The tributes after the death of the former Northern Ireland manager Billy Bingham inevitably evoked glorious memories: two World Cups, Gerry Armstrong’s goal in Valencia, beating West Germany home and away as the country went so close to qualifying for Euro 84. Even that Josimar goal was a special moment.
Sandwiched between Spain 82 and Mexico 86 is another triumph that is still cherished by Northern Ireland fans. Winning the British Home Championship in 1984 was an achievement in its own right – it was only the third time they had won the competition outright – but that season’s trophy was particularly significant.
When it was announced in August 1983 that England would be leaving the tournament that had started in 1884, there was a mixed reaction across the four nations. English apathy towards the annual event was mirrored in Scotland, who also decided to jump ship, but there was sadness, concern and understandable anger in Wales and Northern Ireland. Worried about their loss of earnings – estimated to be £100,000 per season – the two nations appealed to England to reconsider. But low attendances and a desire to participate in more glamorous friendlies meant that the 1983-84 championship would be the last.
The FA secretary, Ted Croker, was frank in his defence, saying: “The reality is that we just do not have enough gaps in the fixture list to play the top teams in the world, such as West Germany, Russia, Italy or the South Americans, and continue the Home Internationals. The matches against Northern Ireland and Wales are no longer the major attractions and crowd pullers they once were, even when they were played in Wales or Belfast, and so it was felt a halt had to be called.”
So, on Tuesday 13 December 1983, the last British Home Championship commenced. As usual, the four nations played each other in a round-robin format over the course of the season. First up was Scotland’s trip to Northern Ireland. Bingham’s side were confident after their brave attempt to reach Euro 84 and they proved too good for Jock Stein’s outfit in front of a crowd of 10,000 at Windsor Park.
Graeme Souness hit the post early on, but the home team grew into the match and Norman Whiteside gave them the lead in the 18th minute. The centre-back Gerry McElhinney nearly doubled the lead, and although Scotland had a goal disallowed the continual pressing game of Northern Ireland denied the visitors any room to express themselves. The skipper, Sammy McIlroy, drove in a second goal at the start of the second half. Beating one of the nations that had elected to leave the tournament was very satisfying for the home fans.
Next for Northern Ireland was a trip to Wembley. England manager Bobby Robson was a man under pressure. Failure to reach Euro 84 coupled with a recent 2-0 defeat in France led to questions about whether he knew his best team or formation. Robson was hardly helped when six players pulled out of his squad.
Bingham also had concerns before the match. Pat Jennings had broken his nose in a club match, so the Ballymena player-manager, Jim Platt, had to step into the big shoes left by the experienced goalkeeper. “I’m dying to win but I’ll be quite content with the draw – and a narrow defeat wouldn’t upset me,” said Bingham. He would have to settle for the latter option.
In truth, Northern Ireland were unlucky to lose 1-0 at Wembley. “Northern Ireland had the better knit team and the contrast in understanding and organisation ought to have brought them victory or at least enabled them to avoid defeat,” wrote David Lacey in the Guardian. Tony Woodcock’s header won the match for England as Northern Ireland’s missed chances proved costly. “One of our failings is that we are not great finishers,” admitted Bingham.
England were favourites to lift the trophy after their opening win, but their 1-0 defeat in Wrexham at the start of May left the tournament wide open. “England plunged to new depths of humiliation last night,” wrote Steve Curry in the Express. It’s little wonder that the Wales manager, Mike England, was particularly elated after the win.
After beating England, Wales welcomed Northern Ireland to Vetch Field in Swansea on Tuesday 22 May. Mark Hughes gave the home side the lead shortly after half-time and they pressed for a second goal but Armstrong scored his 11th international goal in the 73rd minute to gain a crucial point for Northern Ireland. The 1-1 draw meant that Northern Ireland and Wales both finished the tournament with three points but, crucially, Northern Ireland had a better goal difference. With one game to go, they had a chance of lifting the trophy.
The tournament finished on 26 May 1984 with a meeting between Scotland and England at Hampden Park. Both sides had won and lost a game each, so a victory on the night would given them the trophy – but Northern Ireland would nick it on goal difference if they were to draw.
And so it came to pass. A crowd of 73,064 saw Mark McGhee head Scotland in front before a stunning strike from Woodcock levelled matters for England. The 1-1 draw meant that Northern Ireland were champions. Wales finished second, with the two defecting nations in the bottom two spots in the table.
It was a nice way to go out for Northern Ireland and Wales fans but the tournament had not won over the naysayers.
“The British Championship had to go,” concluded Lacey in the Guardian. “It was doomed from the late 1950s and early 1960s, a period which saw a sudden increase in club activity at home and abroad. Once the European club tournaments had started, along with the Football League Cup, the clash of interests with the needs of the international squads became more acute. Apart from the matches between England and Scotland, interest in the contest has rarely been more than lukewarm.”
Despite the nostalgia, it is hard to disagree. European club competitions, the League Cup, declining gates and crowd violence all combined to bring an end to the 100-year tournament. Even after the subsequent ban of English clubs in Europe it was hard to see it revived. As we are witnessing with the Nations League now, sometimes there simply is too much football.
Personally, I loved the Home Nations tournament and no doubt Northern Ireland fans would concur. Their victory in 1984 gives them bragging rights as the everlasting champions. It was not as big as reaching the World Cups in Spain and Mexico, but it is an important chapter in the fabulous story of Northern Ireland under Bingham.