Aztec Dream - Northern Ireland at Mexico '86

Northern Ireland travelled to Mexico for the group stages of the 13th FIFA World Cup finals in May 1986 and played their part in one of the most thrilling tournaments in World Cup history. Cathal Coyle looks back at the team’s performances

After emerging from a tough pre-qualification group in 1984-5 that included England, Romania and Turkey, hopes were high that Northern Ireland could at least repeat the heroics of 1982 when they reached the quarter finals.

Manager Billy Bingham had the team meticulously prepared for the event, arriving a few weeks before the tournament commenced in Albuquerque in the United States so that the players could get acclimatised to the searing North American heat.

The draw for the first round group stages of the tournament had placed Northern Ireland in the same group as Brazil, Spain and Algeria – arguably the most difficult group. The enforced retirement of the team captain Martin O’Neill a year previous was a bitter blow for the squad, and some of the heroes of Espana ’82 were battling for fitness.

Although not underestimating the threat that Algeria posed, especially after they had defeated West Germany by 2-1 in the 1982 tournament, manager Bingham privately knew that this was a must win game if Northern Ireland were to have any chance of qualifying for the knockout stages.

The team were based in the city of Guadalajara and played their first game in the Tres de Marzo stadium. Norman Whiteside gave Northern Ireland a dream start with a deflected goal after 6 minutes. Djamel Zidane scored a fortuitous equaliser on the hour mark to give the African side a share of the spoils.

The second game against Spain was a rematch of the famous night in the previous World Cup whereby Northern Ireland had defeated the host nation as a result of a Gerry Armstrong strike.

The first half of the 1986 version could not have been more different for Northern Ireland. They found themselves 2-0 down after only 18 minutes, Real Madrid star Emilio Butragueño opened the scoring in the second minute.

Northern Ireland rallied well and were rewarded when Colin Clarke pulled a goal back early in the second half. Despite regular pressure on the Spanish goal, the Irish team could not find the equaliser, and after two games were still looking for their first victory.

The green and white army still had a slim chance of qualifying from the group – Northern Ireland had to beat Brazil and hope that Algeria could draw with or possibly defeat Spain. Thursday June 12, 1986 was the date of the final game for Northern Ireland, and for the goalkeeper Pat Jennings from Newry, it was a very special day. The big Arsenal ‘keeper celebrated his 41st birthday and also won a world record 119th international cap.

The game started at a hectic pace in Guadalajara’s Jalisco stadium, and the Irish were finding the going tough – especially with the blazing midday sun bearing down on them. It was no surprise when Careca gave Brazil the lead after 18 minutes.

The lead was doubled by a quite spectacular goal by the attacking full back Josimar on the stroke of half-time, rated as one of the finest ever World Cup goals by many observers; and with a shot that gave the 'keeper Jennings no chance.

The second half saw Northern Ireland try valiantly with a few shots on target, but in the end Careca’s second goal just before the end gave the scoreline a flattering look. To lose by three goals to a quality outfit such as Brazil was no disgrace, and many positives were taken from the World Cup experience.

Norman Whiteside was arguably the best Northern Ireland player on view, and didn’t look out of place with the illustrious company he was keeping. Alan McDonald was impressive in defence, and due to his outstanding performances in the World Cup, he became the international team captain soon afterwards.

Colin Clarke scored a nice goal against Spain, and also acquitted himself well in the other games. Ultimately the heat affected many key players, as was the case with most of the Northern European teams; and for some such as Gerry Armstrong and Sammy McIllroy, it was to be their last sojourn with the squad after many fine years of service.

The tournament itself was a success in terms of excitement and open flowing football. Diego Maradona received the ‘Golden Ball’ award from FIFA for being considered the most valuable player on view – and who could argue with this assessment given his impact on leading Argentina to the trophy almost single-handedly.

Despite the controversial ‘hand of god’ goal, his performances illuminated the entire tournament, none more so than his goals against Belgium in the semi-final.

An interesting statistic gleamed from the annals of the tournament was that three Irish League clubs were represented; namely Jim Platt of Coleraine and Mark Caughey from Linfield; and the Glentoran defender Terry Moore who represented Canada. This was an impressive representation from the local game at the foremost international football tournament.