Saturday, 12 May 1979 was quite a day for a nine-year-old Arsenal fan to be alive. Having taken the fateful plunge 18 months’ earlier and made the brave decision to follow unfashionable Gunners, I had stood defiant amid the constant derision of fellow Belfast classmates whose loyalties lay with the two most fashionable sides from Lancashire. However, the FA Cup final that year catapulted me into the stratospheres of sheer ecstasy. Being Arsenal, it was not easy – it never was. Cruising 2-0, Terry Neill’s side were caught napping late on as a goal by the injured Gordon McQueen was followed by a cruel equaliser by Sammy McIlroy. For me, that goal happened in very, very slow motion. John Motson’s gleeful and overly animated commentary (“McIlroy’s through; McIlroy’s through; and McIlroy, has done it!”) still lurks painfully in my mind somewhere and comes back occasionally to haunt and taunt me in my quieter moments.
However, enough of the despondency and despair. We all know what happened next as Alan Sunderland replaced the anguish with blissful joy to see the Gunners home 3-2. The tears I had bravely fought back during the 60 seconds between Sammy’s equaliser and Alan’s winner seeped silently over the back of my fingers as I tried bravely to convince my mother and father that I wasn’t crying. Yes, almost forty years on, I’ll admit I cried. It had all just been too much to take in on a day that that proved to me that there was indeed a God in Heaven and a Guardian Angel on my shoulder.
Of course, that Monday in St John the Baptist Primary School was just utter joy. A previously begrudging band of classmates was now almost contrite and over-eager to commend me on being the school’s only Arsenal fan. For those few precious hours, I was the talk of Finaghy Road North – even the nastiest of teachers winked at me in the corridor! Arsenal had not won the FA Cup: I had! Kids from various parts of the playground were coming up to me and asking, “Here mate, don’t you support Arsenal?” When, with pride, I replied in the affirmative, they just stared at me in awe and ran off into the sunshine satisfied that they had spoken to the man of the moment. It couldn’t get any better – but it did.
That evening, when my father arrived home from work, he happened to mention casually that he was going with a workmate to see the Northern Ireland versus England game in the British Championship that Saturday – when he asked if I was interested in going; it was as if every Christmas had arrived at once. For me, this would be no ordinary baptism of football fire. On display at Windsor Park that day would be three of my beloved FA Cup winning Arsenal team, Pat Jennings, Pat Rice and Sammy Nelson, while United’s Jimmy Nicholl, Sammy McIlroy and Steve Coppell would all feature. Never mind the 35,000 in attendance, this game had been arranged merely to allow me to pay a personal homage to three of the Arsenal players who had brought tears to my eyes that previous Saturday.
Needless to say, the days building up to that game lasted a month. Eventually, Saturday 19 May arrived bright and sunny as I floated blissfully with my father and his friend to a bus stop on Belfast’s Lisburn Road. This game was big. An hour earlier, I had watched open-mouthed as Brian Moore – yes, the real Brian Moore! – had presented ITV’s ‘On the Ball’ live from the television gantry at Windsor Park. He kept referring to the chances of an upset and reminded all and sundry that England had not lost to the Irish in Belfast since 1927. It was standing room only on the bus and when my father said to the driver, “Two and a half to Windsor Avenue, please,” I knew that there was no turning back.
The short journey was, of course, agonisingly long. The traffic was just awful, but eventually the bus came to a halt at the top of Windsor Avenue and we were soon immersed in the heaving throng heading towards the stark floodlights of Windsor Park. We had joined a flowing river of humanity making its way to the ground and I absorbed absolutely everything. A street preacher stood steadfast like a rock in that river pleading in vain for people to be born again, while I began to notice, with a certain amount of concern, that a majority of boys my age were carrying empty milk and lemonade crates. “Daddy, why are the wee lads carrying boxes with them,” I asked. “Oh, I don’t know, son,” he replied, but I knew he knew. We negotiated the railway bridge and arrived at the concourse of the ground to be greeted by a controlled madness snaking its way towards the turnstiles into the ground. Around me, tough looking, denim-clad men finished the last of their cider bottles with greedy haste, as others indulged in the wholly acceptable practice of open-air urination.
It was 1979 and non-smokers had yet to be invented and, strangely, with hindsight, most of the men were wearing shirts and ties. A sign above the turnstiles advised spectators that general admission that day was £2 – with no lifting over! Thankfully, decades of custom and practice prevailed and my tiny frame was soon airborne as I was lifted over the turnstile and into a promised land of rapidly filling terraces. From then until kick-off, I was in dreamland. The crowd grew thicker as the few open spaces vanished, the chants from the Spion Kop got louder, the band was resplendent in the sun and I was finding it harder and harder to see the pitch. By ten to three, you would have been lucky to turn a sweet in your mouth; such was the size of the crowd. Now I knew why the boys my age had been carrying crates.
As the teams arrived, I was now in a panic. Around me it was all sound and no picture, except for the backs of people’s heads. I pleaded with my father not to move from his spot and decided to move down to the fencing, but again my view was severely limited, this time by advertising hoardings. It was by now a crisis as the game kicked-off. Every “Ooh” and “Aah” was lost on me as I watched the endless faces for clues to what was happening on the pitch. Swear words were expended with gusto, including a new one beginning with the letter W, which I sensed was quite severe. I knew Northern Ireland must have been doing well judging by the reaction of the home support, but I was detached from everything on the pitch. I could sense tears welling in my eyes.
Then, amid my despair, an act of kindness saved me from my anguish. Beside me, a man placed a crate on the ground for his son and invited me to share the box so as I could see the action. Clinging to the fence and with my shoes hanging off the edge of the crate, I became alive again as I saw the action unfold in all its pace and colour. And then, merely feet in front of me, it happened: Gerry Armstrong kicked Terry Cochrane up the arse!
In Belfast and the island of Ireland, there is nothing as degrading as a kick in the arse. In fact, a whole episode of Father Ted explored this degrading phenomenon when Ted had to humiliate Bishop Brennan by kicking him up the arse. For Terry Cochrane, his humiliation occurred in front of 35,000 spectators, but thankfully, it was missed by the Match of the Day cameras. I saw it in all its ignominy and will never forget those seconds of vivid madness. It was all over in a flash. Cochrane had won the ball and I could hear Armstrong imploring him to pass it to him, but poor Terry could only find Peter Barnes and the opportunity was lost. With England now on the counter-attack, Gerry’s frustration boiled over and the air was pierced with the distinct sound of Armstrong’s leather-clad right foot connecting with the back of Cochrane’s nylon shorts. All seemed to stand still as Armstrong blurted out, “Ye f**king eejit, ye” at poor Terry, who wisely ran off chastised not wishing to test Gerry’s temper any further. In the episode of Father Ted, the theory was that Bishop Brennan would fail to believe that anyone would dare to humiliate him by kicking him up the arse. For Terry Cochrane, the same theory probably applied. Well, it happened and I saw it, so did 35,000 others in the ground that day.
Thereafter, Northern Ireland just wilted in the sun. Dave Watson and Steve Coppell secured an England victory with goals before the quarter hour. The bubble of expectation had been burst dramatically. The crowd began to drift home in the second half and the year 1927 remained the last date in which England had left Belfast a beaten side. Of course, that was until 2005, but that, as they say, is a different story.