"Romania are the dark horses and will be a danger, but Northern Ireland will be tough when you consider they have beaten West Germany twice in a year and did wonderfully well in the last World Cup." And there was also the thorny issue of the Home Internationals to add into the mix.
Understandably there was a lot of ill-feeling after England and Scotland had announced that they would no longer be taking part in the Home Internationals post 1984. Northern Ireland could take a lot of satisfaction in winning the final championship, yet the financial implications of the cancellation was worrying. Qualifying for Mexico took on extra importance.
A stuttering start
The feelgood factor surrounding Northern Ireland would immediately evaporate after a lacklustre performance in Helsinki gave Billy Bingham's men a mountain to climb. Conceding a sloppy goal after 55 minutes, Northern Ireland were listless. Finland, with seven part-time players in their team, deservedly won, giving them only their second victory in 23 internationals. Reaching Mexico was now going to be done the hard way.
"We have been beaten by a Finnish team that everybody else will take apart," midfielder Sammy McIlroy stated. "I can't imagine England or Romania losing anything to them either home or away." Fortunately, McIlroy's negative prediction proved inaccurate. But for now, The Times' Clive White spelt out the enormity of the defeat, noting how Northern Ireland's players "trooped off the field, heads down, and possibly out of the World Cup."
Fortress Windsor Park
In fairness to Northern Ireland, the Finland defeat had taken place at the end of a long season, and just five days after their final Home International against Wales. But the bottom line was that their Helsinki horror show had left them very little wriggle room in the group. The matches against Romania would now take on extra significance, with Northern Ireland expected to struggle against a nation that had qualified for Euro 84.
The tag of underdog seemed to sit comfortably with Northern Ireland, though, Bingham's side upping their game when the challenge was that much harder. "We fear no one there," Bingham informed the press prior to the Romania game, when asked about his team's fine record at Windsor Park. With four consecutive home games in the qualification campaign, the hope was that the fortress could work its magic.
Unable to cope with the wave of attacks and general aggression of their opponents, Romania's five-man defence was simply suffocated. The only surprise was that it took the hosts 33 minutes to break the deadlock, with Romanian Iorgulescu slicing horribly into his own net. Gheorghe Hagi capitalised on a poor clearance from Pat Jennings to equalise, but second half strikes from Norman Whiteside and Martin O'Neill were just reward for a fine performance, with Romania flattered by the 3-2 result.
Next up was a revenge date with Finland. Injury concerns surrounding Jennings, McIlroy, Whiteside, and winger Ian Stewart, saw Bingham delay the naming of his squad by 24 hours, but all would be pass fitness tests to take their place in the starting XI. Forward Billy Hamilton was not so fortunate, however, handing Blackburn's Jimmy Quinn a chance. On a nervy night, Mika Lipponen, a trialist at Southampton, fired Finland ahead after 21 minutes, only for Quinn to miss a decent opportunity to level matters.
Quinn must have been relieved when John O'Neill headed an equaliser just before the break, and the winner came when Whiteside, who had been a constant thorn in the side of Finland, was hauled down in the area, with Gerry Armstrong converting the penalty. The hard-fought win had given Northern Ireland hope before the visit of England three months later.
"Their victory owed more to determination, hard work, and, in the last half hour, some nail biting moments in defence, than flowing football," wrote Peter Ball in The Times. There would need to be plenty more of that during the remaining matches.
England get lucky
Crucially, Whiteside would have a suspension lifted by FIFA prior to the England match, with the governing body ruling that his booking for an over exuberant celebration against Romania should be scrapped. Even at the grand old age of 19, Whiteside's presence in the national team was vital. Facing England without him would have been a massive body blow.
Sadly, Martin O'Neill did not make the team, the Northern Ireland skipper suffering a knee injury that would end his career, with Newcastle's David McCreery coming into the side. Jennings had been out of Arsenal's first team for three months, yet such was his stature that Bingham had no hesitation in picking the big man.
"England are going to feel they are up against a team of 11 Barry McGuigan's battling in King's Hall," proclaimed Bingham before the kick off. England would give as good as they got, though. In front of 28,000 fans in Windsor Park, and millions watching live on BBC One, the match developed into "more of a domestic squabble than an international of quality," in the words of Stuart Jones in The Times. The Daily Mirror's Frank McGhee described it as the "worst international he had seen in years."
England certainly rode their luck, Armstrong later claiming that Robson's men were "the luckiest team in the world," and you could understand his disappointment. Twice the home team hit the woodwork, and England hardly tested Jennings. But with just 13 minutes remaining, AC Milan's Mark Hateley fired home a winner that was a bitter pill to swallow for Bingham.
"We gave them more problems than they gave us," Bingham said. "And you can imagine how extremely disappointed we are." It wasn't a fatal blow to Northern Ireland's hopes, and with two games against group whipping boys Turkey to come, there was every chance of moving into a handy position prior to the big tests in Bucharest and London. But anything less than four points would leave Northern Ireland requiring snookers.
Injuries would again disrupt preparations for the Turkey match at Windsor Park. Hamilton was still ruled out, as was Armstrong after picking up an injury in training, meaning a starting berth for Blackburn's Noel Brotherston. Jennings may have received a commemorative watch for reaching 110 caps - a record for the UK nations - but news that he had been released by Arsenal had some questioning whether this would be his last appearance for his country.
"Something happens to Northern Ireland when they are deprived of their familiar status as underdogs," Ball wrote. An unspectacular performance saw two Whiteside goals separate the teams, although another booking meant he would now be ruled out of the return in Izmir. "These were two valuable points," Bingham stressed. "Now we have to win two of our three remaining away games to get there."
The job looked a great deal harder after a poor display in Turkey. Plane problems had seen the team take 10 hours to arrive at their hotel, and Bingham's plans had already been thrown into disarray with the late withdrawal of Stewart. Brighton's Steve Penney was brought in for just his second cap, but without Whiteside the team lacked punch. Armstrong would miss the best chance of the night, and things could have been a lot worse. A superb Jennings save from Metin at least rescued a point.
"But it's not the end of our chances yet and it was a good team performance," Bingham claimed none too convincingly after the match. "We showed we are a hard team to beat." That may have been true, but realistically Northern Ireland now needed a win and a draw from their final two group matches to make it to Mexico. Just as with Euro 84 qualification, it looked as if disappointment in Turkey would prove fatal to Northern Ireland's dream of making the finals.
Smash and grab
The odds were certainly stacked against Northern Ireland. With England two points clear and facing Turkey at Wembley, it boiled down to a straight fight with Romania for the final qualification spot. Although both countries sat on seven points, Romania's superior goal difference meant that even if Northern Ireland won in Bucharest, they would probably still need a draw at Wembley to progress, due to Romania playing Turkey in their final match.
Bingham welcomed back Stewart into the fold, and was boosted by the return of Whiteside. But elsewhere it was bad news. John McClelland, an ever present in the qualification campaign, was injured, as was the versatile Paul Ramsey, and Hamilton, who had suffered a setback on his comeback. Jennings, now back at Tottenham, had not played a competitive club game since November 1984.
It may be a cliche that class is permanent, but Jennings would confirm this throughout a match where the Irish goal was under siege. Playing a 4-5-1 formation, the first half did see Northern Ireland create chances. They were rewarded after 28 minutes when Quinn scored to give the visitors something to hold on to. But from this point on the afternoon developed into the very definition of a backs to the wall performance.
Jennings denied Hagi, Mateut, Geolgau (twice), and Rednic at various points, and even when he was beaten, Jimmy Nicholl cleared off the line on two occasions. Wave upon wave bashed against the Irish barrier, but Romania could not find a way through. A fantastic rearguard, every bit as impressive as Valencia 1982, had kept the dream alive.
The praise flooded in for Jennings. "I take my hat off to Pat," Bingham said. "He was absolutely super." Yet Jennings was just one of 13 heroes. Debutant Alan McDonald was outstanding. "I never thought there was a risk with McDonald," Bingham explained. "He's so confident and without fear." Quinn also earned plaudits for his lone role up front.
Bingham knew it had been a collective effort, though. "They were all magnificent, bloody marvellous." However, his players would need to demonstrate the same determination just a month later.
Not only was the match at Wembley important from a footballing perspective, but the financial implications of missing out on qualification was also a major concern. "Getting to Mexico would be our salvation," declared Irish FA President Harry Cavan, with Bingham stating "It's our lifeline, no less." No pressure then.
The build-up to the Wembley clash was dominated by talk of old-pals acts and match fixing. With memories of the West Germany-Austria debacle at the 1982 World Cup fresh in the memory, Bobby Robson was determined to quash any rumours of a collaboration. "Northern Ireland must earn a result through merit. We will play in a highly competitive manner."
However, the murmurings gathered volume as the match neared, and naturally, suspicions grew during and after the match that a deal had been struck. Chants of "It's a fix" and "What a load of rubbish" were heard from the terraces, and after the match there were reports that the Romanians would lodge a complaint.
Bingham's men had to fight for their point, though. Kerry Dixon and Gary Lineker both missed good chances, McDonald cleared off the line, and again Northern Ireland were indebted to Jennings. A great save from a Glenn Hoddle effort and a tip over the bar from a Dixon header ensured that Jennings was now forced to postpone his retirement plans.
"Anyone who says this is a fix can come and see me, and I'll tell them it wasn't a fix," a passionate McDonald told Tony Gubba immediately after the draw. "Because we bloody earned that, and anyone who says different is a joke." There may have been a few Romanian eyebrows raised, but the bottom line was that Northern Ireland had beaten Romania twice, and fully deserved their place in the World Cup finals.
With over 15,000 fans inside Wembley to celebrate the qualification, the party would go on long into the night. And what an achievement it was. Qualifying for their second World Cup of the 1980s, Bingham had again masterminded a successful campaign, his determined set of players once more proving that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.
It would take Northern Ireland 30 years to qualify for their next major championship, which only emphasises the brilliant job that Bingham performed whilst in charge of the national team. Creating a lifetime of memories, many Northern Ireland fans will be eternally grateful. With the Switzerland play-off approaching, hopefully Michael O'Neill can do the same for the current generation.