Catching up with the man who scored the most important goal in NI's football history
and live on Freeview channel 276
Everybody in the six counties surely knows Gerry Armstrong. In fact, every football aficionado owes him a debt.
That would be because he scored the 1982 winning FIFA World Cup goal for Northern Ireland against Spain, one of the most important goals ever scored in this province’s sporting history. He remembers that once-in-a-life-time moment with high emotion.
Now a footie commentator for Virgin Media, the veteran sportsman, 68, who is married to former air hostess and model Deborah, recalls: “When you’ve trained for so many years, so hard, for so long, and put body and soul into being the best football player you can be, a moment like that happens in a kind of spectacular, heart-stopping slow-motion. The build-up to the goal, the opportunity and hitting the ball into the back of the net, was just surreal in one way, and in another, after so many years of blood, sweat and tears it feels like the just reward you’ve been waiting for and dreaming of.
“In a World Cup Final, of course it was really something else, and also we needed that goal to qualify in order to go further into the quarter-finals. “When I hit the ball it was like slow motion when it went into the back of the net, there was no cheering as the game was being hosted by Spain, which is in stark contrast to when you score a goal in front of your home crowd when you have the sheer noise of the jubilation of everybody cheering.
“So you had maybe 50,000 Spanish fans who were silent and maybe 500 Northern Irish fans who were pleased. So in the silence for a moment I thought that the goal was going to be disallowed. “But then I turned and I saw Sammy McIlroy and Norman Whiteside put their hands up to celebrate and then I knew it was time to be happy.
“It was a fantastic moment and of course the greatest I have ever enjoyed in my soccer career. “I have scored a lot of goals over the years, but that will always, always be the one I am best known for, no matter what, because it was one of the most important goals ever scored in the history of Northern Irish football.”
Gerry, one of ten from Beechmount in west Belfast, who was proudly taught music by this journalist’s late uncle Sean McCann at St Thomas’s Secondary School on the Whiterock Road, at which the late, great Seamus Heaney was also a staff member (the school is now demolished), and was well known for his prowess as a singer to the extent that he once played the lead in Joseph and His Technicolour Dreamcoat, plus the multitalented Armstrong – he definitely is an all-rounder - was so good at drawing that he became an apprentice architect based on the Malone Road before he turned his full focus to sportsmanship.
He started out kicking a ball about as a kid, and was allegedly always in trouble, his mum having to drag him indoors at dinnertime when he would be knee-deep in a nearby river, or getting into fights, such was his rambunctious nature. Gerry was thrown off the pitch during a Gaelic football match as a youngster, and then turned his attention to soccer in earnest. “I was playing Gaelic football and hurling up until I was 17, so soccer came late.
“I remember getting into trouble fighting on the Gaelic pitch and I got suspended. During the suspension I started playing soccer. It turned out I was pretty good, although at first, of course, I was more than a bit of a rough diamond. And at Tottenham Hotspur, the first team to sign me, they helped me to polish my game. “Tottenham Hotspur were a huge club at the time and I was delighted to be recruited to play for them. I was there for five years. But I probably made more progress when I went to Watford.
“That three year period from 1980 through to 1983 was probably my most successful period. This was all down to one person in particular and that was Graham Taylor. He was my manager and very influential. “He taught me so much during those three years that I didn’t know [Taylor would go on to be manager of England]. He got me fitter than I have ever been in my life. “I took that fitness with me to the World Cup in 1982. That was a bit of a nightmare for the opposition, but certainly not for me.”
Gerry, an avowed Leeds United supporter to this day, still likes to root for Northern Ireland, even though today they can hardly be said to be living up to the glory years he was an important part of in the 1980s. “That period I played for them from 1980 until 1986 was really successful and we won the British Championship twice. “At the time, and I am particularly proud of this, it was a very strong half and half mix of Protestants and Catholics and it showed just what we can achieve when we work together. We had a bond and a camaraderie and loved each other’s company.
“When we went onto the pitch we never gave anything away, the number of goals we conceded were very, very few. It was a brotherhood. “We were undefeated for nearly six years at Windsor Park. We played Portugal, we played England, we played Sweden, we played Germany - and we beat everybody. It was just a unique situation. “We didn’t have fantastic tactical ability but we had an incredible attitude, a work ethic and a determination that made us formidable opponents to play against. We qualified for two World Cups in 1982 and 1986.
“I loved the big names and the greater pressure when the stakes were high because there was a potentially big prize in front of you. I loved the fact that as Northern Ireland we were always considered the underdogs and that meant, in my view, that people tended to really underestimate us. Nobody saw us coming. We beat Germany both at home and away, which hardly ever happens in any major competition.
“We always went out and had beers after the game, some of the lads weren’t big drinkers at all and even just used to stick to Coca-Cola but Pat Jennings and I tended to stick to beer.” The veteran of Northern Ireland football, who released his much-vaunted autobiography Gerry Armstrong: My Story, My Journey in 2021, has encountered numerous football legends throughout his many-storied career, including, Pat Jennings and Chris McGrath, both of whom he met at Tottenham Hotspur.
“Then when I moved to Watford I had Pat Rice, John Barnes and Glen Hoddle - a huge name. “I was a Leeds United supporter as a boy and I followed them right throughout my career. “I scored my first goal for Spurs against Leeds United at Elland Road. “It was weird scoring against the team I supported as a boy. I’ve scored against Manchester United too, I’ve scored against lots of big teams in fact.
“I’ve even had the supreme honour of playing against Diego Maradonna on four different occasions. He was absolutely sensational. He was something else. There was a period of about ten years when he was undoubtedly one of the very best players in the world, just the way in the last ten years the two top players globally have largely been Christiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.” And of course the late great George Best was both a colleague and a personal friend whom he remembers with great fondness.
“George Best and I were friends, of course, but we also played together internationally - once memorably against west Germany in Cologne. “That was one of my most fantastic memories, I was playing for my country alongside one of the players that I admired most in the world. “George was brilliant with both feet - which is rare - and he had truly unbelievable balance. He could dribble, score goals, head the ball - he could do it all. He did things in a way that other players simply could not do, like Messi today.
“I don’t think of myself [as being in] in the same class. I was an all-rounder, a whole-hearted player with a lot of pace and a lot of attitude, but I would not have had George’s ability - not his balance or his skill.”
‘My Story, My Journey’ by Gerry Armstrong is available now.