GAWA: Matches I’ll Take To My Grave – Austria 1982

Northern Ireland

Austria v Northern Ireland (2-2), 1st July 1982
Vicente Calderon Stadium, Madrid.

The dates I throw up here light up like a candle in my head every year they come around. I’m like that generally with dates but disturbingly so with football.

Six amazing days had passed since my footballing year zero the previous Friday. The Khmer Rouge, who know about rewriting the book had no doubt watched our Valencia heroics in far off Cambodia, now had green and white dishcloths round their necks as far as I was concerned. I believed the whole bloody world knew about us.

Real life had to occur at some point after the splashdown that weekend. Gary, drained of money and emotion, reluctantly was waved off on the coach home. There was a touch of the just finished Falklands conflict about it – our contribution somewhat seriously less than proper soldiers but departing filled coaches were very much a news image that year. Word reached us that we were to be replenished by a substitute to our party. Doug also had lived in our new base Madrid the previous year with a family and accommodation, albeit on a floor, awaited us. I simply had decided I would go back to work when I got home – whenever that would be (he boldly proclaimed to himself unsure whether there was a job to go back to). I hope they understood but I wasn’t ringing to find out.

We left Cambrils and I should probably return there sometime. The train up to Madrid was interesting. It was packed full of English and NI fans. The English were a rare group. They were convinced we were all cut throat paramilitaries but of course were very pleased and interested in being about us. I think they hoped we would pull out a gun and hijack the train for the crack of it. They amused us – tales of trips out to Switzerland to rob supermarkets for food were topped off with locking the train’s ticket inspector in the loo and keeping him there. No surprise when the Guardia Civil got on.

Madrid was a different ball game too with a sober atmosphere and garnished by long, green ornate parks. The coast was far away. You were aware there was a World Cup on but this was the capital city and the governmental aura pervaded. Our newly arrived Quartermaster sorted accommodation and immediate concerns were tickets for Thursday’s match v Austria. Doug had also brought me extra funds from home so as a bonus we treated ourselves to Tuesday’s night’s other WW2 rerun – England v (West) Germany at the Bernabeu.

This match v Austria, more than anything in my football soaked history, encapsulated what it’s all about. Having given up my paid journey back to ‘the world’- that phrase again, I was now not only well behind enemy lines on my own personal Operation ‘Hibernia Borealis’, but was now out of radio contact.

I had always been fascinated by Japanese soldiers still fighting the war on some oddball Pacific island and refusing to give up. The footballing filter in my head transmogrified this to the very modern real tales of Scottish fans still out in Argentina from the last World Cup with little sign of returning home. I was in that sort of environment by this stage….rather than the Lisburn Road where I should have been working.

Tickets for the game were no problem as our unexpected victory against Spain had overturned events somewhat. Spain were not expected to lose to us so tickets had been returned to the Vicente Calderon stadium as Spain were now going to play in the Santiago Bernabeu and the scramble for them was elsewhere.

Excitement mounted as the game drew closer while physiologically (despite the new financial injection) I was operating on little more than a burger a day. Heat, lack of money and emotional trauma all resulted in my gaunt look that I’m told I now sported. This all fed my ‘soldier behind enemy lines’ mentality.

In a three-game second round, France had already beaten Austria 1-0. This was our chance to put Austria out of the group and have a final Agincourt against the French on Sunday. We were in nothing to lose territory. We took the metro down to Atletico’s ground in  Arganzuelas well ahead of the game which was an afternoon KO. I had and still have a thing about daylight games in big tournaments – to be at a match during daylight hours just highlighted I wasn’t at work or school and all added to the sheer importance of it over everything else. The real world steps aside for a football match. Proper order!

Outside the ground it was evident there were new faces and new detachments amongst the fresh troops sent out to bolster us. Somme-like nostalgia wasn’t misplaced on that 66th anniversary of the battle. Years later I noticed the same thing with reinforcement fans at the Wales game at the Euros.

We were back in green and white as against white and green. That white and green strip could take a well-deserved rest as it prepared for its new position in exalted and elongated folklore. Austria were now in white and whilst I had respect for them I far from feared them. I had watched them four years previously as they emerged the right side of West Germany in a five-goal thriller in Argentina. Perhaps far too much political imagery in that last phrase bearing in mind all involved!

One of the features of this, and no doubt previous World Cups, was the occasional empty spaces in the ground. The commercial hype of today’s sponsored to the hilt tournaments was clearly lacking and depending on what you need, that is a good or a bad thing. Then again, Northern Ireland are not Brazil. One was able to choose your place in the stadium to a certain degree.

So that meant just roughly behind one of the nets in the ground. The same position that had brought me those golden moments against England in ’77, Portugal and Israel the previous year and would do so again thirty–five years later in Lyon. It wouldn’t disappoint today either. We were well bolstered by English support which was good to see.

In those pre-internet days, us fans weren’t quite up to date on internal problems in the squad with reserve goalkeeper Jim having a misunderstanding with manager Bingham. He was indeed goalkeeper today due to a Jennings groin injury. Allow me here to fast forward six years to an Irish League game where I heard one of the funniest terrace quips directed at the Middlesbrough No.1.

‘Platt, you did more damage to Middlesbrough than the Luftwaffe’.

I’m glad I heard that later rather than then. Sammy Nelson, the Arsenal left-back and  ‘mooner’* replaced the suspended Donaghy.   It was a reasonably open game as far as I remember as both sides needed to go for it. There was a longer rein on the team and on this more cloudy day – the outcome was really far from clear as well. Our English reinforcements were trying to impress us but then on twenty-seven minutes a major piece of role reversal took place.

This time, the ballast of West Belfast took off again down our left. Gerry Armstrong somehow had the ability to find space whilst making the pitch look small due to lungs surely borrowed from a husky dog. The bull power he had was now being used to repay his fellow forward Billy Hamilton who had served him so well the previous Friday. Galloping down our left towards us, at Angels 15 from an increasingly anxious goalkeeper who would see this force of green nature send the ball across, dipping and central to another swooping steam hammer who headed the ball harder than some shots into the corner of the net.

It was a hell of a header and would be the best goal we scored of the five in the tournament. The Austrian defender who vainly tried to defend the cross was like a fly against a hurricane. Hamilton turned away, doing a ‘knees up Mother Brown’ sort of a jig with a big, daft grin that only moments like that provide. But that goal meant a hell of a lot to him- and of course to us. It was like an official tooting of the party whistle as off we went again on the terraces.

Of course, it wasn’t to last and a deflection and then a brute of a free kick had our keeper flat footed, I nearly said Platt –footed. Even then we were far from deflated and yet again that long fused incendiary called Armstrong started moving across no man’s land with intent. A shot ballooned up, high to the right threatening to go dead but Jimmy Nicholl, in that over rigid above the waist running style he had, reached it before the keeper and looped it back into the centre. I’m not sure if Jimmy had ever been as close to an opposing goal line in his life.

Some sporting moments freeze in your memory and the speed of football doesn’t always allow this. A solitary Austrian defender tried to guard the whole net but Hamilton, diagonally horizontal and hanging, brought the Ulster blade down and executed the slowly lofted ball into the corner. Double header Billy! It bounced in like a languid tennis ball seriously at odds with the pent up drama surrounding it. I was told later that the famous commentator Jackie Fullerton in that moment did Billy no favours with the funny if unflattering comment

‘Oh no, he’s got time to think’.

I’ve never actually heard it if it’s true so apologies to Jackie if myth has taken over from fact.

So, the party continued as you can well imagine and the knowledge of sharing moments of history with your team bit a bit harder into our collective cortex. The match continued in various format long after. Waiting behind after the game I acquired goal hero Hamilton’s socks, which I still have. More interestingly that evening we were able to get up to the players’ hotel and have a few pints with them.

Some great memories remain from that evening. Top of the list was probably the abuse recently resigned Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt received for his red dungaree outfit, especially from Noel Brotherston. Nesbitt at the time was a BBC sports reporter and perhaps the realisation that if he was going to go into politics, the DUP probably did not have the dress code he was looking for.

Martin O’Neill impressed me. Jimmy Nicholl and Jim Cleary were at their captain to join them on a trip out but O’Neill told them that he was talking to us and to just hold fire. Gentleman and Captain.

Manager Bingham was taken with the fact I should have been at work and promised my fare home. His clipped tones said he would speak to the IFA. Even then I knew to avoid that one. I’ll also remember, led by the magnificent baritone of Big Pat, communal singing of the Dubliners’ classic- ‘BLACK VELVET BAND’.

Whilst it was far from party central I also recall BBC reporters Tony Gubba and David Icke turning up at the hotel as, surprise surprise, there was no fun to be had at the England hotel.

Magical stuff-magical times!

*mooner- Sammy Nelson in a rare moment of Instonian infamy had famously removed his shorts to moon at Brighton fans in 1979.