Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Green Days

Now that Spain are champions of the world and champions of Europe (again),  it's worth remembering that it wasn't always so. Here's a slightly longer version of the piece I wrote for the Sunday Herald to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Northern Ireland's victory over Spain in Valencia in the 1982 World Cup:

"Gerry Armstrong ... What a worker he is ..." For most of us, I’d imagine, there are a handful of sporting moments that we hold closer than most, moments where the thrill of what we’ve seen has seared itself into our memory never to be dislodged. " ... Striding away there with Hamilton to his right ..." Ask me and I’ll happily reel my own off: Ricky Villa’s goal in the 1981 FA cup final replay, the Chris Eubanks-Nigel Benn fights of the early 1990s, Stephen Roche coming round the corner on La Plagne still close enough to the wheelrims of Pedro Delgado to ensure he’d win the 1987 Tour de France, Usain Bolt seeming to slow down to look around as he won gold at Beijing four years ago (running the fastest time ever as an added bonus). "Still Billy Hamilton, he’s gone past Tendilio ... " But my absolute favourite came 30 years ago, on a hot night in Valencia, soundtracked by John Motson’s commentary. " ... Arconada ... Armstrong!"
Thirty years. Half a lifetime. I can still see the living room of my parents’ house in Coleraine where I sat that night; the sofa, the fireplace, which in winter still held a real fire back then, and the TV in the corner, small by today’s standards, the colour images fizzing and strobing from the satellite feed. I was just a couple of weeks from my 19th birthday, a couple of months from leaving Northern Ireland to start life as a student in Scotland and start untying myself from the place I came from.
At the time it couldn’t come soon enough. The Troubles had started when I was six years old and were showing no signs of stopping. The early eighties were a particularly grim time. We were only a year on from the hunger strikes. A month on from this night the IRA will detonate bombs in Hyde Park and Regents Park in London, killing 11 British soldiers. Back then I wasn’t sure I wanted to be Northern Irish any more.
But I still wanted Northern Ireland - a ragged bunch of motley journeymen with only one recognised world class player (Pat Jennings) - to win that night. They were still my team. I still sat forward in my chair as Gerry Armstrong picked up the ball in his own half and surged forward. He was the only white-shirted player on the screen until Billy Hamilton moved up on the right wing. Hamilton played for Burnley, had a wee spidey moustache on his upper lip and would never be as famous again as he was on this night. Armstrong knocked the ball wide to him and moved towards the Spanish box. Hamilton almost casually shrugged off a challenge from the Spanish defender Miguel Tendilio and pushed the ball into the Spanish penalty box. But right at the Spanish keeper Luis Arconada unfortunately. The keeper just had to drop on it and that would be the end of the attack. But for some reason Arconada elects to punch instead. Straight to Armstrong who fires it into the back of the net. 1-0 to Northern Ireland. For a moment the world - or my world at any rate - stopped.
On my TV screen Armstrong is embraced by a limping Sammy McIlroy and given a bear hug by Whiteside (who at 17 and a matter of days is the youngest player to play in the World Cup finals to this point) and as he does so I swear I hear the whole street I live in erupt; a ragged, raucous cheer echoing from house to house. This is the sporting moment I love most, the moment I remember feeling most simply, happily, giddily Northern Irish too. For the next 40 minutes Spain batter at the Northern Ireland back line but can’t find a way through. Northern Ireland have beaten the hosts, topped their group and gone through to the next round of the World Cup. It is a glorious night.
A few hours later at around two in the morning my father is on patrol with the Ulster Defence Regiment between Magherafelt and Garvagh when a 500lb landmine is detonated under his landrover. He came limping home the next morning (limping worse than Sammy McIlroy) and told me in the vaguest possible terms what had happened.
What’s curious to me now is how far apart my head had separated these two memories. It was only a couple of years ago, prompted by reading a private history of his regiment, that I realised they had happened within hours of each other. It’s as if I had deliberately rubbed out the linkage, as if not wanting to sully the good memory with the bad.
June 1982 is the high point of my life as a Northern Irish sports fan. Other days and nights - arguably greater days and nights - followed: watching Dennis Taylor, Barry McGuigan, right up to Rory McIlroy winning the US Open. But they’re not football.
I guess 1982 has other resonances too. It was - or I like to think so - represents a utopian moment, a moment when Catholics and Protestants played together in the same team and no one thought anything of it. Just over ten years later Northern Ireland would play the Republic of Ireland in Windsor Park on a night full of sectarian chanting. Just over 20 years later Neil Lennon would receive a death threat and never play for his country again. And even today players like Sunderland James McClean who come from nationalist backgrounds say they don’t feel comfortable playing for Northern Ireland, despite major efforts by fans and the Irish Football Association to address the problem. Back in 1982, Gerry Armstrong, a player who grew up in nationalist west Belfast was a hero of the fans. He never received any sectarian barracking because of his religion.
I can’t believe anyone today would still claim that sport and politics don’t mix. The problem in Northern Ireland has been that for the last 40 years sport and politics have too often mixed in the same way as guncotton and nitroglycerin. June 25, 1982 is one of those moments, though, when that didn’t apply. That’s why it still seems something to savour.
A few years ago I went to a race meeting at Down Royal. On the way I passed the site of the former Maze prison. It was a clear summer’s day. There were people dressed in their Sunday best, punters in denim (many with Billy Hamilton taches) and bookies all of whom were from south of the border. The punters got drunk, the well-dressed had their pictures taken, the bookies got rich. I remember standing in the grandstand, tearing up another losing betting slip and looking out across the course to the fields beyond. Those tight little fields that surrounded me in my younger years. All those different shades of green. And I thought of all they might represent. The green of the land, the green of football shirts, the green of UDR landrovers. People were cheering and - I’m pretty certain about this memory - I thought about Gerry Armstrong.

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