Relive Gerry Armstrong’s Northern Ireland winner who united Belfast in The Troubles

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As a showcase of sport’s mystical powers of unity, perhaps Barry McGuigan’s world title triumph three years later transcended unrest to the same degree.

But exactly 40 years ago, Saturday’s Gerry Armstrong winner for Northern Ireland against World Cup hosts Spain in a cauldron in Valencia sparked street parties across Belfast. In short, it even left Billy Bingham’s heroes homeless. Nobody gave them a prayer to progress beyond the group stage and they had been booked on the next flight home.

And no one had expected a civic reception as Northern Ireland were simply not expected to reach the same stage of the tournament as Zico’s Brazil, Diego Maradona’s Argentina and Ron Greenwood’s England. By the time Armstrong waved to the crowds from the team’s open-top bus parade through the streets of Belfast, it was November and he was on crutches after breaking his ankle on Watford’s maiden trip to the ‘elite.

In a poignant anniversary reunion at the city’s Europa Hotel, Northern Ireland’s Class of 1982 will gather and raise a glass to Bingham, the field general who plotted a miracle.

Bingham died earlier this month aged 90, and Armstrong – now a leading pundit and TV co-commentator – said: ‘It will be a moving and memorable evening. Our World Cup adventure simply wouldn’t have been possible without him and we’ll raise our glasses to Billy, that’s for sure.

“We rightly had no chance of sending the hosts away at their own World Cup party. It was such a hot and humid night and I lost about 12 pounds – almost 10% of my body weight – just from pure sweat.

Armstrong missed the first hour of post-match euphoria with his teammates as he was selected for doping control formalities and, by the time his system was hydrated enough to provide a sample, they were waiting for him on the bus . At around 2 a.m., while his players were still fueling up, Bingham discovered that the Heroes of Northern Ireland – now the toast of the predominantly loyalist and largely Republican Falls Road Shankill Road – had nowhere to go. where to stay ahead of their second-phase matches with Austria and France in Madrid.



Billy Bingham celebrates Northern Ireland’s stunning win over Spain

Eventually, after a late-night SOS to the travel agents, they took over the accommodation booked by Yugoslavia, who expected to qualify from the group with Spain, in a hotel so close to the airport that he was almost on the track. A 2-2 draw with Austria and a tough 4-1 loss to France sent them home, but Bingham’s side remain the touchstone of provincial football’s challenge.

Armstrong, now 68, still has the congratulatory telegram from Watford chairman Sir Elton John and eight weeks later would score the Hornets’ first-ever goal in the penthouse of English football, paving the way for a victory 2-0 against Everton.

England returned from Spain unbeaten after conceding just one goal in five games, but Bingham’s braves were even more celebrated for their disregard for mountainous odds. Their team included 17-year-old Norman Whiteside, whose raw talent replaced the turmoil surrounding 35-year-old George Best’s exclusion from the squad.

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Armstrong said, “We probably didn’t realize it at the time, but we brought whole communities together. I tried to keep a handful of coins to phone the family, who kept me informed of what was happening at home. I’d pass on the latest news to the boys and tell them, ‘There’s street parties all over Northern Ireland, guys, they’re proud of us. And the people from the south supported us too.

“It was an incredible time and a fantastic chapter in our history. To have nearly every player under one roof 40 years later – including the great Pat Jennings, John McClelland, Martin O’Neill, Mal Donaghy, Jimmy Nicholl and Billy Hamilton – will be so special.

“One or two of the boys from that 1982 squad are struggling a bit now so we’ll be raising money for Dementia Northern Ireland as well.”

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