Northern Ireland Stirs Memories at Euros ; Coach Hopes to Replicate Team's Stirring Win over Spain at '82 World Cup

By Montague, James | International New York Times, June 16, 2016 | Go to article overview

Northern Ireland Stirs Memories at Euros ; Coach Hopes to Replicate Team's Stirring Win over Spain at '82 World Cup


Montague, James, International New York Times


Michael O'Neill watched the country's 1-0 World Cup win over Spain on June 25, 1982, on TV. Now as coach, he is hoping to replicate that success.

It was just a few days shy of his 13th birthday, but Michael O'Neill was old enough to recognize that the goal he was celebrating meant more than just victory.

It was June 25, 1982, and the World Cup was taking place in Spain. O'Neill, the future coach of the Northern Ireland national team, was in front of his parents' television, awaiting the biggest soccer match in his country's history.

"They went there without many expectations," O'Neill said, adding, "but sometimes, a team comes together."

What happened that day in Valencia would go down in Northern Ireland folklore. Gerry Armstrong scored the only goal in a 1-0 group-stage victory against Spain, and a divided country erupted in wild celebrations.

"It was an unbelievable night," O'Neill said, "and everyone forgot about the other stuff."

The "other stuff," euphemistically known as the Troubles, was a near-three-decade sectarian conflict between Northern Ireland's Roman Catholic and Protestant communities that led to hundreds of deaths at the hands of the British government and rival terrorist groups on both sides. Cities like Belfast were divided along religious lines -- sometimes literally, by so-called Peace Walls that kept the factions apart.

Yet for a brief moment in the summer of 1982, Armstrong's goal brought them together.

"It didn't matter what religion they were, they were totally behind us," said Armstrong, who grew up near the staunchly nationalist Falls Road in west Belfast. "Everybody who was Irish supported us. We did what the politicians couldn't do. We united the country."

O'Neill was transfixed. He went on to play for Northern Ireland more than 30 times. And he is trying to repeat that earlier team's success as he leads Northern Ireland in its first-ever European Championships appearance in France.

Northern Ireland qualified by finishing at the top of its group, overcoming the obstacles inherent in being the second-smallest nation by population at the tournament, after Iceland. The Northern Ireland Football League Premiership is only semiprofessional, leaving O'Neill with a tiny pool of players.

"We are a country with less than 40 professional players to choose from," O'Neill said. Most are drawn from the lower reaches of the English and Scottish league system.

"I've been everywhere looking for players: Fleetwood Town, Burton Albion, Doncaster, Luton, Morecambe," he said. "At times, it is not the most glamorous."

Player recruitment is complicated further by Northern Ireland's history. FIFA, the sport's world governing body, has a unique eligibility provision that allows players born in Northern Ireland to play for Ireland if they choose, so despite the 1982 team's containing several Catholic players -- notably Armstrong and Martin O'Neill, who is coaching the Republic of Ireland at Euro 2016 -- representing Northern Ireland remains problematic for some players. …

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