Northern Ireland enjoyed their first taste of a tournament final in a generation, back in 2016 when they reached the last 16 at the last European Championships in France – their first appearance at the European finals. Northern Ireland face a tough coming weeks if they are to repeat the feat of 2016. A game against Germany is a daunting prospect without a doubt, but a peek into their history reveals that they have had success against the odds in the past.
Germany have been one of the few countries to have dominated the European football scene for a long time. While there have been some who have stood up against the giants, there have been very few who have lived to tell an underdog story of overcoming a stern German test. Northern Ireland are certainly one of those who would proudly recall beating the Germans, not once but twice. When the “green and white army” take to the field again to face Germany, they may seek to take inspiration and strength from events in qualifying for Euro 1984.
“It was agonisingly close to going our way,” said Billy Bingham at the end of Northern Ireland’s Euro 1984 qualifying campaign. “We must still be proud of what we achieved. We have beaten the Germans twice and only gone out of a five-nation group on goal difference to the champions.”
The champions he referred to were West Germany, winners of the 1980 European Championship, and beaten finalists in the World Cup of 1982. They were the seeded team in Northern Ireland’s qualifying group for the 1984 European Championship, to be played in France. Bingham’s men also had to contend with a strong Austrian team, still enjoying the dying embers of a decent side in the late 1970s/early 1980s. The group was rounded out with two, at the time, weaker nations in Turkey and Albania. However, both would have a significant say in how the group would ultimately play out.
Only seven qualifying teams would join hosts France in the finals. Chances for anyone outside the elite were slim. Yet the relative minnows of Northern Ireland were regularly punching well above their weight in those halcyon days.
Having made it to the World Cup in 1982, Northern Ireland had shocked the world, and themselves, by making it past the first group stage. Their 1-0 win over hosts Spain, a win achieved in spite of having defender Mal Donaghy sent off with half an hour still to play, was the stuff of legend. They reached a second round group where they lost out to France having drawn 2-2 with Austria. Theirs was a squad brimming with confidence and no little talent. There was the goal scoring hero from the win over Spain, Gerry Armstrong, plus the likes of Martin O’Neill, Jimmy Nicholl, Sammy McIlroy, Billy Hamilton and the youthful Norman Whiteside. They were backed up by the legendary Pat Jennings in goal. It was, to borrow an over-used modern phrase, Northern Ireland’s golden generation, who would go on to appear at another World Cup finals in 1986.
When the first qualifier came around though, a re-match with their World Cup opponents Austria in Vienna in October 1982, the thirty-seven-year-old Jennings was being kept out of his club side, Arsenal, by George Wood. In view of this, the national manager Billy Bingham decided to select Jim Platt, who was at least playing regularly for Middlesbrough. It was a decision that would lead to a degree of criticism when many observers felt Platt was in part responsible for a 2-0 defeat in that opening match, although that reaction potentially owed as much to a yearning for the missing Jennings as it did to a criticism of Platt.
A more positive outcome from that opening clash with Austria was the performance of debutant Ian Stewart who had performed well on the wing, causing repeated problems for the Austrians. He kept his place for the next match a month later when the action turned to Windsor Park in Belfast, as did Platt in goal. If the campaign was to get quickly back on track, then a result was vital for the home side. The visitors? None other than West Germany.
This was a team in something of a peak, even by their lofty standards. The success at Euro 1980 and at the 1982 World Cup were a continuation of a sustained period of success from the Germans that would bring further appearances in a World Cup final in 1986 and 1990. As today, they were a perennial contender, making the task facing Northern Ireland daunting in the extreme. This was a team boasting the talents of players like Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Pierre Littbarski, Harald Schumacher, Bernd Schuster and many more besides. This match would also feature a young Lothar Matthäus and a debut for Rudi Völler. This would be West Germany’s opening match of the group, but even by this early stage, with Austria well clear at the top of the group with three wins from three matches, it was an important fixture for both teams.
Yet in a match that would go down in Windsor Park folklore, it was the “furious devils in green shirts”, as Clive White memorably described the Irish in The Times, who took the game to their illustrious visitors. Fielding a positive formation with two wingers, including Ian Stewart, the Irish set about the West Germans with a vigour and verve that clearly rattled them from the off. In a frenetic opening, John O’Neill hit the post after only six minutes, and then just ten minutes later, with the match still in its opening throws, came the moment Northern Ireland would savour for many a year.
Stewart cut in from the left wing and, as he approached the edge of the German penalty area, unleashed a fierce shot that beat Harald Schumacher all ends up, nestling in the corner of the net to a backdrop of raucous celebrations on and off the pitch all around. He wheeled away in delirious delight, as all around him the Windsor Park crowd erupted in unbridled, and unexpected, celebration. West Germany’s much-vaunted stars failed to muster a significant response, although Platt was tested a few times, notably from Littbarski. The one and only time Platt was beaten, the offside flag came to Northern Ireland’s rescue. His goal would remain intact to the end. Northern Ireland had their astonishing victory.
“That was one of our best performances in years,” noted Bingham afterwards, “possibly surpassing last summer’s victory over Spain in Valencia.” High praise indeed. While the shockwaves inflicted by this victory may not have been quite on the scale of those after the World Cup win over Spain, due to the circumstances of that match, it was in fact a win against an even higher calibre opponent.
The same starting eleven took to the field in Tirana four weeks later to take on Albania; the group’s supposed whipping boys. That supposition was not without foundation though. Albania had lost their previous nine European Championship and World Cup qualifiers. They would only pick up two points in this group, but one of them came on this December day in 1982, as Northern Ireland were unable to break down a stubborn home defence. In fact, it was Albania who perhaps came closest to a victory, although Platt in the end secured a second successive clean sheet to at least come away with a point.
But with Austria still topping the table and West Germany surely bound to pick up plenty of points despite at that point sitting bottom of the group having only played once, the frustration of a dropped point coming so soon on the back of that famous win over the Germans was frustrating to say the least. Northern Ireland were in second place as 1982 drew to a close, but in a group where only the winner would progress, there was a nagging feeling that the opportunity afforded by that historic victory over West Germany was potentially being wasted by the failure to beat Albania.
By the following spring, after the Irish had secured narrow home wins over Turkey and Albania, 2-1 and 1-0 respectively, the group had settled into a more expected scenario, with Austria ahead of Northern Ireland only on goal difference, and West Germany – still having games in hand – two points behind. Gerry Armstrong had returned for the Turkey match and Pat Jennings, back in favour at Arsenal, was also back in the team when Albania visited Belfast. Both teams had managed to frustrate the Irish, significantly preventing Northern Ireland from building a healthy goal difference. Northern Ireland were stiflingly strong at the back, conceding relatively few goals throughout the campaign, but the lack of goals up front stood in stark contrast to the Germans and Austrians who were scoring far more freely.
This trend was reversed slightly once Austria had been summarily and superbly dismissed in a fine 3-1 win in Belfast in September 1983 – in Pat Jennings’ 100th appearance for his national team. But even then, with the teams level on points at the top of the table again, Austria’s goal difference remained seven goals superior to Northern Ireland’s. Goals on that day from Billy Hamilton, Norman Whiteside and Martin O’Neill ensured that Jennings’ centenary celebration was a memorable one, and that qualification was still a realistic dream, though the ominous presence of West Germany lurked in the background – four points behind but with two games in hand.
The penultimate match for the men in green was the trip to Turkey. With a visit to West Germany waiting in their final fixture, if there was to be a realistic chance of qualifying, then a win in Turkey was paramount to give Northern Ireland a fighting chance of progressing. But missing the influential Gerry Armstrong, Northern Ireland picked a bad day to put in their worst performance of the campaign and were lacklustre throughout, missing the verve in attack as well as being oddly lethargic at the big in the early exchanges. Turkey took the lead early on and were good value for their 1-0 win.
As with the draw in Albania, it seemed that dropped points against the weakest in the group had put paid to the Irish hopes. When West Germany subsequently thrashed the Turks 5-1 it seemed the end was nigh.
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Three teams sat atop the group, tied on nine points when Northern Ireland travelled to Hamburg to play West Germany at the Volksparkstadion. The points parity was tempered by the fact that West Germany had two games remaining, to Northern Ireland’s and Austria’s one. Both Austria’s and West Germany’s goal difference was superior too – vastly better than Northern Ireland’s. Surely, the group now was as good as over.
Even if Northern Ireland were to win in Hamburg, they would still require West Germany to fail to beat Albania four days later, given the disparity in goal difference. Austria could have thrown an additional spanner in the works, but their campaign, so imperious and victorious in the early matches, had stumbled and fallen. A defeat in Turkey hours before the big clash in Hamburg meant they had ended with three straight losses and were out. It was now a straight fight between West Germany and Northern Ireland, with the odds stacked heavily against the Irish.
To make the job that much harder for Northern Ireland, they would be without the injured Sammy McIlroy and David McCreery. They would feature the returning Gerry Armstrong having missed the preceding match, winning his 50th cap in the process, providing a focal point at the sharp end of the Irish attack, and Jennings would be as reassuring as ever as the last line of defence. With a couple of inexperienced players also in the line-up, the fact that Northern Ireland settled well and began to frustrate their much vaunted opponents was remarkable.
The score was still level at the break before the eighteen-year-old Norman Whiteside struck the decisive blow. After Stewart’s effort, following a delightful run down the left, had been stopped by Schumacher, Whiteside fired home the rebound to give his side an astonishing lead. Could they possibly hold on? With an impressively tenacious level of defensive application, they certainly could. Each time the white shirts of West Germany poured forwards they floundered time and time again against a solid green wall. On the occasions they found a way through, Jennings was there to stop them.
Northern Ireland held out for a scarcely believable double over West Germany – the current European champions no less. With it came a ride to the top of the group, but as astonishing as the victory was, qualification was still unlikely. A West German win over Albania in Saarbrücken would take the holders through to the finals, not the Irish. They celebrated their remarkable double in fine style, famous victories that would be remembered for years to come, but there was an acceptance that their effort to qualify for France were already over, sadly scuppered not against the group’s finest, but in failing to overcome the group’s weakest.
Nobody could possibly have imagined that Albania would cause a shock against the Germans. In the end they didn’t, but they came ever so close merely serving to add to Irish frustration. For Northern Ireland, the fact that Albania took an early lead just made it all the more agonising. Rummenigge equalised almost straight away however, and when Albania’s goal scorer was sent off as the first half wore on it was surely only a matter of time before West Germany sealed their win.
But in a frustrating and nerve-jangling second half, it wasn’t until the 79th minute that they finally did so; Gerhard Strack snatching the late winner to dash any lingering Northern Irish hopes. The green and white army had been a mere 11 minutes away from qualifying in the unlikeliest of scenarios.
As agonising as it was, missing out only on goal difference to such stellar opposition, the opportunity had been missed primarily due to lost points in Albania and Turkey. The phenomenal wins over West Germany, plus the impressive victory over Austria, clawed back the lost ground but left them tantalisingly short of making it to the European Championship. One extra point in either of those disappointing trips east would have seen the Irish qualify thanks to their heroics against West Germany. As it was, with points level at the end of a tough campaign, the difference boiled down to 7 goals – the number by which the German goal difference was superior.
What none of that can diminish though, is how the remarkable home and away wins over West Germany demonstrated what a terrific Northern Ireland side this was. They would go on to win the final British Home Championship the following year and seal a place in a second successive World Cup finals in 1986 in Pat Jennings’ swansong. The decline set in thereafter – more a regression to their mean that any cause for soul-searching – but there would always be the memories of that golden era, when Northern Ireland took on one of the best there was and won – not once, but twice – only to fall agonisingly short at the last.
Yet there is surely a significant degree of inspiration that the current representatives of Northern Ireland can draw from that epic qualifying campaign from decades ago. If they are now to earn a place at the next European Championship finals, a repeat of the historic events of 1982 and 1983 may be required against the same opponent. A tall order no doubt, but there is a history of Northern Ireland occasionally upsetting the odds, and now at least a top two finish will suffice, unlike in 1984.
We may no longer be in the midst of a golden generation for Northern Ireland, but they have done one aspect of what the 1984 squad failed to do in successfully overcoming the weaker teams in the group. Similar heroics to these momentous events of Northern Irish football folklore could push them over the line. Were it to happen again now, it may be the most momentous of all.