Gerry Armstrong knows a thing or two about upsetting the odds at a major tournament.
By scoring for Northern Ireland against Spain at the 1982 World Cup he secured arguably the most famous victory in the country’s history. So when Armstrong talks of parallels between the squad Michael O’Neill has taken to Euro 2016 and the ones he was part of during Northern Ireland’s golden era, it is worth listening.
Armstrong’s goal in Valencia, famously driven through the legs of Spain’s goalkeeper Luis Arconada, meant the team finished top of their group. Four years later Northern Ireland were back on the grandest stage, at the World Cup in Mexico. Although they failed to make it beyond the opening round there, Armstrong believes O’Neill’s team are capable of reaching the knockout stages in France, their first major tournament since then.
The former striker from west Belfast says the team spirit O’Neill has inculcated in the squad is similar to the one under Billy Bingham when qualification was achieved for those two World Cup tournaments.
“Michael has put a bit steel into the squad, making them very hard to break down,” says Armstrong. “They seem to have the same spirit of togetherness and unity that we had in Spain and later Mexico. He has them solid at the back the way Billy Bingham had with us. With that kind of spirit I think we have a real chance to make it out of the qualifying stages, I really do.”
Nigel Worthington, a member of the 1986 side, is pleased as a former defender that O’Neill has toughened up the side at the back. He, too, sees healthy similarities between then and now as Northern Ireland prepare to open their Euro 2016 campaign against Poland in Nice on Sunday.
“Just like we were when we played the great sides of ’82 and ’86, against France and Brazil, Michael has got the lads back up playing among European football’s elite again,” says Worthington, a former Northern Ireland captain and manager between 2007-11. “It reminds me of those days in the 1980s which never really leave you – they are there in your mind forever.”
He describes 1986 as a “fantastic experience”, even though it ended in a 3-0 defeat by Brazil in which he played no part. The 54-year-old believes solid performances by O’Neill’s team against Switzerland and against Ukraine on Thursday will be key. “Trying to keep a clean sheet in the opening two games would be very important before we face the Germans again,” Worthington says.
Coming up against Germany brings back memories too, albeit of a more painful variety. Northern Ireland, with Armstrong in their ranks, almost made it to France for the European Championship finals 32 years ago but missed out on goal difference despite defeating West Germany home and away in their qualifying group.
“It was the days when there was only two points for a win and I think in the end that’s what did us in,” says Armstrong, now a television pundit. “Now we would have been rewarded with an extra two points for those two wins against the Germans and would go through.
“To beat the West Germans both at Windsor Park and over there, and then not qualify was galling. I think I remember we drew away in one of our matches in Albania and that was the clincher; we just missed out. It was bitterly disappointing not to get to France after all we had done against the Germans. So for me it means a lot to be over in France covering the Northern Ireland matches for the BBC. We got there in the end despite the disappointment of ’84.”
A regular attender at Northern Ireland home games as a commentator, Armstrong has recognised a seismic shift in the atmosphere at Windsor Park.
“Not only do we have a beautiful newly rebuilt stadium but I have seen how the entire feel around the ground has been transformed,” he says. “When you think back to the toxic days when a section of the crowd booed first Anton Rogan and later Neil Lennon [both Ulster Catholics and Glasgow Celtic players] alongside the general sectarian chanting that went on, these days it is a completely different place.”
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