At the time of writing this, I do not know if Ireland — as in the Republic — have or have not qualified for the World Cup, whether they were won, lost, were lucky or robbed, if the game produced another Alan McLoughlin or a Thierry Henry.
What we all have known for a few days now is that the other team from this island, Northern Ireland, will not be going to Russia next summer.
They lost, were unlucky, essentially robbed, the Henry-like villain in their particular handball drama a Romanian referee by the name of Ovidiu Hategan.
Observing the injustice and aftermath of their play-off against Switzerland, there were two particularly striking takeaways: How the video assistant referee trialled in last Friday’s England-Germany friendly can’t come quick enough into all Fifa internationals and how blasé and indifferent people from the south were to Northern Ireland’s plight, with some even revelling in their misfortune.
People who tweeted their profound sympathy for Gianluigi Buffon, a man who had already won a World Cup let alone played in four of them, were completely unsympathetic to Michael O’Neill and his men similarly missing out on Russia 2018, reminding us that this time eight years ago a few Norn Iron diehards displayed a banner thanking Thierry Henry for stopping the Republic going to South Africa, doo-da, doo-da!
What a couple of generations probably don’t know or appreciate is that in the summer of 1982, not only was a 12-year-old Ballymena Catholic like O’Neill glued to his telly to watch Northern Ireland take on the might of Yugoslavia, France, and famously, Spain in the World Cup, but so were most people down here.
And when Gerry Armstrong struck the ball below the diving, despairing figure of Louis Arconada, it triggered more spilled pints and eruptions of couches across Ireland than any soccer goal ever did before Ray Houghton would put the ball in the English net. Before Euro ’88, before Italia ’90, there was Espana ’82, the next best thing.
“It didn’t matter what religion you were, people were totally behind us,” said Armstrong, who grew up around the corner from the Falls Road. “Everybody who was Irish supported us.”
Although Belfast was burning, Billy Bingham and his boys were winning, and no-one could or would begrudge them.
Sure how could you? In goals they had Pat Jennings, who oozed both a coolness and a genuineness that few have ever emulated, a rock star that always remained the boy next door. In midfield there was a certain Martin O’Neill. Upfront there was Armstrong. Jennings had won FA Cups with Arsenal and played some Gaelic. O’Neill had won European Cups with Forest and played for Derry in a minor All Ireland semi-final. Armstrong had played for Spurs and also played county minor, for Antrim. Between the telly and the Gaelic, nationalists could relate to them, feel like they even knew them.
It’s a different story these days. Five of the starting team that beat Spain in ’82 had played for Manchester United. But it’s not just that lack of familiarity and recognisability with the team’s players. Other things changed.
The Republic started winning and making tournaments, giving nationalists either side of the border a team to sing and shout about. And then when they were on the verge of qualifying for another one, USA ’94, there was that night in November and Windsor Park.
It was 24 years ago this week. Billy Bingham’s last match in charge of Northern Ireland.
By right he should have gone down as one of the most remarkable managers this island has known, rivalling and even eclipsing Jack Charlton for his feats in international football coaching, not only qualifying for two World Cups but winning two old Home Nations tournaments and twice beating Germany in a European Championship campaign.
And yet for many the abiding image and memory of Bingham will not be of the soft-spoken, pipe-smoking gentleman we’d come to know and love in the ‘80s but the red-cheeked zealot who stirred up the mob into a shocking frenzy either side of Jimmy Quinn putting the ball in the Fenians’ net.
The weekend before that most volatile of matches, Bingham was interviewed in his home base of Southport by one Eamon Dunphy who found witty, pleasant company.
Bingham spoke proudly of his roots and culture. How his father worked in the shipyard. How as a lad he’d throw stones at Catholic lads from the Short Strand.
“It was nothing personal. We didn’t really understand the larger picture.”
A few nights later he again seemed unaware of the sensitivities of the other community — or perhaps too aware of it, playing to a constituency that would have had no reluctance to throw stones. It was the night for many that the mask slipped — if not Bingham’s, then that of the mob he’d egged on. Within a decade, Neil Lennon was receiving death threats.
Apparently the trigger for Bingham’s ire was the chant of the Lansdowne crowd six months earlier in a 3-0 rout playfully claiming that there was ‘only one team in Ireland’. And so ever since then, he’s pretty much got his wish — for anyone outside the unionist community, it’s as if there’s only one team in Ireland.
The way it works now, rejecting the Northern Ireland team is a way of rejecting the Northern Ireland state, or partition. One of the ironies of the peace process and Good Friday Agreement is that by recognising people’s right to identify themselves as Irish or Northern Irish or British, players like Darren Gibson and James McClean and Shane Duffy were eligible to play for the Republic when in the past likes of Jennings and Armstrong couldn’t.
Playing and supporting the Republic is a way of expressing being Irish even if you’re from or living in the north.
Meanwhile, the North still playwhen Scotland or Wales don’t. The team still play in Windsor Park, the home of Linfield. Just as supporting the Republic is a declaration of nationalist identity, supporting the North is a form of expressing unionist identity.
Except their manager — at least for the time being — is a Catholic. Michael O’Neill has only being respectful of the Republic team and its tradition, just as he’s been dignified all through his tenure.
Everyone on this island could have been more respectful of the tradition he and his team were trying to uphold. Because as any of us who were kids like him in the summer of ’82 will remember, there are times when you’re glad that there’s more than one team in Ireland.