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

Northern Ireland

Spain v Northern Ireland (0-1), 25th June 1982
Luis Casanova Stadium, Valencia

‘It is almost dawn’. The opening words of the Belfast Telegraph’s chief sporting scribe Malcolm Brodie as he steadied himself to communicate Northern Ireland’s greatest sporting moment. Sporting moment, not football moment as recently voted by the populace.

Bang on – I still live off it to this day.  My 20th birthday on that date has never left me though I wondered last year in the Euros v Wales was history to repeat itself on the same day again. 25th June 1982 in some ways a day that never ended.

This was the day it, our tournament and trip, was due to end for us. Not a problem, though Roy Keane in future years would disapprove with our ‘just happy to be there attitude’. Fair enough Roy – I hear you and get you – but football matches or not, it is an Irish characteristic, north and south, to be happy to be there and that is by and large anywhere. It doesn’t just stop for a football tournament.

This was always going to be the big one and that was as true today as it was that first Saturday the previous December when I raced home to hear the draw and who we would play in the World Cup.  I simply can’t deny I was fairly sure I was going home the next day but still my head was in the pre-battle mode.

Being based in the pleasant coastal resort of Cambrils certainly lent itself to ‘holiday mindset’ but I had found myself frustrated at the downtime in between matches such was their intensity.  To have this game at the end was always going to be something to look forward to but having a proper chance of progressing into the next stage was a huge bonus. None of us could see us beating Spain though. They were not a great Spain and had benefitted from some dubious refereeing decisions.

We were conscious of the broader attention of the world on the game. Huge pressure was on Spain to cut loose and qualify by swatting us aside. Throw in final group day games, host nation, the media fussing around us and it was all different. Indeed, we were enjoying the Mediterranean view on the bus down to Valencia as against the less salubrious trip west to Zaragoza.

The buzz on the bus varied from the painful ‘little Ulster’ disease of ‘Man Utd v Liverpool’ nihilism to the the inane but more amusing ways of singing ‘Pat Jennings , Pat Jennings, Pat Jennings’. The next verse was ‘Patrick Jennings, Patrick Jennings , Patrick Jennings’…

The match was kicking off circa 9 pm and we were deposited in Valencia around two in the afternoon. It was a seriously hot day.  Whilst I like a pre-match drink I am more of a drink in the moment sort of merchant. Water was as important as pints of ‘Sammy Michael’ as we called it. As we left the buses to find pubs David Icke, then a sane BBC sports reporter, collared us and arranged to meet us back in the Square at 6 pm for an interview.

The bulk of the NI support was in what looked like some sort of university outdoor courtyard affair – all concrete benches, grassy knolls and little shade. Songs, group photographs and boozy bonhomie as always were the order of the day. Locals stood entranced by the fun, noise, colour and sheer good-natured intrigue we provide as an entity. This, of course, has been fine tuned to the magnificent display we provided in France last year but it is interesting watching them watching us. We were nowhere near the numbers of the Euros but we are not a group who are easy to ignore by our sheer good-natured exuberance.

We didn’t forget our date with the BBC and our interview was put across the whole of the UK on BBC1 that night to great familial amusement. Thirty–five years later, watching it again, I unfortunately still laugh at my own jokes. My kids nearly had hysterics when they saw it with my middle lad coming off with the classic line – ‘You’re exactly the sort of moron you give off about all the time when they come on TV’.

The Luis Casanova stadium was a big sprawl of concrete, mainly open though we were stuck under a stand overhang behind one of the goals. Little did I know the hold the next ninety minutes would have on my sporting and otherwise self. As many of you will have noticed the first half was one of serious on-field violence by the Spanish, seemingly aided and abetted by the South American referee.  Those of you who tend to go to away matches will know that hardcore commitment does not permit you to sit down. Your whole being is on the pitch. When your team is being sinned against you are mentally scaling the fences in outrage.

I remember McIlroy, O’Neill and Hamilton being brutalised. Even though the cameras missed it I do remember our manchild from Cairnmartin, Norman Whiteside, sorting out Juanito in retribution out on the right wing. Thankfully Senor Ortiz in black missed it too.

Drained by heat and outrage we recovered in our seats at half time and steeled ourselves for the second half. Big Pat idled towards us in that laconic trot of his to the net in front of us. What a man to have guarding your soul. The acknowledgement between him and ourselves before he turned to face the Castillian tormentors is something I will never forget. If a tidal wave had come down that pitch towards us Pat would have cuffed it away with those huge gloves – gloves which I like to believe are the foundation stones of the new Windsor Park.

Of course, I have seen the rerun of the goal that was to happen two minutes later a million times. My mane still levitates on the back of my neck. Recalling it now it was only when Billy Hamilton loped down that right wing like a demented giraffe that I remember thinking ‘good run, Billy’. I even remember thinking far away from the goal at the other end that Arconada hadn’t dealt with that cross particularly well. The point when I realised that Gerry Armstrong was now poised over that ball is…well it was the last moment you can call on before I literally left this earth.  How I didn’t hit the concrete stand above me is a fair question. You simply cannot compute such moments and the concentration of intensity right there, right then is what sets football aside from most things in the world, certainly in sport.

When you come down the world is now a different place. My world, our world, now depended on the next forty–three odd minutes. Nothing could remove me from the locked on fix right in front of me. I was as far away from the rest of my life that it was possible to be. What on earth was going to happen for the remainder of this match? I was now a mental and physiological straining sinew and the tension was going to wear down that sinew.

McIlroy had to go off as a result of the previous assault in the first half and then thunder and lightning on us as Mal Donaghy just to our left received the red card for the innocuous push. Somehow I knew it would happen as the drama factor was stretching the whole canvas down there. You curl up foetus-like trying to protect yourself and that is what matches like this do to you.

The game continued somehow, in the same way that I failed to – I was looking at the clock literally every forty odd seconds. The Spanish crowd every now and again roared their guttural and enveloping ‘heee’ noise to remind us we were at all sorts of mercy but we were actually coping on the pitch, if not off it. Through the mania, I still remember various things. We were watching as heroic a footballing team performance you could imagine.  The sheer work rate of David McCreery and Gerry Armstrong was of biblical proportions and I am not comfortable singling anyone out. Every tackle, denial of space, clearance, header, run and pass was like mental water in the desert.

The last ten minutes literally was like ‘put me out of my misery now’. Paul beside me to my left had succumbed to his seat, head in hands, unable to take any more. The heat, lack of oxygen and sheer molten tension would have felled a bull – and yet the sons in White refused to go under the hooves. This can’t go on any longer. You look to the bench if only to avoid the clock – Billy, give me calm in God’s name. Any ball into the area brings near motor stasis.

Are we seriously going to hold on here? A threatening bouncing ball looking as if it will finally destroy us is calmly suffocated by Pat who fights the good fight in a different way. I think that was my last coherent thought. Such restrained tension can only result in one outcome and as the final whistle went I dissolved in floods of tears now on my seat as I had surely died at some point and had now risen on the third minute of extra time.

You don’t believe something like that has actually happened. We raced down to the fencing at the front. John McClelland in, now exchanged, red shirt was shaking our hands – a moment in a lifetime shared. How can we ever leave this place? You look at fellow fans as if you had survived a nuclear bomb.

I remember waiting at the end for the players’ bus which now I can’t understand as I am sure we were under a strict time deadline for returning to our own bus. I vaguely remember rumour control saying the bus was going an hour later. Waiting in the crush, dehydrated and delighted, the players came out to us and again took our thanks. I remember words with McCreery which were to have another life the following year when we met up at Newcastle’s training ground as I visited my sister.

As you can imagine the trip back up the coast was a mix between joy and exhaustion. None of us would get to bed and cogent thoughts started to permeate through the rubble. I was due back at work on Monday but I simply wasn’t going anywhere. I didn’t have enough money for another week but we’ll deal with that later.

Eventually, in a way of Ulster defiance and to finally imprint that hand of Ulster on Spanish ground, Gary and I went down to the beach. We built a mound of sand and angled, like those US Marines of 1945, placed our Ulster flag into the ground. It was almost dawn!

Postscript. At the time I thought I’ll never have another moment like that night. A year after the Euros and the Ukraine match I am still of that opinion and I have thought long and hard about this. Beating the host nation on such a pressure cooker night to get into the quarter-final which our match against France essentially was the following Sunday week was the ultimate.  I’m not really of the ‘I was there’ mentality (there’s a touch of the football tourist about that) where else would I be – I am a soldier of the GAWA – but to this day it is the one match I would take to the grave against other possible candidates should I only take one.