By Kenny Archer
The pain is temporary, the glory is eternal. Sammy McIlroy did more grimacing than grinning on Northern Ireland's most famous footballing night, but 20 years on his memories are largely happy ones.
In a result that still echoes down the years, McIlroy and his unfancied Northern Ireland colleagues amazingly defeated host nation Spain 1-0 in the opening stage of the FIFA World Cup finals of 1982. McIlroy could not complete the game due to injury, but he had played his part in a historic occasion, the victory ensuring Billy Bingham's team progressed to the second stage.
Just over two decades later, now as Northern Ireland manager, McIlroy is hoping to repeat that astonishing feat when his side meet Spain in Albacete in Group 6 of the EURO 2004™ qualifying campaign.
Certainly the Irish Football Association want to help history repeat itself and have booked the visiting players into the same hotel in Valencia as used by Northern Ireland in 1982. The two sides last met just before this year's World Cup when Spain emerged 5-0 winners in a Belfast friendly.
Yet there was little love lost in the Luis Casanova stadium in Valencia on that night of 25 June 1982, as McIlroy recalled: "There was an unbelievable atmosphere. The stadium was packed with almost 50,000 people an hour and a half before kick-off.
Team spirit high
"We were seen as the whipping boys, just there to make up the numbers as Spain topped the group. Their players tried to unsettle us from the start, with kicking, spitting, and so on. But they met their match in our team spirit that night."
McIlroy suffered more than any Northern Ireland player, the victim of a "first-half foul down the back of my calf, which swelled up in a matter of minutes". The former Manchester United FC man, who had transferred to Stoke City FC earlier that year, played on until Gerry Armstrong scored the game's only goal, his 48th-minute strike the most famous in Northern Irish football history.
"Once we scored I signalled to Billy [Bingham] to bring on fresh legs and he substituted me with Tommy Cassidy," he said. McIlroy then had a nervous wait as Northern Ireland grimly defended their slender advantage. Young defender Mal Donaghy was sent off but the Spanish simply could not score past legendary goalkeeper Pat Jennings.
In the end, both teams progressed and McIlroy will be delighted if that happens again for EURO 2004™. Even through the pain, McIlroy was able to enjoy "a fantastic victory - we knew how much it meant to people back home, our progress gripped Northern Ireland".
Underdogs on top
McIlroy, though, is more concerned with the spirit of '82 than the setting, adding: "Our squad in 1982 was magnificent. We had character, passion, pride, everything you need in football terms. That's the sort of spirit I want in my teams, the belief that underdogs can come out on top now and again."
His team on Saturday will be without Neil Lennon but will look to the likes of Steve Lomas and Gerry Taggart to drive the squad. This will be their first qualifier while Spain started last month with a 2-0 away win in Greece. The Spanish, who have doubts about the fitness of Raúl González, have included Guti and Diego Tristán. The other Group 6 game this weekend will see Greece travel to Ukraine, a fixture of equal significance but unable to stir the memories quite like this one.
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