Northern Ireland boys as tight as our 82 and 86 heroes, says legend Clarke

Colin Clarke fakes disgust. I've just put it to him that he was involved in one of the most bizarre World Cup goals of all time.

Northern Ireland boys as tight as our 82 and 86 heroes, says legend Clarke

“It was a great goal - what are you talking about? I always tell everyone that it was a header from 18 yards - which is factually accurate”.

When the legendary former Northern Ireland attacker netted against Spain in June, 1986 – in the searing midday heat of Guadalajara - no one expected it would be the team's last goal at a major tournament for three decades.

But this was the North's golden generation, a remarkable, over-achieving group. As much as there were successive World Cup appearances, the team should've been at Euro '84 too. But, despite beating Germany in Hamburg, they were pipped to top spot on goal difference and agonisingly missed out on qualification.

Mexico '86 would prove the swansong for a number of notable team members and Clarke, who was impressing at lower-league Bournemouth under Harry Redknapp, was part of the new wave given a chance to impress. He was on the fringes of the squad as a nervy qualification drew to a close.

“We had to go to Romania and England in the last two games, which was a pretty tall order back then”, Clarke recalls.

“I remember Jimmy Quinn scoring in Bucharest to beat them 1-0 and then big Pat stood on his head at Wembley and we drew 0-0 to qualify. The saves he pulled off were just unbelievable.

I made by debut in France on a very cold, February night on a hard field and scored my first goal in a warm-up game with Morocco so I'd come a long way. The team at the time was pretty tight since '82 so I was probably one of the last to make the squad.”

In the World Cup opener with Algeria, which Northern Ireland drew 1-1, Clarke came off the bench for the last ten minutes and did enough to be included from the start against a Spanish side featuring Michel and Emilio Butragueno.

The Real Madrid pair combined for the latter to score inside the opening minute while Julio Salinas added a second later in the half.

Still, Clarke had his moment shortly after the restart.

“It was a long ball up top”, he says.

“They went to clear and made a mess of it and the ball bounced up. (Andoni) Zubizaretta decided to come for it but he was never going to get there - I was always going to get there first in my mind. It wasn't one of the best goals but to me it was and it's something I'll always remember.”

Against the vibrant and free-flowing Brazil in their final group game, Northern Ireland succumbed to a 3-0 defeat. Josimar scored one of the tournament's great goals with a ferocious shot that swerved and dipped its way to the top corner while Zico teed up Careca with a divine back-heel.

But for Clarke, that game showed him how far he'd come in such a short time.

“I mean, the full-back scored from right on the touchline, practically”, he says.

“Brazil were an unbelievable team. They deserved all the plaudits they got. Just to be able to step on the pitch with those types of players was incredible. Just months before, I was playing with Bournemouth in the Third Division”.

Forced to retire at 30 because of injury, Clarke, who held the goalscoring record for Northern Ireland until David Healy broke it in 2004, has been coaching in the United States since the late-1990s and is currently in charge of the Carolina Railhawks of the NASL – essentially North America's second tier.

Despite the distance, he's kept up to date with his country's magnificent Euro 2016 qualification campaign. And it's all a bit familiar to him.

“They look like a group from 1982 or 1986 where it's all about the team and the team comes first and that's what's important”, he says.

“They have belief and trust in each other and I think we're going to surprise a few people. A lot of credit goes to the federation for keeping Michael O'Neill in place and keeping the continuity and he's done a great job.

I'm still so proud to be from Northern Ireland, what we've done and what the team has done in this campaign. It's great to see. There's a lot of ex-pats over here - from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, so it's nice for us to have our day in the sunshine.”

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