BY PETE SPENCER

In 1958 Northern Ireland became the smallest country to qualify for the World Cup when they reached the finals in Sweden. Then they had knocked out the mighty Italy to get there. They got as far as the Quarter-Finals, losing 0-4 to France. They had never qualified for a major tournament since then, but in 1980 they had reason to be optimistic as FIFA had announced an enlarged tournament for the 1982 finals in Spain. The format had been extended from 16 to 24 teams, and there were 13 places up for grabs from Europe.
The Irish had been drawn in Group 6 along with Scotland, Sweden, Portugal and Israel. For some reason Israel were allowed to compete in the UEFA competition even though they weren’t a UEFA member.
The Northern Irish FA had drawn up their plans for qualification by reinstating Billy Bingham, who’d played in the 1958 finals. This was his 2nd spell as national manager having led them between 1967 and 1971. Bingham took over from Danny Blanchflower. The Irish had performed well during the qualification campaign for the 1980 European Championship, finishing 2nd to England in their group which also contained Republic of Ireland and Bulgaria. Bingham set about restoring Irish pride in their national team and within two years they became one of the most talked about countries in world football.
Despite English football adopting 3pts for a win, international football still used the 2pts for a win system.

26th March 1980, Tel Aviv
ISRAEL (0) 0
NORTHERN IRELAND (0) 0

Jennings (Arsenal), J. Nicholl (Man Utd), C Nicholl (Southampton), J. O’Neill (Leicester), Nelson (Arsenal); M O’Neill (Notts Forest), Finney (Cambridge), Cassidy (Newcastle), McIlroy (Man Utd); Armstrong (Tottenham), Cochrane (Middlesbro)
The qualifying campaign began in March 1980 even before the European Championship Finals in the summer. The Irish made the trip to Tel Aviv. Their two previous meetings had both been at that venue. In the Israel side was Avi Cohen, who was playing his club football at Liverpool at the time. The game was a fairly uneventful goalless draw and was interrupted when the floodlights failed with 15 minutes to go. At the time, Rifat Turk hit the crossbar with a free-kick just as darkness fell on the pitch. Pat Jennings certainly kept the Irish in the game with a string of good saves.

Before their next qualifying match they had the British Home International Championships to contend with. Billy Hamilton scored the only goal in a 1-0 win at home to Scotland. Four days later they grabbed a 1-1 draw at Wembley against England after Noel Brotherston unfortunately scored an own goal, but within a minute Terry Cochrane had equalised. England had been stunned up at Wrexham losing 1-4 to Wales, so when the Irish beat Wales in Cardiff 1-0 thanks to a Brotherston goal they had won the Championship outright for only the second time in their history.
The Home International Championships had been a useful experience in providing Bingham with some new options including Luton defender, Mal Donaghy, and Blackburn winger, Noel Brotherston. They both made their debuts in that competition with Brotherston scoring. They then went off to Australia for a summer tour. Two wins and a draw against Australia meant Bingham’s side were unbeaten in seven matches since he’d taken over.

18th June 1980, Stockholm
SWEDEN 1
ISRAEL 1

10th September 1980, Stockholm
SWEDEN 1
SCOTLAND 1

15th October 1980, Windsor Park
NORTHERN IRELAND (3) 3 (Brotherston 24, McIlroy 28, J. Nicholl 37)
SWEDEN (0) 0

Platt (Middlesbro); J. Nicholl (Man Utd), C. Nicholl (Southampton), McClelland (Mansfield), Donaghy (Luton); O’Neill (Nottingham Forest), Cassidy (Newcastle) [McCreery (QPR)], McIlroy (Man Utd); Brotherston (Blackburn), Armstrong (Watford), Hamilton (Burnley) [Cochrane (Middlesbro)]
When Sweden visited Windsor Park, they had already played two qualifiers, both at home, and with disappointing outcomes. They were held by Israel, 1-1, and were then beaten 0-1 by Scotland thanks to a Gordon Strachan goal. Brotherston scored his 3rd goal for his country when he put them in front after 24 minutes. Sammy McIlroy then made it 2-0 four minutes later. Another United player, Jimmy Nicholl, scored his only international goal and Northern Ireland were 3-0 up by half-time. That remained the final score and the Irish were buoyant right from the start of qualifying. Manager, Bingham, claimed afterwards “this was the best performances since I’ve been manager”.

15th October 1980, Hampden Park
SCOTLAND 0
PORTUGAL 0

12th November 1980, Tel Aviv
ISRAEL 0
SWEDEN 0

19th November 1980, Lisbon
PORTUGAL (0) 1 (Jordao 60)
NORTHERN IRELAND (0) 0

Platt (Middlesbro); J. Nicholl (Man Utd), C. Nicholl (Southampton), J. O’Neill (Leicester), Donaghy (Luton); M. O’Neill (Nottingham Forest), Cassidy (Newcastle) [McCreery (QPR)], McIlroy (Man Utd); Brotherston (Blackburn), Armstrong (Watford), Hamilton (Burnley) [Cochrane (Middlesbro)]
The Irish travelled to Lisbon and experienced their first setback as Portugal won 1-0. Jordao got the goal on the hour and the Irish were worried that all their hard work in October may come to nothing. It was the first time they’d lost to Portugal in five meetings.

17th December 1980, Lisbon
PORTUGAL 3
ISRAEL 0

25th February 1981, Tel Aviv
ISRAEL 0
SCOTLAND 1

25th March 1981, Hampden Park
SCOTLAND (0) 1 (Wark 75)
NORTHERN IRELAND (0) 1 (Hamilton 70)

Jennings (Arsenal); J Nicholl (Man Utd), C Nicholl (Southampton), McClelland (Mansfield), J O’Neill (Leicester), Nelson (Arsenal); McCreery (QPR), McIlroy (Man Utd); Cochrane (Middlesbro), Armstrong (Watford) Hamilton (Burnley) [Spence (Southend)]
Northern Ireland made the trip to Hampden Park, having not won there since 1974. The game was goalless until the last 20 minutes then Billy Hamilton gave the visitors the lead, but John Wark equalised barely five minutes later and the game ended 1-1.

28th April 1981, Hampden Park
SCOTLAND 3
ISRAEL 1

NORTHERN IRELAND (0) 1 (Armstrong 74)
PORTUGAL (0) 0

Jennings (Arsenal); J Nicholl (Man Utd), C Nicholl (Southampton), J O’Neill (Leicester), Nelson (Arsenal); M O’Neill (Nottingham Forest), McCreery (QPR), McIlroy (Man Utd); Cochrane (Middlesbro), Armstrong (Watford), Hamilton (Burnley)
Portugal came to Belfast, unbeaten and yet to concede. Again the Irish left it until the last 20 minutes to score but, unfortunately for the Portuguese, the goal was a result of a comedic error by the visitors. Sammy Nelson’s left wing free-kick into the box looked to be going out for a goal-kick when Terry Cochrane scrambled to keep it in. His cross into the six-yard-box was headed in by Gerry Armstrong. Armstrong was able to head in unchallenged as the Portuguese keeper, Bento, ran into one of his own defenders whilst attempting to claim the cross. It was Portugal’s 3rd trip to Belfast and they had yet to come away with a win. Armstrong was the first player to breech the Portuguese defence in this group and opened things up for the two home nations going into the second half of the qualifying campaign.

29/04/1981 P W D L F A PTS GD
Scotland 5 3 2 0 6 2 8 4
NIreland 5 2 2 1 3 1 6 2
Portugal 4 2 1 1 4 1 5 3
Israel 6 0 2 4 2 8 2 -6
Sweden 4 0 2 2 1 5 2 -4

In May the Home International Championships were abandoned due to the troubles in Northern Ireland. The Irish only managed to complete one of their fixtures, losing 0-2 away to Scotland.

3rd June 1981, Stockholm
SWEDEN (0) 1 (Borg 50, pen)
NORTHERN IRELAND (0) 0

Jennings (Arsenal); J. Nicholl (Man Utd) [McClelland (Mansfield)], C. Nicholl (Southampton), J. O’Neill (Leicester), Nelson (Arsenal); M. O’Neill (Nottingham Forest), McIlroy (Man Utd), McCreery (QPR); Cochrane (Middlesbro), Armstrong (Watford), Hamilton (Burnley) [Spence (Southend)]
June was all about Sweden. They had yet to win a game in this group but when the Irish arrived in Stockholm they turned that around with a 50th minute penalty giving them a 1-0 win. Three weeks later they then caused a surprise by winning 3-0 at home to Portugal. The group was now wide open.

24th June 1981, Stockholm
SWEDEN 3
PORTUGAL 0

24/06/1981 P W D L F A PTS GD
Scotland 5 3 2 0 6 2 8 4
NIreland 6 2 2 2 5 3 6 2
Sweden 6 2 2 2 5 5 6 0
Portugal 5 2 1 2 4 4 5 0
Israel 6 0 2 4 2 8 2 -6

As the 1980-81 season ended, Northern Ireland had two more qualifiers to play and both were at home, against Scotland and Israel. Portugal were also at home twice, with a trip to Israel in between. Sweden, in contrast, had the toughest run-in with two away games in Scotland and Portugal. With two countries to qualify, wins were going to be of paramount importance.

9th September 1981
SCOTLAND 2
SWEDEN 0

14th October 1981, Windsor Park
NORTHERN IRELAND (0) 0
SCOTLAND (0) 0

Jennings (Arsenal); J. Nicholl (Man Utd), C. Nicholl (Southampton), J. O’Neill (Leicester), Donaghy (Luton); M. O’Neill (Man City), McIlroy (Man Utd), McCreery (Tulsa); Brotherston (Blackburn), Armstrong (Watford), Hamilton (Burnley)
Scotland had gone a long way to securing their place in Spain when they beat Sweden in September. Therefore, a victory in Belfast would confirm things. The game was a tight contest as both sides were keen to defend their position. It ended goalless and the Irish knew they would need to beat Israel to go through. For Scotland, they had successfully qualified for the finals.

14th October 1981, Lisbon
PORTUGAL 1
SWEDEN 2

Sweden pulled off a dramatic win in Lisbon, as Persson scored with just a minute to go. Portugal’s qualification hopes were in tatters having lost three games in succession. They found themselves needing to win their final two matches to stand a chance of going through and hope Northern Ireland didn’t beat Israel.

28th October 1981, Tel Aviv
ISRAEL 4
PORTUGAL 1

Israel put paid to Portugal’s slim hopes with a stunning victory at home. Attention now turned to the final day of qualifiers. Northern Ireland were at home to Israel knowing a draw would be enough to see them qualify, albeit on goal difference.

28/10/1981 P W D L F A PTS GD
Scotland 7 4 3 0 8 2 11 6
Sweden 8 3 2 3 7 8 8 -1
NIreland 7 2 3 2 5 3 7 2
Portugal 7 2 1 4 6 10 5 -4
Israel 7 1 2 4 6 9 4 -3

18th November 1981, Lisbon
PORTUGAL 2
SCOTLAND 1

18th November 1981, Windsor Park
NORTHERN IRELAND (1) (Armstrong 27)
ISRAEL (0) 0

Jennings (Arsenal); J. Nicholl (Man Utd), C. Nicholl (Southampton), J. O’Neill (Leicester), Donaghy (Luton); Cassidy (Newcastle), McIlroy (Man Utd), McCreery (Tulsa); Brotherston (Blackburn), Armstrong (Watford), Hamilton (Burnley)
40,000 expectant supporters packed into Windsor Park to watch the Irish confirm their place in the Finals. Needing only a draw, they made certain of qualification when Gerry Armstrong scored, what proved to be, the only goal of the game after 27 minutes. A free-kick wide on the right was floated into the area by Jimmy Nicholl. Billy Hamilton rose above the defence to nod the ball down and Armstrong met it first time on the turn and the Irish had their lead. This Armstrong/Hamilton partnership was becoming crucial to the team’s success, and more was to come.

18/11/1981 P W D L F A PTS GD
Scotland 8 4 3 1 9 4 11 5
NIreland 8 3 3 3 6 3 9 3
Sweden 8 3 2 2 7 8 8 -1
Portugal 8 3 1 4 8 11 7 -3
Israel 8 1 2 5 6 10 4 -4

Northern Ireland had qualified having conceded a meagre three goals. Bingham had tightened up the defence and this proved to be the cornerstone to their success. In the previous twelve months before he took over they’d conceded 17 goals in just eight matches.

The draw for the finals in Spain was held on 16th January 1982. The 24 qualifiers would be drawn into six groups. Northern Ireland was drawn in Group Five along with hosts, Spain, Yugoslavia, and first time qualifiers, Honduras. With two to qualify, everyone was expected to beat Honduras, so the Irish knew they needed to get something out of the Spanish or Yugoslav games in order to progress.

In World Cup year, the British Home International Championships were rescheduled to be completed earlier than normal to keep players fresh for the World Cup. The Irish were up first with a trip to Wembley to meet England. They had drawn their last meeting with England, ending a run of six straight defeats against them. At this stage the Irish had only beaten England once, back in 1957, when Billy Bingham was playing. But this time they were put to the sword as England comfortably won 4-0.

23rd February 1982, Wembley
British Home International Championships
ENGLAND (1) 4 (Robson 1, Keegan 48, Wilkins 84, Hoddle 86)
NORTHERN IRELAND (0) 0

Jennings (Arsenal); J. Nicholl (Man Utd), C. Nicholl (Southampton), J. O’Neill (Leicester), Donaghy (Luton), Nelson (Brighton); M. O’Neill (Norwich), McIlroy (Stoke); Brotherston (Blackburn), Armstrong (Watford), Hamilton (Burnley)

24th March 1982, Paris
Friendly
FRANCE (2) 4 (Zenier 31, Couriol 45, Larios 57, Genghini 80)
NORTHERN IRELAND (0) 0

Platt (Middlesbro); J. Nicholl (Toronto), C. Nicholl (Southampton), J. O’Neill (Leicester), Donaghy (Luton); M. O’Neill (Norwich), McIlroy (Stoke) [Spence (Southend)], McCreery (Tulsa) [Caskey(Derby)]; Brotherston (Blackburn), Armstrong (Watford), Cochrane (Middlesbro) [Stewart (QPR)]
Before their next game in the Home International Championships, Northern Ireland were away again, this time in Paris to meet France. This game took place during the blossoming of a wonderful French side that would eventually finish third in the World Cup and their flair was definitely on show that night as they won at a canter, even without the talismanic Michel Platini. Bingham experimented with two wingers, something Blanchflower had tinkered with during his time as manager, but it didn’t work as the French midfield had far too much quality to be given so much room to manoeuvre.

28th April 1982, Windsor Park
British Home International Championships
NORTHERN IRELAND (0) 1 (McIlroy 53)
SCOTLAND (1) 1 (Wark 32)

Platt (Middlesbro); Donaghy (Luton), McClelland (Rangers), J. O’Neill (Leicester), Nelson (Brighton); M. O’Neill (Norwich), McIlroy (Stoke), Cleary (Glentoran); Brotherston (Blackburn), Healy (Coleraine), Campbell (Aston Villa)
After beating Northern Ireland, England went onto beat Wales to give them a great chance of winning this competition again. Northern Ireland were next up against Scotland, who they’d just finished a qualifying campaign against. Bingham used the game to blood three players. Felix Healy, Jimmy Cleary and Bobby Campbell all made their debuts and performed well enough to remain in the squad later in the year. John Wark gave Scotland a first half lead but Sammy McIlroy equalised and the game was drawn.

27th May 1982, Wrexham
British Home International Championships
WALES (1) 3 (Curtis 15, Rush 60, Nicholas 70)
NORTHERN IRELAND (0) 0

Jennings (Arsenal) [Platt (Middlesbro)]; J. Nicholl (Toronto), C. Nicholl (Southampton), McClelland (Rangers), Donaghy (Luton); Healy (Coleraine), McIlroy (Stoke), Cleary (Glentoran) [Campbell (Aston Villa)]; Brotherston (Blackburn), Armstrong (Watford), Hamilton (Burnley)
The Irish preparations took another blow when they were well beaten by Wales. Alan Curtis gave the home side the lead in the first half and then two goals in 10 minutes in the second half from Ian Rush and Peter Nicholas completed the win for the Welsh. This defeat consigned the Irish to bottom of the table.

At the conclusion of the Home Championship, Billy Bingham named his squad for the World Cup Finals.

The biggest selection surprise was Norman Whiteside, a 17-year-old from Belfast playing in Manchester United’s youth team. Whiteside had become United’s youngest player since Duncan Edwards when he made his debut as a substitute against Brighton barely two months earlier. Much was talked about him and some had even compared him to George Best. He was one of three uncapped members of the squad, the other two were domestically based players.

During Bingham’s first spell as manager he was able to call upon the services of George Best, but the mercurial ex-Manchester United superstar had played his last game for his country in 1977 and would finish his international career having never demonstrated his outrageous talents at a World Cup finals. Another ‘legend’ looked to be heading for the same fate, but Northern Ireland’s qualification meant that Pat Jennings would at last be able to appear in the World Cup Finals. Bingham was also able to select other vastly experienced players such as Jimmy Nicholl, Sammy Nelson, David McCreery and Sammy McIlroy who all had FA Cup winners’ medals to parade. Martin O’Neill had won the League and back-to-back European and League Cups with Nottingham Forest. Chris Nicholl won the League Cup with Aston Villa and John McClelland and Tommy Cassidy also had domestic Cup Final runners-up medals in their collection.

Squad
No. Player Position Age Club Caps
1 Pat Jennings Goalkeeper 37 Arsenal 91
2 Jimmy Nicholl Defender 26 Toronto Blizzard 43
3 Mal Donaghy Defender 24 Luton Town 12
4 David McCreery Midfield 24 Tulsa Roughnecks 39
5 Chris Nicholl Defender 35 Southampton 41
6 John O’Neill Defender 24 Leicester City 17
7 Noel Brotherston Midfield 25 Blackburn Rovers 14
8 Martin O’Neill Midfield 30 Norwich City 44
9 Gerry Armstrong Striker 28 Watford 37
10 Sammy McIlroy Midfield 27 Stoke City 56
11 Billy Hamilton Striker 25 Burnley 16
12 John McClelland Defender 26 Rangers 10
13 Sammy Nelson Defender 33 Brighton 49
14 Tommy Cassidy Midfield 31 Burnley 23
15 Tommy Finney Midfield 29 Cambridge United 14
16 Norman Whiteside Striker 17 Manchester United 0
17 Jim Platt Goalkeeper 30 Middlesbrough 15
18 Johnny Jameson Midfield 24 Glentoran 0
19 Felix Healy Striker 26 Coleraine 2
20 Jim Cleary Midfield 26 Glentoran 2
21 Bobby Campbell Striker 25 Bradford City 2
22 George Dunlop Goalkeeper 26 Linfield 0

World Cup 1982

So, to the most anticipated occasion for Northern Irish football in 24 years. The first game in their group was hosts, Spain, up against Honduras who were appearing in their first ever finals. The Central Americans caused a shock when they took the lead after only eight minutes. Spain equalised from the penalty spot midway through the second half and the game ended, somewhat surprisingly, 1-1.

16th June 1982, Valencia
SPAIN 1
HONDURAS 1

The following evening, Northern Ireland were in action in Zaragoza against Yugoslavia. Norman Whiteside was given his first cap for his country in a side captained by Martin O’Neill. Whiteside broke Pele’s record as the youngest player to play in a World Cup finals, aged a mere 17 years and 41 days; a record that stands to this day.

17th June 1982. Zaragoza
World Cup, Group 5
YUGOSLAVIA (0) 0
NORTHERN IRELAND (0) 0

Jennings (Arsenal); J. Nicholl (Toronto), C. Nicholl (Southampton), McClelland (Rangers), Donaghy (Luton); M. O’Neill (Norwich), McIlroy (Stoke), McCreery (Tulsa); Hamilton (Burnley), Armstrong (Watford), Whiteside (Man Utd)
Yugoslavia was making their first appearance in the finals since 1974. In their team was Nikola Jovanovic, who was at Manchester United, and future Arsenal player, Vladimir Petrovic. This was a game of few clear cut chances, although the Irish seemed to have the better of them, there were no goals. The goalless draw was a satisfactory beginning for both teams.

20th June 1982, Valencia
World Cup Group 5
SPAIN 2
YUGOSLAVIA 1

21st June 1982, Zaragoza
World Cup, Group 5
HONDURAS (0) 1 (Laing 60)
NORTHERN IRELAND (1) 1 (Armstrong 10)

Jennings (Arsenal); J. Nicholl (Toronto), C. Nicholl (Southampton), McClelland (Rangers), Donaghy (Luton); O’Neill (Norwich) [Healy (Coleraine)], McIlroy (Stoke), McCreery (Tulsa); Hamilton (Burnley), Armstrong (Watford), Whiteside (Man Utd) [Brotherston (Blackburn)]
The Irish were soon on the attack and a left-foot cross from Norman Whiteside into the area found Martin O’Neill free, but his header went over when he really should’ve done better. Ten minutes in and Northern Ireland had a free-kick on the left wing. McIlroy curled it in right-footed, it hit the bar, bounced down for Chris Nicholl to head it against the bar again, where Gerry Armstrong was on hand to head the ball over the line and the Irish were in front. Many were expecting an avalanche of goals but the Hondurans were made of sterner stuff. Not long after, Betancourt saw his shot hit the bar of Jennings goal and bounce back out again. Towards the end of the half, Armstrong hit the post with a shot as the Irish tried to force a 2nd goal.
Early in the second half, Whiteside thought he’d scored his first international goal but it was disallowed for Billy Hamilton’s push on a defender as he headed the ball down for Whiteside. On the hour, Honduras had a corner on the right and it was met by Betancourt whose bullet header was superbly pushed over the bar by Jennings. The resultant corner was then headed in by Laing on the near post. Both teams had chances to add to their tally, but the game ended 1-1. Northern Ireland now knew they would need to get a result from their last match against the hosts.

21/06/1982 P W D L F A PTS GD
Spain 2 1 1 0 3 2 3 1
Honduras 2 0 2 3 2 2 2 0
Northern Ireland 2 0 2 2 1 1 2 0
Yugoslavia 2 0 1 1 1 2 1 -1

This was the World Cup which changed the rules about final group matches. Owing to a highly contentious arrangement between West Germany and Austria to play out a 1-0 win for the Germans, thus taking both teams through, FIFA changed the rules to deny the opportunity for match-fixing. But for this World Cup the final group matches took place on different days. The position within the group before this was that Spain had 3pts, Northern Ireland and Honduras had 2pts and Yugoslavia 1pt. If Honduras beat Yugoslavia then the Irish would need to do the same to Spain. It seemed inconceivable that these two ‘minnows’ could progress. Spain knew they would need just a draw against the Irish to go through.

24th June 1982, Zaragoza
World Cup Group 5
HONDURAS 0
YUGOSLAVIA 1

A penalty 2 minutes from time from Petrovic gave Yugoslavia a late win. It meant they would progress if Spain could beat Northern Ireland. If the Irish won, the only way Spain could go out is if they lost by more than one goal. A draw would mean Spain were definitely through but the Irish would need a 2-2 draw to progress on goals scored.

25th June 1982, Valencia
SPAIN (0) 0
NORTHERN IRELAND (0) 1 (Armstrong 47)

Jennings (Arsenal); J.Nicholl (Toronto), C.Nicholl (Southampton), McClelland (Rangers), Donaghy (Luton); O’Neill (Norwich), McCreery (Tulsa), McIlroy (Stoke) [Cassidy (Burnley)]; Hamilton (Burnley), Armstrong (Watford), Whiteside (Man Utd) [Nelson (Brighton)]
Another capacity crowd in the Valencia’s Mestalla Stadium expected to see the hosts cruise past Northern Ireland. But this was not the Spain of the modern day, this was a Spanish team racked with nerves at the pressure and expectation of hosting the biggest tournament in world football. But this night belonged to the Irish. It has gone down as one of the greatest nights ever in Northern Irish football.
Pat Jennings was at his best as the Spanish pressed forward and the veteran frustrated them on several occasions. The Spanish looked dangerous from set-pieces but, at half-time, the game was scoreless. Early in the second half, Armstrong pounced on a loose pass deep in his own half and drove into the Spanish half before laying the ball to his right where Hamilton skinned Tendillo to get to the bye-line. He crossed the ball into the box and keeper, Luis Arconada, one of Europe’s best at the time, inexplicably palmed the ball out to the penalty spot where Armstrong was lurking. Instead of placing the ball in either corner, Armstrong fired a right-foot shot under the hapless keeper and into the net. Amazingly, the Irish were 1-0 up against Spain, in their own back yard.

Despite the fact this result would see both teams go through, the Spaniards couldn’t stand the embarrassment of losing at home and so threw everything at Jennings’ goal but the Arsenal man was equal to the task. Midway through the half, Mal Donaghy was sent-off for a 2nd bookable offence when he lashed out at Camacho. But despite their man advantage, Spain couldn’t break through and Northern Ireland had pulled off their most famous win and as a consequence, they had made it to the second stage.

Group 6 P W D L F A PTS GD
Northern Ireland 3 1 2 0 2 1 4 1
Spain 3 1 1 3 3 3 3 0
Yugoslavia 3 1 1 2 2 2 3 0
Honduras 3 0 2 1 2 3 2 -1

Expanding the tournament to 24 teams created a headache for FIFA. How do you work out a second phase with 12 teams? In 1982 they came up with the idea of a further four groups containing three teams each. Only the group winners would progress to the semi-final stage. This format, only used for this World Cup, produced some exciting games as teams knew just one win might be enough for them to go through. The weakness in the three team group system was that the team who didn’t play in the first game gained an advantage in knowing what they had to do in order to qualify. Three of the opening games resulted in a positive result and each winner of that game ended up winning their group. In each instance the losers were in action in the next game.

Northern Ireland was drawn in Group D along with Austria and France, who had both finished 2nd in their respective groups.

28th June 1982, Madrid
World Cup Group D
AUSTRIA 0
FRANCE 1


1st July 1982, Madrid
AUSTRIA (0) 2 (Pezzey 50, Hintermaier 68)
NORTHERN IRELAND (1) 2 (Hamilton 27, 75)

Platt (Middlesbro); J.Nicholl (Toronto), C.Nicholl (Southampton), McClelland (Rangers), Nelson (Brighton); O’Neill (Norwich), McCreery (Tulsa), McIlroy (Stoke); Hamilton (Burnley), Armstrong (Watford), Whiteside (Man Utd) [Brotherston (Blackburn)]
The Irish had not had the best preparation for this phase of the tournament. Pat Jennings had a groin strain and there was disruption to several training sessions. Bingham replaced Jennings with Jim Platt. Although Platt would only be winning his 16th cap for his country, he had played over 400 games for Middlesbrough. Sammy Nelson, a 2nd half substitute against Spain, replaced the suspended Mal Donaghy at left-back. Austria had to win the game, having just lost to France and so they were more desperate for a goal. For the Irish, if they won they would then be playing France in what would effectively be a quarter-final.

Both teams had chances before the Irish took the lead in the 27th minute. McIlroy found Armstrong on the right, just inside his own half, and the Watford man was able to beat two Austrian defenders before getting to the bye-line. His pin-point cross was met by Hamilton at the far post and the Burnley forward headed past Koncilia to put the Irish ahead

Early in the second half, McClelland failed to deal with a high ball into the Irish box and the ball fell for dangerous Austrian striker, Walter Schachner, who hit the post and Jimmy Nicholl scrambled the ball out of play. From the resulting corner, Prohaska found Baumeister on the edge of the area and his low shot was turned in by Pezzey for the equaliser. The Austrians were now buzzing and a slick passing move saw Schachner beat Platt but the goal was ruled out for offside. As the game moved towards the final 20 minutes, Austria had a free-kick 25 yards out. The ball was played short to Hintermaier and his shot flew past Platt to put the Austrians in front. Northern Ireland now looked to be in trouble, but this side was made of sterner stuff.

Eight minutes later, patient build-up in midfield saw Armstrong run at the defence again and his shot from outside the area, deflected off Obermayer. Jimmy Nicholl had been charging forward to create the overlap and he now found himself clear of the defence on the right hand side. As Koncilia came out, Nicholl hooked the ball to the far post where Hamilton was again on hand to head the ball into the empty net. The Irish still needed another goal to avoid having to beat the French but try as they might they just couldn’t break the Austrians down and the game ended all square.

4th July 1982, Madrid
World Cup, Group D
FRANCE (1) 4 (Giresse 33, 80, Rocheteau 46, 68)
NORTHERN IRELAND (0) 1 (Armstrong 75)

Jennings(Arsenal); J.Nicholl (Toronto), C.Nicholl (Southampton), McClelland (Rangers), Donaghy (Luton); M.O’Neill (Norwich), McCreery (Tulsa) [J.O’Neill (Leicester)], McIlroy (Stoke); Hamilton (Burnley), Armstrong (Watford), Whiteside (Man Utd)
You could call this a sort of quarter-final, although a draw would be enough for France. The French were now playing some of the best football of the tournament. This was the same team that had lost their opening game to England. They put the Irish under pressure from the first whistle and should’ve made more of the chances they had, but a fit again Pat Jennings was in fine form, saving from both Platini and Rocheteau. Then some great skill on the right from Whiteside found O’Neill who played a one-two with Armstrong before firing past Ettori, only to find the linesman had his flag up. Replays seemed to suggest the Irish captain had good reason to be disappointed with that decision. Just after the half-hour ,a wonderful run from Platini saw him beat two defenders to the get to the bye-line and cut it back where Giresse was unmarked. The little cultured midfielder from Bordeaux, took a touch and then shot past Jennings for the opening goal. It was no more than the French deserved.

At the beginning of the second half, Tresor found Rocheteau on the left wing just inside his own half. A brilliant turn took out Jimmy Nicholl and the Frenchman was away and running at Chris Nicholl. As he reached the edge of the area, he switched from his right to his left and fired a low shot which beat Jennings on his near post. Rocheteau could’ve had a couple more before a free-kick wide on the left was passed short to the curly-haired striker. Yet again he showed a delicate touch to switch from right foot to left then back to right as he shot past Jennings on a second occasion to effectively put the game out of reach for the Irish. With fifteen minutes to play, Armstrong found Whiteside on the left and a great piece of wing-play saw the Manchester United forward beat Amoros and cross to the far post where Ettori flapped at the ball and Armstrong pounced for a consolation goal.

As the Irish poured forward in search of a miracle the French were able to pick them off with the counter-attack. With ten minutes to go Giresse found Tigana wide on the right and his first time cross was met excellently by the head of Giresse and the French were through in stunning fashion.

The Northern Ireland fairytale was over but what a ride it had been. The heat seemed to have taken its toll as the Irish looked spent against the French. But they created memories which will live long in Ulster folklore with the industrious front three of Hamilton, Armstrong and Whiteside being amongst the highlights. The boldness of their play was a particular feature as countless times Hamilton and Armstrong were prepared to run at defenders, and the connection between the two was particularly difficult to defend against. In the end they were beaten only once and by the side who would stumble when just a penalty kick away from reaching the Final. Undoubtedly the highlight of the whole affair was their victory in Valencia against the hosts, Spain. That crucial, winning goal changed Gerry Armstrong’s career. He later spent three years at Real Mallorca and now commentates on Spain’s La Liga for Sky Sports. Only four other players scored more goals than Armstrong in that 1982 tournament.

Bingham led the Northern Irish to another World Cup Finals four years later in Mexico when he was joined by 11 of the squad from Spain. Here they would meet Spain again but this time went down 1-2, and also lost to Brazil when Josimar scored one of the goals of the tournament. Bingham would go down as the finest manager Northern Ireland have ever had and held onto his position until November 1993. Whether Northern Ireland will ever reach these heights again is a matter of debate but one can never take away the fabulous achievements of 1982.

You can follow Pete Spencer on Twitter @irishpete67

You can view Pete’s blog here http://franklymrspencer.blogspot.co.uk

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