After Northern Ireland's flying start to the qualification campaign of Euro 2016 a lot of references have been made to the fact that they have never qualified for a European Championships finals tournament. Hearing this, my mind drifted back thirty years or so to the nearest of near things, a time when Northern Ireland defeated West Germany home and away, and came within ten agonising minutes of joining the finalists at France 1984. An attempt at qualification so inspiring and full of pride, yet so frustrating and tinged with regret. From the highs of Hamburg to the anguish in Ankara, the story of Billy Bingham's brave men warms the sporting soul, as the underdogs nearly pulled off the impossible.
We probably should not have been too surprised by the eventual progress made by Northern Ireland. A successful 1982 World Cup had seen the team make the second group stage, their win with ten men over hosts Spain in Valencia the finest example of the Irish ability to punch above their weight and defy the odds. However, it would take an upset of David versus Goliath proportions for manager Billy Bingham to lead his country to Euro 1984. Reigning European champions and 1982 World Cup finalists West Germany had been drawn in Group Six, and realistically it looked like a straight fight between Northern Ireland and Austria for the runner-up position. And as Northern Ireland would sadly discover, the so-called minnows of the group in Turkey and Albania would also provide stern tests at various stages.
Not a good night in Vienna
With such a difficult task ahead of them, the last thing Northern Ireland needed was to put in a shaky display in the first match, but a poor performance in Austria kicked the campaign off in the worst possible fashion. The last time the two teams had met was in Spain, a 2-2 draw in the second phase of the World Cup highlighting the closeness of the two nations, although the nature of Northern Ireland's 2-0 defeat suggested that a lot had changed since Madrid. "The glory that was Spain is now history," noted Peter Ball in The Times, as Austria's pace and creativity exposed the visitors and led Ball to conclude that the home nations were falling behind the Continentals in most aspects of the game. Hardly the ideal start.
Bingham had made two big calls before the defeat, leaving out the experienced duo of Pat Jennings and Chris Nicholl. The Jennings decision caused quite a stir, Bingham insisting that the keeper needed first team football - George Wood was, at the time, keeping him out of the Arsenal side - and for a while it looked as if the man who had made his debut back in 1964 would be forever stuck on 95 caps. Some felt that Jennings' replacement Jim Platt could have done better with Austria's second goal, but Bingham remained firm in his stance. Eventually though, both Wood and Platt would discover that when it came to Jennings, class was definitely permanent.
Germany defeated: Part I
At least Northern Ireland could take one positive from their disappointing opening defeat. The encouraging first start of 21-year-old Ian Stewart was a silver lining for the team, the winger constantly threatening and beating Austrian defenders, to such an extent that the youngster was fouled throughout the match, and left the field towards the end after one assault too many.
Stewart's rise to fame was as heart warming as the Northern Ireland story. Rejected by Everton as a 17-year-old, it was reported in The Times that Stewart had at one point turned to playing his guitar to earn a bit of money. Previously he had also been a ball boy at Windsor Park, something that the press were quick to pick up on after Northern Ireland's shock victory over the West Germans.
Although the West Germany side was overflowing with talent - Schumacher, Stielike, the returning Schuster, Forster, Littbarski, Rummenigge - Bingham chose an adventurous formation involving two wingers (Stewart and Noel Brotherston) who would both drop deeper when the Germans had possession, but provide the ammo for Norman Whiteside and Billy Hamilton when attacking. The tactics worked a treat, on a night where the visitors simply could not cope with the "furious devils in green shirts," as Clive White described the Northern Ireland players.
Littbarski may have gone close early on, but from the moment John O'Neill hit the post after six minutes it became clear that an upset was on the cards. The decisive goal arrived after 17 minutes, Stewart cutting in from the left and unleashing a shot from the edge of the area past Schumacher before wheeling away in delight, celebrating his first goal in senior football. The match winner would later leave with the match ball signed by both teams, and the shirt of Kaltz, the full back he gave such a torrid time to on the evening. Kaltz must have been happy to see the back of him.
Strangely the Germans did not have much of an answer, although Littbarski was a constant threat, testing Platt and later having a goal ruled out (correctly). "That was one of our best performances in years, possibly surpassing last summer's victory over Spain in Valencia," a delighted Bingham informed the media. On the Monday prior to the match there had been a parade to belatedly celebrate the achievements of the squad in Spain. On the night of November 17 1982, another party was about to begin in Belfast.
"Standing in the tunnel before the game was a bit off-putting," admitted skipper Martin O'Neill. "The Germans positively wreaked of liniment. Their bodies glistened. But when we got out there and the grease wore off they were just as human as you or I really". Not for the first or last time, Bingham's Northern Ireland were to prove that the bigger they came the harder they would fall.
After the Lord Mayor's show
The unpredictability of football is something that keeps us all coming back for more. Travelling to Tirana with the same starting eleven that had defeated the Germans, the Irish were unable to break down an Albanian team that had lost their previous nine World Cup and European Championship qualifiers. Worryingly the Albanians fully deserved their point, and almost won the match, only to be denied by the post.
It appeared as if the point dropped by Northern Ireland would be crucial, and so it would transpire. Albania would only gain one more point in the group - a home draw against Turkey - and come the final reckoning, the average display in Tirana would come back to bite Bingham's side hard.
Having said that, the lack of Irish goals was also a factor. Whereas the West Germans would end the group with a goal difference of +7 against Turkey and Albania, Northern Ireland's return of +1 was damaging. There was no doubting the solid foundations on which the side was built, the likes of Martin O'Neill and Sammy McIlroy providing a shield in front of a defence containing Mal Donaghy, John McClelland, John O'Neill, and Jimmy Nicholl, yet the Irish would average one goal a game in the group, and despite beating West Germany twice, this, along with dropped points against Albania and Turkey, proved decisive.
It's hard to be too critical of Bingham's team, however. Their approach of keeping things tight and holding on to a lead was understandable and a practical and realistic approach to adopt. Their 2-1 home win over Turkey secured two more points, but after scoring twice in the opening 17 minutes - through Martin O'Neill and McClelland - there was a tinge of disappointment that the team didn't build on their great start. Still, a win was a win.
The match saw a return to the team for Gerry Armstrong, back in action after breaking his leg, and he would retain his place for the Albania fixture after Norman Whiteside pulled out with a groin strain. Stewart, now on loan at Millwall after struggling to focus since his heroics against West Germany, scored the only goal of the game, with the Windsor Park crowd having to wait a frustrating 54 minutes for their moment to cheer.
The expected avalanche of goals failed to materialise though, yet West Germany's draw in Vienna earlier on in the day was the ideal result in a group that was much tighter than most had imagined. The West Germans had yet to play a match at home though, and were still expected to qualify with ease: Austria Pld 4 Pts 7 GD +11; Northern Ireland Pld 5 Pts 7 GD +1; West Germany Pld 4 Pts 5 GD +3.
The Albanian match had seen a recall to the team for Jennings, the keeper now re-established as Arsenal's number one, with his club manager Terry Neill gushing in his praise: "Pat Jennings is just fantastic. He gets better and better". Three Home Championship fixtures followed, meaning that by the time Austria visited Windsor Park, Jennings was making his 100th appearance for his country. "It's an amazing record and one unlikely to be surpassed for quite a few years," stated Bingham before the momentous occasion, as Northern Ireland marked Jennings' landmark with a fitting display.
If British and Irish values had been frowned upon in the away match, all of a sudden these assets were now praised. The Times' Eamon Dunphy detailed what he felt had helped Northern Ireland cruise to an impressive 3-1 win over the Austrians: "Honesty and commitment manifested by a willingness to put head and boot where more talented opponents would not provided the Irish with a place at the top of Group Six". Goals from Hamilton and Whiteside, the latter scoring his first goal at international level, and a last minute Martin O'Neill free kick saw the Daily Express headline "Pat's party is an Irish jig" aptly sum up the evening.
Another bad away day for the Austrians saw them lose 3-0 against West Germany, Rummenigge and Voller combining as the German machine seemingly clicked into gear. By the time Northern Ireland travelled to Turkey, anything less than a victory would be disastrous for Bingham's team: Austria Pld 7 Pts 9 GD +7; Northern Ireland Pld 6 Pts 9 GD +3; West Germany Pld 5 Pts 7 GD +6.
No Turkish delight
"Spirit, commitment, teamwork, a lot of running - there's a lot to be said for the old-fashioned virtues. You don't get results like ours with luck". So said Bingham in the lead-up to the vital qualifier in Turkey. Sadly his team then chose an inopportune time to put in a performance that looked to have killed any hopes of qualifying for France, as Turkey won their first game in almost a year.
They may have hit the post and crossbar during the match, but Northern Ireland did not do enough to justify earning a point. Turkey's winner came after 17 minutes, but as the first half wore on, the home team gained in confidence, winning the midfield exchanges and keeping the visitors quiet. Without Armstrong, the team suffered, and when the Germans thrashed Turkey 5-1 a fortnight later, the Irish were now requiring snookers: Austria Pld 7 Pts 9 GD +7; Northern Ireland Pld 7 Pts 9 GD +2; West Germany Pld 6 Pts 9 GD +10.
Germany defeated: Part II
Northern Ireland only really needed two minor miracles to make it to France: they had to defeat West Germany in Hamburg, and even if they managed that, they then had to hope that the Germans would fail to beat Albania at home four days later. Not much to wish for then. Understandably the Germans were extremely confident, which morphed into arrogance when they announced a pre-championship tour of Spain before France 84. Their forward planning would be justified, but only after two almighty scares.
A midfield crisis beforehand did little to help the Northern Ireland cause. McIlroy and David McCreery were both injured, meaning just a second start for Leicester City's Paul Ramsey who had made his debut against the Austrians in Belfast as a right back. Bingham also chose the away match in Hamburg to drop Chris Nicholl and draft in Bolton's Gerry McElhinney for the most daunting of debuts. Armstrong was back though to win his 50th cap and provide vital experience in front of 61,418 fans at the Volksparkstadion.
The crowd were soon to become a hindrance for the home side though, as the whistles and howls began to filter through the night air even in the early stages of the match. Martin O'Neill had stressed just how important the opening 25 minutes would be, and after his team easily survived this spell, they visibly grew in confidence. They would be reliant on Jennings to pull off a flying stop to prevent Waas opening the scoring, but Whiteside also went close for Northern Ireland, and as the half ended the German fans were becoming more and more restless.
Then came the defining moment of the night after 50 minutes. Stewart's jinking run down the left flank saw him beat two Germans, and although he was denied by Schumacher, Ramsey's follow-up was intercepted by Whiteside, who calmly slotted home. A stunning moment of quality from Stewart had given Northern Ireland something to hold on to.
Naturally the game settled into a pattern, of German probing up against a resolute defence, that also had the calmness, experience and unerring positional ability of Jennings as the last line. "The Irish were as far back as they could go," wrote Clive White in his match report, "and if the Germans opened one green door, there was always another right behind". There was one hairy moment in particular, when Jimmy Nicholl cleared off the line after a weaving Matthaus run, but for the most part the Germans ran into a wall that they simply could not break down.
As the final whistle blew and the Irish players and fans celebrated, the Daily Mirror reported that even the German fans were chanting for Northern Ireland. A simply stunning victory in West Germany - the first time the Germans had lost at home to a European team for over nine years - gave the Irish a barely believable double over the current European champions, and although qualification was still looking extremely unlikely, the memories of those victories would last forever.
From the ecstasy to the agony. No one thought Albania were capable of holding the Germans to a draw in Saarbrucken, Bingham later revealing that he had spent the afternoon gardening rather than putting himself through the pain, yet with only ten minutes to go in the group, Northern Ireland were heading to France. Albania had taken the lead through Tomori after 23 minutes, but when Rummenigge equalised almost immediately, and then Tomori himself was sent off just before half time, Northern Ireland's hopes had basically vanished.
It would take a goal in the 80th minute from Gerhard Strack to finally edge the Irish out, the Germans qualifying due to their vastly superior goal difference (if only qualification had been decided on head-to-head results back then). "It was agonisingly close to going our way," stated Bingham after the final whistle had blown. "We must still be proud of what we achieved. We have beaten the Germans twice and only gone out of a five nations group on goal difference to the champions".
Instead of feeling sorry for themselves, Northern Ireland brushed aside the frustration and won the final Home Championship in 1984, and then qualified for another World Cup after more heroics in Romania and England. Things may have been a struggle from 1986 onwards, the team hit hard by retirements, but Bingham's reign in the 1980s and the achievements of his teams are still cherished to this day.
West Germany failed to make it out of their group at the European Championships in France, manager Jupp Derwall resigning shortly afterwards, as the defence of their trophy ended with an uncharacteristic whimper. A rather appropriate end though to a campaign that was hardly full of usual German efficiency, as Northern Ireland proved with their two famous victories in Belfast and Hamburg.