“It was agonisingly close to going our way,” said Billy Bingham of Northern Ireland’s Euro 1984 qualifying campaign. “We must still be proud of what we achieved. We have beaten the Germans twice and only gone out of a five-nation group on goal difference to the champions.”
The champions he referred to were West Germany, winners of the 1980 European Championship, and beaten finalists in the World Cup of 1982. They were the seeded team in Northern Ireland’s qualifying group for the 1984 European Championship, to be played, like the upcoming tournament, in France.
Bingham’s men also had to contend with a strong Austrian team, still enjoying the dying embers of a decent side in the late 1970s/early 1980s. The group was rounded out with two, at the time, weaker nations in Turkey and Albania. But both would have a significant say in how he group played out.
The current crop of Northern Irishmen have given themselves a real chance of reaching the latest Euro finals next summer, aided in some part by the expansion of the European Championship finals to a whopping twenty-four teams.
This has allowed many middle-ranking countries to harbour realistic dreams of making it all the way to the finals in France. Across the continent, teams like Wales, Iceland and Albania, along with Northern Ireland have upped their game to the extent that qualification is a real prospect.
But back in 1982, when the qualifying process for Euro 84 began, things were decidedly trickier. Only seven qualifying teams would join hosts France in the finals. Chances for anyone outside the elite were slim.
And yet the relative minnows of Northern Ireland were regularly punching well above their weight in those halcyon days.
Having made it to the World Cup in 1982, Northern Ireland had shocked the world, and themselves, by making it past the first group stage. Their 1-0 win over hosts Spain, achieved in spite of having defender Mal Donaghy sent off with half an hour still to play, was the stuff of legend. They reached a second round group where they lost out to France having drawn 2-2 with Austria.
Theirs was a squad brimming with confidence and no little talent. There was the goal scoring hero from the win over Spain, Gerry Armstrong, plus the likes of Martin O’Neill, Jimmy Nicholl, Sammy McIlroy, Billy Hamilton and the youthful Norman Whiteside. They were backed up by the legendary Pat Jennings in goal. It was, to borrow an over-used modern phrase, Northern Ireland’s golden generation.
When the first qualifier came around though, a re-match with their World Cup opponents Austria in Vienna in October 1982, the thirty-seven year-old Jennings was being kept out of his club side, Arsenal, by George Wood.
In view of this, the national manager Billy Bingham decided to select Jim Platt, who was at least playing regularly for Middlesbrough. It was a decision that would lead to a degree of criticism when many observers felt Platt was in part responsible for a 2-0 defeat in that opening match.
A more positive outcome from the Austria match was the performance of debutant Ian Stewart who had performed well on the wing, causing repeated problems for the Austrians. He kept his place for the next match a month later when the action turned to Windsor Park in Belfast, as did Platt in goal. If the campaign was to get quickly back on track then a result was vital for the home side.
The visitors? None other than West Germany; a team boasting the talents of players like Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Pierre Littbarski, Harald Schumacher, Bernd Schuster and many more besides. This match would also feature a young Lothar Matthaus and a debut for Rudi Voller.
This would be West Germany’s opening match of the group, but even by this early stage, with Austria well clear at the top of the group with three wins from three matches, it was an important fixture for both teams.
And yet in a match that would go down in Windsor Park folklore, it was the “furious devils in green shirts”, as Clive White memorably described the Irish in The Times, who took the game to their illustrious visitors.
Fielding a positive formation with two wingers, including Ian Stewart, the Irish set about the West Germans with a vigour and verve that clearly rattled them from the off. In a frenetic opening, John O’Neill hit the post after only six minutes, and then just ten minutes later, with the match still in its opening throws, came the moment Northern Ireland would savour for many a year.
Stewart cut in from the left wing and, as he approached the edge of the German penalty area, unleashed a fierce shot that beat Harald Schumacher all ends up. He wheeled away in delirious delight, as all around him the Windsor Park crowd erupted in unbridled, and unexpected, celebration.
All of West Germany’s much-vaunted stars failed to muster a significant response, although Platt was tested a few times, notably from Littbarski. The one time Platt was beaten, the offside flag came to Northern Ireland’s rescue. Platt’s goal would remain intact to the end. Northern Ireland had their astonishing victory.
“That was one of our best performances in years,” noted Bingham afterwards, “possibly surpassing last summer’s victory over Spain in Valencia.” High praise indeed.
While the shockwaves inflicted by this victory may not have been quite on the scale of those after the World Cup win over Spain, due to the circumstances of that match, it was in fact a win against an even higher calibre opponent.
The same starting eleven took to the field in Tirana four weeks later to take on Albania; the group’s supposed whipping boys. That supposition was not without foundation though. Albania had lost their previous nine European Championship and World Cup qualifiers.
They would only pick up two points in this group, but one of them came on this December day in 1982, as Northern Ireland were unable to break down a stubborn home defence. In fact it was Albania ho perhaps came closest to a victory, although Platt in the end secured a second successive clean-sheet to at least come away with a point.
But with Austria still topping the table and West Germany, bottom of the group having only played once, surely bound to pick up plenty of points, the frustration of a dropped point coming so soon on the back of that famous win over the Germans was frustrating to say the least.
At the end of 1982, the group table had this rather lopsided look:
|1.||Austria||Pl. 3||Pts. 6|
By the following spring, after the Irish had secured narrow home wins over Turkey and Albania, 2-1 and 1-0 respectively, the group had settled into a more expected scenario, with Austria ahead of Northern Ireland on goal difference, with West Germany two points behind.
Gerry Armstrong had returned for the Turkey match and Pat Jennings, back in favour at Arsenal, was also back in the team when Albania visited Belfast. Both teams had managed to frustrate the Irish, significantly preventing Northern Ireland from building a healthy goal difference.
They were stiflingly strong at the back, conceding few goals throughout the campaign, but the lack of goals up front was in contrast to the Germans and Austrians who were scoring far more freely.
Even after Austria had been summarily and superbly dismissed in a fine 3-1 win in Belfast in September 1983 – in Pat Jennings’ 100th appearance for his national team – and with the teams level on points at the top of the table again, Austria’s goal difference remained seven goals superior to Northern Ireland’s.
Goals on that day from Hamilton, Whiteside and O’Neill ensured that Jennings’ centenary celebration was a memorable one, and that qualification was still a realistic dream, though the ominous presence of West Germany lurked in the background – four points behind but with two games in hand.
Table after the win over Austria:
|1.||Austria||Pl. 6||Pts. 9|
The penultimate match for the men in green was the trip to Turkey. With a visit to West Germany waiting in their final fixture, if there was to be a realistic chance of qualifying, surely a win in Turkey was paramount.
But missing the influential Gerry Armstrong, Northern Ireland picked a bad day to put in their worst performance of the campaign, and were lacklustre throughout. Turkey took the lead early on and were good value for their 1-0 win.
As with the draw in Albania, it seemed that dropped points against the weakest in the group had put paid to the Irish hopes. When West Germany subsequently thrashed the Turks 5-1 it seemed the end was nigh.
Three teams sat atop the group, tied on nine points when Northern Ireland travelled to Hamburg to play West Germany at the Volksparkstadion. The points parity was tempered by the fact that West Germany had two games remaining, to Northern Ireland’s and Austria’s one; their last fixture being a home clash with Albania.
Their goal difference was superior too – vastly better than Northern Ireland’s. Surely the group was as good as over?
|1.||West Germany||Pl. 6||Pts. 9||GD +10|
|3.||Northern Ireland||7||9||GD +2|
Even were Northern Ireland to win in Hamburg, they would still require West Germany to fail to beat Albania four days later, given the disparity in goal difference. Austria could have thrown an additional spanner in the works, but their campaign, so imperious and victorious in the early matches, had stumbled and fallen.
A defeat in Turkey hours before the big clash in Hamburg meant they had ended with three straight losses and were out.
To make the job that much harder for the Irish, they would be without the injured Sammy McIlroy and David McCreery, though Armstrong was back, winning his 50th cap, and Jennings would be as reassuring as ever as the last line of defence.
With a couple of inexperienced players too, the fact that Northern Ireland settled well and began to frustrate their much vaunted opponents was remarkable.
The score was still level at the break before the eighteen year-old Norman Whiteside struck the decisive blow. After Stewart’s effort, following a delightful run down the left, had been stopped by Schumacher, Whiteside fired home the rebound to give his side an astonishing lead. Could they possibly hold on? With an impressively tenacious level of defensive application, they certainly could.
Each time the white shirts of West Germany poured forwards they floundered time and time again against a solid green wall. On the occasions they found a way through, Jennings was there to stop them. They held out for a scarcely believable double over West Germany – the current European champions no less. With it came a ride to the top of the group, but as astonishing as the victory was, qualification was still unlikely.
A West German win over Albania in Saarbrucken would take the holders through to the finals, not the Irish. They celebrated their remarkable double in fine style, famous victories that would be remembered for years to come, but there was an acceptance that their effort to qualify for France were already over.
Nobody could possibly have imagined that Albania would cause a shock against the Germans. In the end they didn’t, but they came ever so close. For Northern Ireland, the fact that Albania took an early lead just made it all the more agonising.
Rummenigge equalised almost straight away however, and when Albania’s goal scorer was sent off as the first half wore on it was surely only a matter of time before West Germany sealed their win.
But in a frustrating and nerve-jangling second half, it wasn’t until the 79th minute that they finally did so; Gerhard Strack snatching the late winner to dash any lingering Northern Irish hopes. They had been a mere 11 minutes away from qualifying in the unlikeliest of scenarios. It’s the hope that kills you.
The final group table looked like this:
|1.||West Germany||Pl. 8||Pts. 11||GD +10|
|2.||Northern Ireland||8||11||GD +3|
As agonising as it was, missing out only on goal difference to such stellar opposition, the opportunity had been missed primarily due to lost points in Albania and Turkey. The phenomenal wins over West Germany, plus the impressive victory over Austria, clawed back the lost ground but left them tantalisingly short of making it to the European Championship.
The remarkable wins demonstrated what a terrific Northern Ireland side this was. They would go on to win the final British Home Championship the following year, and seal a place in a second successive World Cup finals in 1986 in Pat Jennings’ swansong.
The decline set in thereafter – more a regression to their mean that any cause for soul-searching – but there would always be the memories of that golden era, when Northern Ireland took on one of the best there was and won – not once, but twice – only to fall agonisingly short at the last.