It’s not every day you get to write yourself into football folklore, but on 25 June 1982 that’s exactly what Gerry Armstrong, the Watford striker, playing in the World Cup for Northern Ireland, did.
Northern Ireland had qualified for the World Cup in Spain, their first since 1958, when they beat Israel at Windsor Park in mid-November 1981. Scotland had already qualified from their qualifying group, but the Irish were making heavy work in trying to shake off Sweden and Portugal. They started the last game of the group a point behind Sweden, knowing a draw would be good enough to go through.
Israel had only won once in the group, a 4-1 win over Portugal, so Billy Bingham’s men were confident of a result. Just before the half hour mark they won a free kick wide on the right. Jimmy Nicholl sent the ball high into the Israelis box, Billy Hamilton knocked the ball down for Armstrong to shoot home the only goal and send the Green and White Army dancing into the Belfast night.
The finals draw in Madrid placed Bingham’s men in Group 5 with fancied Yugoslavia, first-timers Honduras, and a glamour match with host nation Spain. They would play their first two games in Zaragoza before going South to play the Spaniards.
The Irish played out a goalless stalemate with Yugoslavia, a game notable for Norman Whiteside being the youngest player to play in a World Cup finals, aged 17 years, one month and ten days. Then when Spain beat Yugoslavia, the pressure was on when they faced the unknown. Honduras had surprised Spain in the groups opening fixture, scoring early and having a shock win snatched away, giving away a penalty five minutes from time.
This time Honduras conceded early, much to the delight of the Irish fans. A free kick was only partially cleared, and after a series of pinball between Irish heads and the Honduran crossbar, Armstrong couldn’t miss from a yard out and duly put his side ahead after 10 minutes.
The low attendance of under 16,000 then saw the minnows come back into the game, hitting the woodwork themselves before just after half time they caught the Ireland defence napping with a near post corner and the substitute Eduardo Laing headed the equaliser with his first touch.
Two draws, one goal, and the hosts to come. It was looking like an early exit for the brave and battled Irish. Their hopes faded further when Yugoslavia finally got the better of Honduras. An 88th minute penalty by Vladimir Petrovic knocked sent Honduras home, and had the Yugoslavs sitting nicely placed to go through on three points.
Spain topped the group and knew that a win or draw would secure top spot. Northern Ireland simply had to win, or at least be involved in a high scoring draw to have any chance of advancing.
Just under 50,000 were packed into the Estadio Luis Casanova, a real case of into the lions’ den. After a first half with no goals the game swung into life shortly after the restart. Armstrong picked up the ball deep inside his own half and made an unchallenged 40-yard run, slipping the ball to his right to the ever-willing Hamilton.
The Burnley man advanced down the wing and was level with the edge of the box when he swung his cross over into the danger area. Luis Arconada, the Spanish keeper was normally sure handed but, on this occasion, spilled the ball in the centre of the box. Armstrong had continued his run and was on hand to drill the ball hard and low under the ‘keeper to pit Northern Ireland 1-0 up.
The crowd was stunned as Armstrong wheeled away only to be mobbed by exuberant teammates. From being 45 minutes away to the next flight home, Armstrong had fired his team to the top of the group.
Bingham had set his team up not to lose the game and maybe sneak a goal from a set piece or counter attack. Armstrong was playing a holding role in from of right back Jimmy Nicholl. It was a loose Gordillo ball that he seized upon to make his move forward:
“Xabi Alonso’s father, Miguel Alonso tried to kick me to stop me, but I kept going. Billy did fantastically well, he got past Tendillo and out in a fantastic cross that tempted the ‘keeper. He came out and made the mistake. I thought ‘keep it hard and low and hit it hard’ and that’s what I did.” Armstrong later recalled.
Never ones for making life easy they were reduced to ten men just after the hour when Mal Donaghy was sent off for pushing Camacho, it seemed a very harsh decision, but the Paraguayan referee showed no hesitation in his decision. Now they would be up against it, a host nation longing for success on the world stage were being put to task, and despite throwing endless high balls into the box, Pat Jennings, arguably the best goalkeeper in the world kept a clean sheet.
Northern Ireland had beaten Spain and finished top of the group. It was nothing short of amazing.
“Without a shadow of doubt it was the best moment of my career. To play in the World Cup finals, knowing you have to win and you’re playing against the host nation, you do it against all the odds, and down to ten men. You couldn’t write the script for it,” said Armstrong.
Northern Irelands fairy tale adventure ended in the second round group phase, Hamilton scoring twice in a 2-2 draw with Austria which set up a winner goes through match against France. Armstrong scored again but this time it was a consolation goal as the French ran out comfortable winners 4-1.
Armstrong was part of a very special team, at a very special time: “That team went on to qualify for the 1986 World Cup as well. We went almost six years undefeated at Windsor Park – we were a real force to be reckoned with.”
Gary Jordan is the author of 'Out of the Shadows: the Story of the 1982 England World Cup Team' published by Pitch Publishing. You can follow him on Twitter at @gazjor1.