When qualification for the 1982 World Cup was secured courtesy of a 1-0 victory over Israel, an itch that had been festering for almost a quarter of a century had was finally scratched. 24 years of hurt had passed since Northern Ireland’s one and only previous appearance at a World Cup Finals.

In 1958 the province was represented in the finals by Peter Doherty’s young and vibrant side who exceeded all expectations by reaching the quarter-finals of the competition held in Sweden.

1958 and All That

Placed in a group with West Germany, Czechoslovakia and Argentina, Northern Ireland progressed in second place courtesy of a 1-0 win over the Czechs and a 2-2 draw with the Germans. A 3-1 defeat against Argentina was rendered academic as Northern Ireland finished level on points with the Czechs and so were forced into a play-off to determine who progressed to the last eight.

A 2-1 victory after extra-time saw Northern Ireland prevail but unfortunately, in a scenario that was to be repeated almost identically a quarter of a century later, the Irish were then somewhat overwhelmed in the quarter-final stage by a strong French side who scored four times without reply.

Following this tournament, Northern Ireland often flattered to deceive and apart from a couple of reasonably near misses did not really come close to qualifying again over the next two decades. This was despite having some undisputed world-class players such as Pat Jennings and George Best during this period.

When the draw for the qualification stages of the 1982 World Cup was made Northern Ireland found themselves in Group 6 alongside Scotland, Israel, Sweden and Portugal.

1980 – 81: The Qualification Campaign

UEFA announced that for the first time the final stages of the competition would consist of 24 sides and so there were two qualification places up for grabs from each group, but Northern Ireland were still deemed to be outsiders behind Scotland, Sweden and Portugal.

A tight group ensued and Northern Ireland got off to a solid start with a goalless away draw in Israel followed by a resounding 3-0 home victory over Sweden. Then came a single goal defeat in Portugal and a 1-1 draw at Hampden Park against the Scots, leaving the Irish with four points from four games at the halfway mark.

In April 1981, the earlier 1-0 defeat against Portugal was avenged by the same scoreline at Windsor Park, while the earlier victory over Sweden was reversed in the return game in Stockholm two months later. This left the group finely poised and qualification on a knife-edge going into the 1981-82 season.

On 14 October 1981, Scotland and Northern Ireland fought out a goalless draw while Portugal succumbed at home to Sweden. When Portugal then followed up this defeat with another one, this time at the hands of Israel, it meant that qualification was in Northern Ireland’s own hands.

A victory at home to Israel in the final match would see progression to the World Cup for the first time since the heady days of the Blanchflower brothers. On an emotional Windsor Park evening in front of 40,000 spectators, a lone Gerry Armstrong goal was sufficient to secure victory and safe passage to Spain.

It was now that fever pitch set in in Northern Ireland. Starved of success for so long, all of a sudden football fans in the province had something to shout about and look forward to at the same time. Despite manager Billy Bingham protesting otherwise, Northern Ireland’s presence at the finals was seen by many as the limit of their expectations, and there was a strong voice in the English media, particularly that Northern Ireland were merely going along for the ride.

This condescending and somewhat patronising attitude acted as a spur to Bingham and his men who took their preparations seriously.

The Squad: A Tale of Two Talents

As the tournament approached, there was intense speculation as to the make-up of Bingham’s squad. With not exactly a dearth of big-name players to choose from, the spotlight fell on two players with Manchester United connections and whether or not they would make the cut.

While one was a fresh-faced youth just weeks past his 17th birthday and with only two first-team appearances to his name, the other was at the end of the footballing spectrum having recently celebrated his 36th birthday and not having played for Northern Ireland in more than five years.

Their names were, of course, Norman Whiteside and George Best.

While Whiteside was just starting out and was expected to have a glittering career ahead of him, Best was coming to the end. A decade after quitting Manchester United and limping through a nomadic career in places as diverse as Edinburgh, Los Angeles, Stockport and Fulham, had taken its toll and yet there was still support in some quarters for Bingham to at least consider Best for the squad.

In early 1982 Best was playing his football in San Jose with the Earthquakes and Bingham was feeling the pressure of a concentered media campaign to include Best. The Earthquakes played an exhibition game against Hibernian in Scotland and Bingham took the opportunity to run the rule over Best but unfortunately, the great man had a poor game in a weak side and this was enough for Bingham to be able to legitimately quietly drop the idea of including him in his plans.

With Whiteside, things were quite different. Here was a genuine, exciting talent and although his ultimate inclusion in the squad raised a few eyebrows, his selection was met with anticipation rather than anything else.

A look at Northern Ireland’s final 22-man squad for the 1982 tournament shows a combination of established First Division players (Jennings, Martin O’Neill, Sammy McIlroy, Chris Nicholl) alongside good professionals from the second flight (Noel Brotherston, Tommy Cassidy, Mal Donaghy) and a sprinkling from the Irish leagues (Johnny Jameson, Felix Healy and George Dunlop) as well as the afore-mentioned Whiteside.

The First Group Stage

Drawn in the same group as Honduras, Yugoslavia and hosts Spain, Northern Ireland were expected to, at best, do battle with Yugoslavia for second place in the group.

They evidently had different ideas.

The opening game took place on 18 June 1982 against Yugoslavia in Zaragoza and Bingham caused more than a stir this time by not only including Whiteside in the match-day squad but by putting him in the starting 11 for what would be his full Northern Ireland debut! Starting as underdogs, Northern Ireland more than held their own in a somewhat dour 0-0 draw and with Honduras surprisingly holding hosts Spain to a 1-1 draw in the other opening round of games, Group 5 was left finely poised after one match apiece.

For the second group game, Northern Ireland found themselves in the unusual position of going into the match as favourites. Despite Honduras’s impressive draw with Spain first time out, the match was seen as an opportunity for Northern Ireland to lay down a marker and take a massive step towards qualification for the next group stage.

Once again Bingham selected Whiteside in the starting eleven, but this time out the entire side seemed rather surprisingly sluggish. Marshalled by a Honduras team playing with five across the midfield, Whiteside was subdued for much of the game and was substituted just after the hour mark. By that time Honduras’s Eduardo Laing had equalised Gerry Armstrong’s 10th-minute opener and one apiece is how the scoreline remained.

Spain, meanwhile, scrambled past Yugoslavia 2-1 to record their first win of the tournament and give themselves three points from two games.

The final matches of the group pitted Yugoslavia against Honduras and, 24 hours later, Spain against Northern Ireland.

As Yugoslavia edged home 1-0 courtesy of a very late penalty, the situation going into the group’s last game in Valencia was very clear. A home win or draw would see Spain top the group; a goalless draw or a Spain victory would see Yugoslavia also qualify; while a 1-1 draw would mean a drawing of lots between Yugoslavia and Northern Ireland to see who would qualify alongside Spain. A draw of 2-2 or more, or (whisper it) a Northern Ireland victory would be enough for the Irish to make the next stage.

Just to add a further touch of intrigue to the situation was the knowledge that Spain could afford to lose by a single goal and still qualify. Not that anybody was paying that particular scenario much heed, though.

In front of a capacity 50,000 crowd, the hosts started ponderously. Knowing that a draw or possibly even a defeat wouldn’t be sufficient to see them eliminated, the Spaniards seemed reluctant to commit themselves too much. A draw would leave them as group winners and a potentially easier group in the next stage and so for long periods of the game they seemed content to play out the game.

This did not go down well with either the home crowd who had come to be entertained or with the Irish team who needed to score at least one goal or be eliminated. It did, however, seem to play into Northern Ireland’s hands by allowing them more time on the ball and allowing them to overcome any lingering nerves they may have been feeling.

The first half passed by with not much action to note, and both teams were relatively satisfied to reach the sanctuary of the changing rooms with the scoreline blank.

The second half was to prove a whole different kettle of fish to the first and took just two minutes to explode into life. A Spain attack broke down and the ball was laid out to Billy Hamilton on the right-wing, halfway inside the Spanish half.

A little bit of trickery saw Hamilton jink past a defender and gave him room to fire a low cross into the Spain six-yard box. It was a good ball, but with no Irish player in the direct vicinity, it should have been easy enough for the defence to deal with. Instead, Spain goalkeeper, the legendary Luis Arconada, inexplicably came and flapped at the ball, pushing it invitingly into the path of Gerry Armstrong on the penalty spot. Armstrong couldn’t miss and suddenly the miracle was on. Spain 0 Northern Ireland 1.

If Spain were in a quandary as to how to approach the game before kick-off, that was doubled now. A 1-0 defeat would still be sufficient for qualification but another Irish goal would mean elimination.

On 62 minutes Luton Town’s Mal Donaghy was harshly sent off. Far from spelling curtains for the Irish, this perceived injustice merely served to galvanise them, and although Spain made a show of pushing forward in the last quarter of the game, Northern Ireland held out comfortably enough to record perhaps the most famous victory in their existence and thus qualify for the next stage as group winners.

The Second Group Stage

Because there were 24 teams divided into six groups of four with the top two qualifying for the next stage, FIFA decided that these 12 teams would be divided into four groups of three. The winners of the second group stage would then qualify for the semi-finals.

Northern Ireland this found themselves in Group D with Austria and France who had finished runners-up in Groups 2 and 4 respectively.

The opening game of the group was between Austria and France and a single goal scored by France’s Genghini was sufficient to win the game.

Next up was Austria V Northern Ireland and for Billy Bingham an injury headache. 36-year-old legendary ‘keeper Pat Jennings had been in imperious form in the group stages but had suffered an injury which meant he was unable to take his place between the sticks for the crucial Austria clash. Instead, his place went to deputy Jim Platt of Middlesbrough.

For the Austrians, the game was do or die. Having lost the opening match to France they knew that only a win by a wide margin would keep them in with even a remote chance of qualifying for the semi-finals.

Yet, it was Northern Ireland that took the lead in the 27th minute courtesy of a goal scored by Billy Hamilton. The single goal advantage held at half-time had Northern Ireland dreaming, and even though they were pegged back by two Austrian second-half goals, a further strike by Hamilton salvaged a draw and meant they went into the final game against France with all still to play for.

The French team had started the World Cup slowly, being comprehensively beaten 3-1 by England in the opening game but since then had found their form with successive victories over Kuwait, Czechoslovakia and Austria, and knowing a draw was all that was required for staple further progress, their confidence was high.

A draw would be insufficient for Northern Ireland to make the semi-final of the World Cup for the first time, but by now nobody was foolish enough to put anything beyond Billy Bingham’s boys.

As it happened, it was a game too far for Northern Ireland who managed to stay in the game in the first half, restricting France to a single goal interval lead through Alain Giresse.

The second-half saw not so much an Irish capitulation as one of brilliant French dominance. A further Giresse strike was accompanied by two from Dominique Rocheteau and although Gerry Armstrong managed to pull one back with his third goal of the tournament, the damage was done and this time there was to be no fairytale ending.

Four years later, Northern Ireland would once again qualify for the World Cup as Billy Bingham, alongside heroes of ’82 such as Jennings, Whiteside, McIlroy and Armstrong qualified for the tournament in Mexico.

Despite valiant efforts, a solitary point was only Northern Ireland had to show for their efforts this time out and they were eliminated at the first stage and they have yet to qualify for a World Cup since.

Although ultimately Northern Ireland won only one of their five matches at the 1982 World Cup, it is a tournament that has passed into legend and those lucky enough to have experienced those balmy early summer evenings almost four decades ago now will never forget them.