GAWA: Matches I’ll Take To My Grave – Israel 1981

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland v Israel (1-0), 18th November 1981
Windsor Park, Belfast

Some footballing dates just stay in your head for obvious reasons. Rarely does 18th November get past my neural anniversary activator. Third Wednesday nights in November on odd number years were, for many football fans, launch sequence for the following summer’s holiday plans. I write as if I followed Germany, Spain or England.

This has all dissipated a bit now with international dates spilling over a week but certainly, for the Northern Ireland football team in the first half of the eighties,  there were three November moments of manna in 1981, 1982 and 1985. I think most would agree that the opening course of this totemic trilogy cut the deepest mental furrow.

So here we were…Northern Ireland all set up to qualify for the World Cup, just needing a point against fellow political problem child Israel.  We had started the group against them a long twenty months ago in March 1980 and who would have thought it would end up like this. The idea of qualifying for a World Cup frankly was not something that held residence in my head but perhaps the vagaries and unpredictability of the campaign had rechristened that idea as ‘occasional tenant’. Since the last match against Scotland, the idea had become a real life and welcome squatter.

A month previously we had left the ground deflated that we had been unable to puncture the Scottish defence, the scoreless draw accruing had enabled them to qualify. The sense of resignation was no surprise as we knew our last chance of anything was to beat them but these were the days when Scotland were perennial World Cup guests. Indeed their qualification that autumn night against was to be their third qualification in a row out of five. So, respect and congratulations to them and I was indeed happy for them.

Looking back at this now I’m not sure I can quite believe the way I realised we were on the point of climbing Everest. As we played Scotland that night, Sweden were playing Portugal in the Iberian peninsula.  Unbelievably, they won and thus a draw against Israel would send us to Spain next June.  I, in the middle of a three-year sandwich business course, was still scrabbling around in October trying to get fixed up with work. It was only halfway through the next morning, getting the paper, that the media excitement hit me and I grasped the footballing turbulence now existing. Normally I’m pretty tuned into these things but why I did not have some antennae directed towards Portugal escapes me – perhaps Sweden were poorer than I thought but there you go.

Real life faded rapidly for the next month as a day and hour countdown started, we definitely fancied our chances against the Holy Land. Somehow in that period football let go of me from time to time and I managed to get myself set up for employment, though this involved an interview on the day of the game. Not that there was any logistical issue with that but I simply didn’t trust myself to speak any sense to them on such a day and considered my attendance would ruin my chances. A ‘funeral’ had to appear and duly did. Interview on Thursday!

I hated myself for doing so but had little doubt we would not take our chance. More accurately, I suppose this view was taken since if we didn’t the mystical funeral might well need to occur for myself. I suppose the flip side of that decision was that if we lost I wouldn’t trust myself to speak coherently at the interview the next day. So I was backing myself and the team. The team, as any successful Northern Ireland side tended and simply has to be, was an absolute team. No passengers, no egos, no stars and playing to their absolute maximum with few players ever not playing well. We had no room for that.

Off the pitch the team was led by a clever and resourceful manager in Billy Bingham and turbo fuelled by the ever rabid frenzy of the fans. We generally will never really succeed without those ingredients in place.  Goalscoring was still as major and long a problem as the Irish conflict itself. We had only scored in three of the qualifying games and the total was five. I collected my Bournemouth based mate’s young ten-year-old brother to give him a taste of history.

The Kop heaved and moved like an oceanic swell and raucous encouragement rolled off its green and white spume to the team below. The noise rolled down the Kop, over the team and hit the Railway stand bouncing back along the same journey. The Israeli team did their best to keep their heads above the tumult.  I spent as much time trying to keep my feet and needed those around me to help my young charge see the drama down below. An unfortunate stall holder at the top of the Kop was relieved of his night’s stock of burger baps.  For a good twenty minutes pieces of bread flew around us- just one of the more surreal memories of the night.

I don’t remember any serious moments of angst during the game. I had been concerned at captain Martin O’ Neill’s absence beforehand but little was going to stop a party at minute ninety, as an eighteen-year-old Jose Mourinho might have said at the time.

The breakthrough came at the pleasantly placed 27th minute.  There were a couple of Ulster historical quirks about the goal. For those of a certain age by legal statute, any Northern Ireland free kick must be preceded by a man running over the ball before being delivered by man two. It was devastating in its simplicity and ineffectiveness.

Usually it was Sammy McIlroy who bewitched the opposition with this intrigue. This time with a free-kick out on the right wing Noel Brotherston was  adjudged to have sufficient experience to perform this role and Jimmy Nicholl lofted a high one. Chief leaping salmon Billy Hamilton got to it first. I was dead centre up high behind that net as Gerry Armstrong swivelled onto the dropping ball on the penalty spot. His turn reminded me of the slow-motion revolve of the female Vietcong sniper at the end of ‘Full Metal Jacket’.  A good yard ahead of his marker it flew low into the net below.

Chaos of course and anxiety ahead.  To have such a prize in your grasp knowing that it could leave is the tortured precipice us football fans balance on far too frequently. The knowledge that this might be the only time in your life to hold that prize is paralysing. Still, even then, too scared to think I still believed we would do it. That belief was shared and there was little nervousness transmitted from crowd to team.

Standard jubilant scenes followed at the final whistle as fans and team shared a special moment in history. My mind though was working far ahead. I was going to Spain whatever next year held for me and my head was in overdrive even then as I stood amidst delirium. Who was coming with me, how do we get tickets, how do we get there? This was simply the biggest thing in my young life and I recognised that. A small voice in my head somehow, somewhere got through to remind me that it would be a good idea to pass that interview tomorrow to fund it. I may well have driven home or taken the bus but right then I could have walked on air to Spain.