Top 100 World Cup Moments (From the Aussie P.O.V.): 86-The Ulsterman Forget Their Troubles (1982)

Clear goals: Armstrong, who scored against Spain in 1982, will mentor Northern Ireland's youngsters

In 1982 Northern Ireland probably had more on its mind than football. At the time the country was split apart by violence and sectarianism but at least their national football side was doing okay and was heading to their second World Cup (the first being in 1958) . Coached by ’58 veteran Billy Bingham the side featured some truly gifted players from both sides of the great religious divide including veteran Arsenal keeper Pat Jennings, attacking midfielder Sammy McIlroy and European Cup winning midfielder and current captain Martin O’Neill. They conceded only 3 goals in 8 games in their qualifying group to be on their way to Spain.

The team for Spain ’82 was drawn against a powerful Yugoslavia side along with Honduras and the big one who were the hosts Spain. In the first match in Zaragoza Northern Ireland held their nerve and squeezed out a 0-0 draw with Yugoslavia. It was a match that also saw Norman Whiteside make his debut as the youngest ever player in the history of the tournament with the young tyke aged only 17 years and 41 days, a record that has never been broken.

The second game for Norn’ Ireland was a lot more disappointing when being held by Honduras to a 1-1 draw and thus meaning they would need to get something from the final group game against hosts Spain. In Valencia, a day after Yugoslavia had defeated Honduras 1-0, Northern Ireland played a well organised game and stifled the hosts. Being a constant underdog Northern Ireland also relied on attacking on the break which they did to amazingly go ahead 1-0.

Gerry Armstrong started the move through the middle of the park and passed off to Burnley right footer Barry Hamilton who beat his marker and crossed in to the box. The cross wasn’t that good but that didn’t stop the Spanish keeper coming to claim the ball and failing to catch it. The loose ball fell down to Armstrong and he lashed the ball home.

Spain woke up after the goal and pushed for an equaliser to top the group but with the stupid fact they were through regardless due to the result the day before, Northern Ireland’s job was made a little easier. What didn’t make it easier was the fact that they had a player sent off when Mal Donaghy was given his orders on the hour mark but they defended deeply and hung on to shock the world and top the group. This was better than their efforts in 1958 and even better than what England managed to achieve in their group in 1982.

With no knockout stage at Spain ’82 Northern Ireland was drawn in a play off group with France and Austria. Against Austria they came from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 thanks to a late double by Hamilton but against the red hot France they finally met their maker (just like 1938) with a 4-1 loss in Madrid. Northern Ireland would again make the World Cup in 1986 (going out in Round 1 with only 12 of the 22 players from 1982) before disappearing from major tournaments although they have popped up to beat England in Belfast in recent times.

In later years Armstrong believed the turmoil of Northern Ireland made the players harder and bonded more because of ‘growing up around petrol bombs and burning buses’. Armstrong (a catholic) now works for Northern Ireland’s football association trying to convince players eligible for the Republic of Ireland through the Good Friday agreement to stick with Northern Ireland and saving what talent the country has.

Unfashionable, unattractive and underestimated, the 1982 Northern Ireland side beating the hosts Spain the 1982 World Cup can been a seen as a major upset and a memorable moment. Another time when a sporting resulted lifted a trouble nation even if it was just for a little while.

About Dennis Gedling

RTR FM Presenter. Glory Guerrillas Producer and Co-Host. Contributer to Football Nation Radio and Football West. Worships at the feet of the mighty Cats, Socceroos, Matildas, West Perth, Glory and Glasgow's Green and White most of the time.

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