1986 World Cup Final draw saw Northern Ireland in the same group as Brazil, Spain (yet again), and Algeria. Whilst expectations took a knock with the draw, beating Spain and Algeria would see us through the group.
Based on the performance of the previous tournament, and that win on Spanish soil 4 years earlier still fresh in the memory, there was a hesitant optimism. After a disappointing 1-1 draw with Algeria the writing was on the wall after only one game, and Northern Ireland were going to need a huge slice of luck to have any chance of progression.
Any faint flicker of hope was extinguished within 1 minute of the next game against the Spanish as Butragueño gave Spain the lead. The game was lost 2-1 and with it any hopes of progressing further in the tournament.
The final group game against the Brazilians was to be the last time Pat Jennings would play for his country. He conceded 3 goals in that game, but in reality he could have conceded 10, or more, such was the Brazilian dominance. Not the way Jennings had hoped to spend his 41st Birthday, but he was voted Man of the Match for an outstanding display of goalkeeping, and retired after the tournament.
Bingham was to continue in the Managers role until he stepped down in 1993. In reality the side was never the same post 1986, after the retirements of Jennings, Whiteside and Martin O’Neill.
Whiteside went from being the youngest ever player to appear in a World Cup to being lauded as the future heartbeat of the Northern Ireland team. Sadly a recurring knee injury forced his career in to end in 1992 at just 26 years of age.
Bingham left the Northern Ireland job in 1993 after an uncharacteristic spat with Republic of Ireland manager Jack Charlton in the wake an ugly World Cup qualifier encounter in Dublin. Bingham resigned after the game with his side failing to qualify for the Finals. He is currently still involved with football as scout for Burnley.
Northern Ireland since the Bingham era has been a less that happy experience for the very loyal and vocal supporters. Glimmers of hope have come and gone without any real substance. Big scalps have been claimed at Windsor, including England, Portugal and Spain, but they were isolated moments of celebration that mean nothing when qualification is missed by some distance.
Managers have come and gone too; Bryan Hamilton, Lawrie McMenemy, Sammy McIlroy, Lawrie Sanchez and Nigel Worthington, all had too few highs and too many lows which was becoming like a 30 year hangover.
Current manager Michael O’Neill, after a shaky start in 2011, has started to produce some great results. After starting well in the qualifying games for the World Cup in 2014, it ended with the usual disappointment of finishing 4th in the group.
O’Neill then started the campaign to qualify for France 2016 without much real pressure or expectation of making the cut.
Maybe it’s that lack of real pressure that has allowed him to guide the current Northern Ireland squad to the brink of qualification. Because that’s just where they are right now. 1 very achievable point from the next 2 games and the eternal wait to qualify for the Euros will be at an end.
It will also end the 30 year absence from a major tournament final stage. And if that is not enough good news the team is now playing with a little bit of style too.
When you consider the squad O’Neill has had at his disposal it’s an even more impressive feat. Wales, who are looking good for ending their qualification hoodoo this time round, can call on the unquestionable brilliance of Gareth Bale to drive the team on the pitch, O’Neill has no such luxury with names like Johnny Evans and Kyle Lafferty being considered his best players.
I mean no disrespect Evans and Lafferty, but when compared to our Celtic cousins with Bale we look like poor relatives which makes this campaign even more special and impressive.
If one takes a wider view of the sporting map of Northern Ireland these days, there is plenty to shout about. Rory McIlroy is presently the best golfer in the world. We can also boast Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell as a supporting cast in golf.
Interestingly, too, we have seen the rise of Carl Frampton as a World Champion in boxing. Frampton has maintained a very visible neutral political position and has worked to bridge the divided society with his success. Maybe he learned that gift from the man who is his manager – Barry McGuigan.
It was during the success of the Bingham years that McGuigan became World Champion, 30 years later and he’s back at the top of the sport as a manager. Could it be that this Northern Ireland football team can follow his example, as he once did theirs in the 80’s?
Whatever way it goes sport has been building many bridges in Northern Ireland recently, and qualification for Euro 2016 will go a long way to building more bridges. It all starts to feel very familiar when you cast your mind back to the 80’s.
I dare to dream of Northern Ireland ending the 30 year wait to appear in the final stage of an international tournament in France. Many will have them written off as also ran’s if they make it to France, I advise them to think again.
Just like the team of 1982 this current side are not going to light many pundits fires. They may be underwhelming in name, but as a collective they have started to play as a very well organised, solid unit. Not many international teams possess that trait. They would be a hard team to beat in France, and teams could struggle with their organisation on the pitch.
So, how far can Northern Ireland go should they find themselves in France in the summer?
I would be delighted enough to just see them there, but getting to the knock out phase would be a huge achievement that may not be as crazy as it sounds. I will finish by quoting a verse from the song I started the piece with which explains my optimism
We beat the Turks, Italians and the mighty Germans too.
The French, the Dutch, our Southern Friends all know what we can do
And if you know our history, you know it could be you
And that is why we sing,
We’re not Brazil, we’re Northern Ireland!