Home Uncategorized “When Yer Man Gets the Ball”: Northern Ireland & The 1982 World Cup

“When Yer Man Gets the Ball”: Northern Ireland & The 1982 World Cup

“The purpose of our lives is to be happy.” – Dalai Lama

The time has come ladies and gentlemen. What time? The time to rejoice! Having looked last week at the few paltry victories in Irish football from the 1960s to 1980s, it’s time now to move to happier pastures.

Our series into the history of Irish football is now entering the golden age of Irish soccer. Today we look at the exploits of Billy Bingham’s men at the 1982 World Cup, a definitive moment in Northern Irish football and one that still provides joy to fans of the Green and White Army.

The 1982 World Cup is fondly remembered as the tournament in which Paolo Rossi resurrected his career with six goals at the games, Hungary beat El Salvador 10-1 and Maradona participated in his first World Cup. None of these things compared however to a goal scored by Gerry Armstrong on June 25th 1982 for Northern Ireland. But before we get ahead of ourselves, how did ‘Norn Iron’ reach the Tournament in the first place after decades of trying?

Readers of this series will remember that Northern Ireland first reached the World Cup in 1958 when they shocked football fans around the globe by reaching the Quarter Finals. Following ’58 Irish fans were hopeful of a period of success yet despite containing a team with the likes of George Best, Pat Jennings and Pat Rice during the ‘60s and ‘70s; Northern Ireland failed to qualify for another major tournament.

Fortune favours the patient however. Prior to qualification for the tournament, FIFA announced that 24 rather than 16 teams would qualify for the World Cup. The idea was to allow more teams from regions such as Asia and Africa to compete at the games, but the decision also had implications for teams like Northern Ireland. It gave them a much better chance to qualify for the games.

Would Northern Ireland seize this opportunity? The Northern Irish Manager at the time Billy Bingham, known for his tenacity as a player, made sure his side fought with everything they had to qualify. As a young 19-year-old Bingham had been part of the Northern Ireland ’58 World Cup Squad. He knew what tournament football was, and he knew how much it meant to fans of the Green and White.

Qualification was more open thanks to the new FIFA ruling but it was no less difficult. Northern Ireland was placed in a qualifying group with the likes of Portugal, Sweden and Scotland. People didn’t hold out much hope. Well, people outside of Northern Ireland that is.

Victories over Sweden and Portugal during qualification quickly showed that this time Northern Ireland was a serious contender. Northern Ireland went into the final qualifying match against Israel needing only a draw to qualify for the World Cup in Spain. Tensions were high but so were expectations. Twenty seven minutes on the board saw Gerry Armstrong score the only goal of the game to put Northern Ireland through to its first World Cup since 1958.

The small nation rejoiced. Billy Bingham was elated and Dana released a World Cup song in celebration.

It was a time of joy and optimism. England, Scotland and Northern Ireland had all qualified for the games. The Republic of Ireland had missed out on goal difference but had displayed a potential soon to be realised. Fans of Irish football would once more content themselves with cheering on Northern Ireland at a World Cup. Northern Ireland would thankfully not disappoint.

Fans from around the world held their breath for the World Cup draw. Which team would be placed into the ‘Group of Death’? Who would have an easy group? Such questions plagued the minds of supporters.

Thankfully the draw itself provided some light entertainment. In a series of mishaps during the draw for the World Cup, Peru and Chile’s balls were left out the pot completely, Scotland were placed into the pot meant for Argentina and the container holding the balls jammed. One ball even fell out of the pot and split in half. Once order was restored Northern Ireland had been placed into a group with Honduras, Yugoslavia and the hosts, Spain. It would be tough but Billy Bingham’s men were ready for the challenge.

The 17th of June was the date of Northern Ireland’s first game against a highly fancied Yugoslavian team captained by Ivica Šurjak, a man who epitomised total football. Yet a Northern Ireland team containing Pat Jennings, Martin O’Neill and Gerry Armstrong would be a match for anyone.

25,000 fans packed into La Romareda Stadium to see the match. There they saw Yugoslavia and Northern Ireland battle it out for ninety minutes, with neither team wanting to give up a goal. The game ended 0–0 and was perhaps most notable for the début of Northern Ireland’s Norman Whiteside, who at 17 years,one month and ten days, became the youngest player ever to feature in a World Cup, a record that still stands.

Northern Irish fans were happy with the result. It wasn’t a win but it was a good performance against a strong side. Irish fans were confident that the next match against Honduras would provide a much needed win.

How wrong they were. Honduras was in many ways that year’s surprise package, having drawn with Spain in the opening match of the group. Billy Bingham’s men weren’t complacent by any manner of means but when Gerry Armstrong scored after ten minutes, Irish fans expected to walk over Honduras.

Yet displaying the tenacity that saw them draw with Spain in their previous match, Honduras rallied and after sixty minutes, Eduardo Laing equalised having only been on the pitch two minutes. Bingham’s men probed desperately for a winner but Honduras held on. Ninety minutes blew and Northern Ireland had drawn again. She was by no means out of the tournament but she would be heading into her final game against the hosts, Spain, needing a result.

25th of June 1982. Northern Ireland versus Spain. Over 40,000 fans squeezed into Luis Casanova Stadium to see the little team from Ireland take on the Spanish giants. Northern Ireland had a chance at qualification for the next round provided they won. Spain’s route to the next round looked more certain but La Roja would still be looking for a win.

Being a host nation comes with an obligation to one’s nation to fight in every match. Spain took this obligation extremely seriously. Forty-seven minutes into the match something happened, something that still remains etched in Northern Irish sporting history.

A relatively harmless cross by the young Norman Whiteside was floated into the Spanish penalty box. It seemed a standard enough situation and whether luck favoured the Irish or the stars had aligned we know not. Spain’s goalkeeper and captain Luis Arconada made a mistake. He parried the ball to Gerry Armstrong, Northern Ireland’s poacher and striker extraordinaire.

Armstrong did what every fibre in his body screamed at him to do. He put the ball in the back of the Spanish net.


A hush fell over the Spanish fans. A delirious ecstasy overtook Irish supporters. Northern Ireland was one nil up and on their way through the group.

The game was not yet finished. After 62 minutes Mal Donaghy, then of Luton Town, was sent off for Northern Ireland. She was down to ten men against a host nation who sensed blood. Bingham’s men knew what was at stake and sought to weather the storm as best they could.

When ninety minutes were up, the final score read Northern Ireland 1 – Spain 0. It remains one of the greatest upsets in World Cup history and one of the greatest moments in Irish football.

Northern Ireland had made it to the Second Round of the World Cup. This time the team from Ireland was placed in a group with Austria and France. Only one team could progress to the Semi-Finals. It was a much tougher proposition but the Irish were confident.

A 2-2 draw with Austria in the first game fueled Northern Ireland’s confidence in progressing. France stood in the way of Northern Ireland’s first ever semi-final appearance at a World Cup. Easier said than done as the mercurial Michel Platini, then at the height of his powers, captained this French team.

After 33 minutes, Alain Giresse put France ahead. Northern Ireland still pressed on. 46 minutes saw Dominique Rocheteau double France’s lead. The Semi-Finals were slipping from the North’s grasp but still she fought on. Rocheteau notched a second after 68 minutes to put France 3-0 up. Now Northern Ireland was playing for pride and it was none other than Gerry Armstrong who salvaged Northern pride when he scored after 78 minutes.

The game was to end France 4 – Northern Ireland 1 but the result was secondary for Irish fans. They had shocked the world in beating Spain, had fought hard against France and had shown a style of play that had done their supporters proud.

Northern Ireland’s ’82 exploits are fondly remembered by Irish fans North and South of the border. It was a time of great joy for fans of Irish football and the Green and White army rarely disappointed its fans. Yes Northern Ireland hadn’t beaten France but they had gone further than anyone thought they could. That in itself is an achievement. Gerry Armstrong’s goal against Spain is still remembered as one of the greatest moments in World Cup history. Dana had been proven right:

“When yer man gets the ball, Northern Ireland has it all.”

Irish football North and South was about to flourish. A man by the name of Jack Charlton was soon to take over the Republic and Billy Bingham’s men were to qualify once more for a World Cup.

But that is a story for another day. For now, let us simply reminisce over Gerry Armstrong’s wondergoal once more.

Conor Heffernan, Pundit Arena.

Featured Image By “Interior de La Romareda” by Ibon – originally posted to Flickr as [1]. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Interior_de_La_Romareda.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Interior_de_La_Romareda.jpg.

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