Spain v Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland’s finest footballing hour

For many in Northern Ireland, memories of a balmy night at the Estadio Luis Casanova in Seville constitute the high point in Northern Ireland’s football history. ‘Where were you in 82?’ is a question that flickers on the lips of those who have witnessed the fortunes of the team decline over the last twenty years.

This author listened to the match on an intermittent signal provided by a transistor radio on an island off the Donegal coastline. As the drama unfolded, the batteries gave out and an excited ten year old boy had to wait to the morning to find out the news. Northern Ireland, minnows of the world game, had defeated the Spanish, hosts of the world cup and the leading light in European soccer at the time.

The prelude to the world cup had been breathlessly exciting, with special offers in the Belfast Telegraph, 'Viva Espana’ played every morning on local radio shows and an air of excitement due to a first appearance in the World Cup since 1958. A new generation of players had taken over the mantle of Blanchflower, Doherty and Gregg, but the link with the 1958 team was the management of Billy Bingham, the 1958 outside half. Bingham had moulded a team around a solid defence, classy midfield, and strong resolute strikers.

In many ways he was lucky to have world-class players such as Sammy McIlroy, Pat Jennings and Martin O’Neill who had played at the top level of the European game. O’Neill, for example, had won two European Cups with Nottingham Forest, and McIlroy and Jennings had both played in two of the top teams in England for the past decade.

The previous matches in Northern Ireland’s group were against Honduras and Yugoslavia. Both matches ended in a draw, leaving Northern Ireland needing to beat the hosts in order to qualify for the second round. It was bound to be a drubbing, most fans felt, considering the pedigree of a Spanish team drawn from two great European teams, Real Madrid and Barcelona.

Northern Ireland’s defence was fearsome, with the defensive capabilities of the midfield being used by Bingham to counteract the superb attacking play of players such as Juanito and Lopez-Ufarte. The Spanish spent the first half beating at the door of the Northern Ireland penalty box and it was not until the start of the second half that Billy Hamilton broke down the right.

Given space, he was able to centre a clean ball into the Spanish box, hoping that someone had been able to race from the NI end to meet it. The cross seemed too close to the Spanish keeper Arconada, who raced out to meet it. Bizarrely, he was late and could only get one hand to it, beating the ball out into the open space of the 18 yard box. One man had made it to the Spanish end, Gerry Armstrong. Armstrong took one stride and smacked the oncoming ball into the net. Spain 0, Northern Ireland 1.

There was still 44 minutes to survive. At this point the Newry born Pat Jennings showed why he is still rated as one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time. The Spanish threw everything at the cool headed Jennings, but with arms, legs and head he kept it out. Partisan refereeing – understandable given the crowd – saw the great Mal Donaghy sent off in the 61st minute.

29 minutes of rearguard later, the ref blew the whistle and the game was over. Northern Ireland had won the group, and if they drew against the French, would be in the semi-finals of the World Cup—scarcely believable for a country with a population of just over 1 million. It was without doubt the most exciting moment in Northern Ireland soccer history. After the match the team were rolled over, 4-1, by the great French side of Platini, Tigana and Giresse. There was no shame.