Conor Heffernan continues our journey into the history of football in Ireland. This week we remember Northern Ireland’s venture into the 1986 World Cup.
1986 was a fine vintage for Irish football both North and South of the border. Jackie Charlton was appointed Republic of Ireland manager and was about to herald in a new era of success for the Republic.
North of the border, Northern Ireland fans were watching in anticipation as Norn Iron were appearing in their third ever World Cup at the games in México. They had shocked the world in ’58, they had shocked the world in ’82…how would the Green and White army fair in ’86?
Hopes were high in 1986 that Billy Bingham’s men could repeat the heroics of ’82 when they reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup and there was no reason why such optimism was misplaced. Northern Ireland had emerged from a qualifying group containing the likes of England, Turkey and Romania.
Northern Ireland has displayed a tenacity and appetite encouraging to all those who watched her. México would be a different story however. It’s one thing to play England in the Irish climate, it’s quite another to face off against a team under the blazing Mexican sun. Northern Ireland needed time to acclimatize to the heat and manager Billy Bingham knew what to do.
Weeks before the Games began in México, Bingham and his men flew to the US, namely Albuquerque, where the players and coaches would get a taste of what the sun actually is. Northern Ireland would need to adapt to such conditions as they had arguably the toughest group in the entire tournament. The Group read as follows, Brazil, Spain, Algeria and our men from Northern Ireland. Brazil and Spain in one group? Fortune wasn’t smiling on Bingham’s men.
Coupled with a tough group Bingham had to deal with the retirement of his captain Martin O’Neill and the lagging fitness of some of the heros from Spain ’82. First up would be Algeria, a game Bingham knew Northern Ireland had to win should they have any chance of progressing to the next round.
Beating Algeria would be no easy task. Algeria were themselves in the midst of a golden generation and had even defeated West Germany in the 1982 World Cup. Underestimate them at your peril.
On June 3rd both teams lined out in the Tres de Marzo stadium. 22,000 fans turned out to see the athletes battle it out under the unforgiving Guadalajara sun. Could Northern Ireland snatch a desperately needed victory? Or would Algeria spoil the party? Six minutes into the match it appeared as if Bingham’s men were on their way when Norman Whiteside gave Northern Ireland the lead with a deflected goal. Fans of the Green and White were anxious for Northern Ireland to build on the dream start…to put the game beyond doubt lest Algeria rally.
Sadly Bingham’s men couldn’t capitalize and after sixty minutes, Djamel Zidane scored a fortuitous equaliser to give the Africans a share of the spoils. The next thirty minutes saw both teams press for a winner but neither side could find a way.
Ninety minutes…the referee blew his whistle. Final score. Northern Ireland 1 – Algeria 1. It was a decent result for Bingham’s men but it meant they needed to secure a victory against Spain or Brazil to progress.
How difficult could it be to beat Spain? Northern Ireland had defeated them in ’82 after all when Spain were the host nation. Surely the Spaniards would be fearful of another Gerry Armstrong wonderstrike? Spain however had been biding her time for revenge against Bingham’s men. The Spaniards were ruthless, taking no prisoners and leaving no doubts about their quality.
After just two minutes, Emilio Butragueño, the Real Madrid superstar put La Roja one nil up. After eighteen minutes Julio Salinas, the lanky Spanish centre forward doubled Spain’s lead. Northern Ireland went into half time two-nil down and lucky not to be losing by more. The 28,000 fans inside Tres de Marzo stadium didn’t hold out much hope for Norn Iron.
At half time Bingham implored his men to remember the spirit of ’82. To remember that the Spanish were mere mortals and that they, Northern Ireland were capable of beating anyone. Imbued with a sense of pride, Northern Ireland came into the second half fighting. Minutes into the second half, Southampton centre forward Colin Clarke pulled one back for Northern Ireland. Now we had a game on our hands.
The Spanish were shocked. How dare Northern Ireland not lay down and die!
The second half saw wave after wave of Northern Irish attacks on the Spanish goal. Players desperately threw themselves forward, searching for that all elusive equaliser. The Spaniards held on however. Northern Ireland lost two – one. They had yet to win a match and went into their final game against Brazil needing a victory…a Brazil team containing Socrates and Zico. Oh dear.
Never write off the Green and White army however. They had a slim chance of qualifying from the group and that’s all they needed. Northern Ireland had to beat Brazil and pray that Algeria could draw with or even defeat the Spanish. June 12th 1986 was the day. It was a special date for Northern Ireland goalie Pat Jennings who celebrated his 41st birthday and also his 119th international cap. Would the birthday boy have a day to remember? Would the Irish shock Brazil?
Guadalajara’s Jalisco stadium was the venue. 51,000 fans were in attendance. They were not disappointed. The game kicked off at a frantic pace. Brazil were keen to impose themselves early on and Bingham’s men were struggling. The Alberqueque sun was no comparison to the blazing Guadalajara heat. After eighteen minutes, Careca put Brazil one nil up. Brazil fans celebrated. Irish fans stood silent. Would Bingham’s men recover?
No. Three minutes before half time, Brazilian full back Josimar put Brazil two-nil up with what is considered as one of the finest World Cup goals of all time. It was a goal worthy of winning a tournament, never mind a group match.
That was no consolation for Norn Iron fans however, who saw their dream of progressing through to the next round slowly slip away. Bingham brought his men in at half time and once more tried to salvage something from the match. They were playing for pride now.
The second half saw a different Northern Ireland emerge, more dynamic, more attacking and sadly more vulnerable. Northern Ireland notched a few shots on target but to no avail. Three minutes before full time Careca put Brazil three-nil up with his second of the match. When the referee’s whistle blew, Northern Ireland had been eliminated from the World Cup.
To come third in a group containing Spain and Brazil is no disgrace and the Irish had fought valiantly throughout the tournament. Yet as fans from the North watched on in a tournament soon to be remembered by the ‘Hand of God’, a twinge of regret surely caught in their throats. Bingham’s men had shocked the World in ’82. They had been brought back down to earth in ’86.
Join us next week when we examine Euro 1988. It would see the Republic of Ireland’s first ever appearance in a tournament and the beginning of a slow decline in Northern Irish football. Northern Ireland failed to make the games and Jackie Charlton’s men shocked England with a one nil victory in Stuttgart. For fans of Irish football, it’s a story you don’t want to miss.
Conor Heffernan, Pundit Arena.