An excited Martin O’Neill dashed to tell his Northern Ireland teammates Sweden were beating Portugal.
The game would have huge consequences for Billy Bingham’s squad and their attempt to qualify for the 1982 World Cup in Spain.
Northern Ireland’s qualifying campaign had threatened to turn sour after a promising start when they thrashed Sweden 3-0 and earned a credible goalless draw in Israel’s scorching heat. But one win in the following five meant the odds were against Billy Bingham’s men realising their dream.
If Portugal beat Sweden, Northern Ireland’s chances of playing in a World Cup were over. Even a draw could have been a disastrous result.
“I remember going back to the hotel and thinking Portugal are at home to Sweden tonight – we thought they’d beat them no problem,” says 63-cap Northern Ireland striker Gerry Armstrong.
“Martin O’Neill said: ‘well, you never know’. He listened to the game in his room on the radio.”
O’Neill couldn’t hide his delight when Sweden took an unexpected lead not long before half-time. But no one was going to get their hopes up. Portugal were favourites and before the interval had equalised.
The players continued with what they were doing, fully expecting Portugal to seal the game in the second half. It had been quite some time since they last heard from O’Neill. Then the extraordinary happened. Sweden scored in the last minute of the game, with an ecstatic O’Neill barely able to get his words out.
And in that dramatic moment, the scales tipped in Northern Ireland’s favour. Beat Israel at home and Bingham’s brave soldiers were through to their second-ever World Cup finals.
Northern Ireland were favourites, but they needed all their key players available and it was a real concern when Pat Jennings took a migraine the night before the game.
“I had to get the doctor at about 12.30am,” recalls Armstrong, who was sharing a room with Jennings.
Thankfully, the legendary goalkeeper made a recovery by the next morning and he was passed fit to play in one of the country’s most important games.
More than 40,000 home fans crammed into Windsor Park as Northern Ireland used the cauldron of noise inside the stadium to their advantage, with Armstrong his big-game mentality with the only goal of the night.
“It was a set-play we’d been working on for three years,” laughs Armstrong. “At the end of the match, everyone went crazy. We did three or four laps of honour. We didn’t want to go in, the fans didn’t want to go home. We just celebrated.”
It was just the start of a remarkable journey.
At that time, Northern Ireland was experiencing the full weight of the The Troubles, with acts of terror almost a daily occurrence. Qualifying for Spain ‘82 gave everyone a much-needed lift. Something to look forward to.
It had been a wonderful season for Armstrong, who’d helped propel Watford into England’s top-flight with promotion. He was always going to be one of the first names on Bingham’s team-sheet, but the manager had a couple of surprises up his sleeve.
Aged just 17 and 41 days, Norman Whiteside would break Pele’s record to become the World Cup finals’ youngest-ever player, while George Best, 35 and past his peak, was overlooked.
Although Best hadn’t made an international appearance in five years, there had been suggestions the former Manchester United hero could be used as a super-sub, but Bingham resisted pressure from fans and the media and left him at home, putting his faith in youth and exuberance.
“I remember Billy telling me Norman was just 17 but he was built like a man,” says Armstrong. “He stuck one away in the top corner past Pat and he was shocked how good he was. Billy told me he was thinking of putting him up front and playing me on the right-hand side. We tried it out in training and it worked really well.
“The one disappointment for me was that we didn’t bring Terry Cochrane because Billy wanted to bring some of the younger players through. And he didn’t bring Derek Spence, who had played most of the qualifying games.
“But the big debate was George Best. Billy went to watch him play and he didn’t pick him in the end. I think he felt it was too big of a risk because of George’s reputation. We all thought if he brought George and brought him off the bench, it would have been brilliant. For him to play in the World Cup finals would have been incredible.
“I can’t see how he wouldn’t have helped us because he was so good technically. His brain was unbelievable. Personally, I’d have loved to have had him in the squad.”
Northern Ireland were in Group Five alongside hosts Spain, Honduras and Yugoslavia. They would play the latter in the opening game in Zaragoza in front of a crowd of 25,000.
Their hard, physical training camp at the University of Sussex had paid off as they got a point. It had been 25c in England – perfect preparation for the hot weather in Spain – and everyone felt confident going into the tournament.
“Norman had held the ball up well and gave us balance,” Armstrong picks up. “I played on the right side and the defenders found it hard to pick me up. I was playing in a deeper role and getting forward when I could. They were looking at me as a midfield player, so I was coming into the box late and that’s where the goals would come from.”
While a draw with Yugoslavia was celebrated, a stalemate with Honduras wasn’t and it left Northern Ireland with a mountain to climb to get out of the group. Armstrong scored his first goal of the tournament early on, but Eduardo Laing levelled matters on the hour mark and the match ended 1-1. It meant Bingham’s boys had to beat overwhelming favourites Spain to progress in the tournament, even if the hosts had only won one game after being held by Honduras.
“Martin O’Neill told us at the pool that we were going to beat Spain 1-0,” says Armstrong.
“We knew they were going to come at us, so for the first 25 minutes we’d get behind the ball and Martin predicted once the game progressed, we’d get chances and would stick one of them away and beat them 1-0. It wasn’t part of the plan that Mal Donaghy would get sent off. But it was a special occasion.”
You could have heard a pin drop at the Estadio Luiz Casanova when Armstrong scored the most famous goal in Northern Ireland’s history. He made an interception in his own half, strode forward, switched it wide to Billy Hamilton, whose cross caused goalkeeper Luis Arconada to push it into the path of Armstrong, who smashed it home with his right foot.
For a moment, the stadium was so eerily quiet that Armstrong thought the referee had disallowed the goal.
“I was looking around to see what was happening. Norman had his arms up and so did Sammy McElroy,” he says.
“The referee blew his whistle and pointed to the halfway line. He’d given the goal. The celebrations began and we’ve been celebrating ever since.”
Northern Ireland held on in relatively comfortable fashion to top the group, even if Donaghy was harshly sent off with half an hour still to play. Not that Armstrong could join the party in the changing room after the final whistle.
“I was called in for a urine sample,” he laments. “I was weighed before the game and I was 12 stone two pounds; afterwards, I was 11 stone and four pounds. I’d lost nearly 12 pounds through dehydration – I couldn’t pee. It took me the best part of 45 minutes to get water through my system. When I was finally done, the players were in the coach waiting on me.”
The party could finally begin at the club’s base, although the players never got carried away. A few bottles of San Miguel were consumed, but nothing mad, with Austria and France awaiting in the quarter finals.
Although their unexpected success appeared to have taken some people off guard. Even some of their own officials.
“We were partying and at 2am Billy called over seven or eight senior players and he wasn’t happy,” Armstrong says.
“He said the secretary had made a mistake, they didn’t think we’d qualify and hadn’t booked a hotel for us in Madrid.
“On top of that, all our flights were booked to go back to London. That’s something a lot of people don’t know, but it’s a true story.
“Phone calls were made and flights were changed. And we took a cancellation on a hotel. Yugoslavia had planned to get through so they had booked somewhere and we took their hotel, which wasn’t great. It was right on the runway of the airport. But it was ok, we just got on with it.”
Northern Ireland scored two in their first game in Group C in the next round against Austria at Atletico Madrid’s Estadio Vincente Calderon, but it wasn’t enough to win the game as Bruno Pezzey and Reinhold Hintermaier cancelled out Hamilton’s brace.
Unfortunately, the journey was to end in heartbreak as France sealed their place in the semis with a 4-1 victory over Bingham’s side. It could have been different, however, had an early goal by O’Neill stood with the game still goalless.
“There was no VAR back then,” jokes Armstrong. “I’d helped the ball along, playing a one-two with Martin and he continued his run, so I knew he was onside. He was at least a yard or two onside. It was a bit of bad luck on our part because if that goal was given, France would never have broken us down.”
France would eventually be knocked out by West Germany 5-4 on penalties, after a 3-3 draw. But Armstrong feels Northern Ireland could have given the competition’s eventual runners-up an equal scare, as they defeated them twice – home and away – in the year following the World Cup.
“It was our best ever chance to get to a World Cup semi-final,” says Armstrong. “The Germans wouldn’t have relished playing against us because no one did.
“We were a really difficult team. Billy had us so well organised. We had a great defensive back four: Donaghy was so quick and such a good header of the ball; Nicholl was technically brilliant and read the game so well; John McClelland was really quick and Chris Nicholl won everything. And in Pat Jennings we had the world’s best goalkeeper.”
It wasn’t meant to be. But the players were welcomed home to huge fanfare.
The island of Ireland had been cheering them on and this was demonstrated by the players received telegrams from Rev Ian Paisley and the Irish Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, after the Spanish victory.
Even today, Armstrong still has the congratulatory telegram that Watford chairman Elton John sent him.
“I’d take a couple of coins and make a phone call home to the family,” adds. Armstrong. “I’d give the news to the boys and explain everyone was having street parties all over Northern Ireland and Ireland. Everyone down south was supporting Northern Ireland.”
The players couldn’t quite grasp the impact their exploits were having on an island engulfed by war. Armstrong smiles when recalling that Whiteside’s mother, from the predominantly loyalist area of the Shankill Road, was invited to the largely republican area of the Falls Road for tea at the Armstrong household.
“We didn’t realise at the time, but we bonded the country together. You couldn’t write the script for it. We were just wrapped up in playing for our country and doing the best we could.”
No civic reception had been arranged for their homecoming, again simply because no one had envisioned Northern Ireland making it that far in the tournament. So the open-top bus ride through Belfast wasn’t held until November.
By that time Armstrong was on crutches after breaking his ankle while playing for Watford. Nothing was going to dampen his mood, though. This was his moment to celebrate and reflect on a truly magnificent achievement. To drink it all in. Something that wouldn’t have been possible without Sweden’s victory over Portugal.
This story was originally published in the Tyrone Constitution in April 2020.