'When I was younger I wasn't bothered about football as a career, but that goal against Spain changed my life. What a …
Not much good came out of internment, all sides in our conflict will concur.
An ill-conceived political panacea to douse the flames of the early Troubles, it only made matters worse.
Those who lived through it all, from the first stone cast in Derry in ’68 until the guns fell, periodically, silent in ’98, remember August ’71 as the worst of times. The death toll mounted daily.
But, in the yin and yang of life, where there are losers there must be winners. No wonder Gerry Armstrong believes in fate.
The journey of his sporting life is signposted by one game-changing event after another, none of which he could have foreseen – and every twist did him a good turn.
From the troubled streets of his native west Belfast to World Cup legend.
A man with the distinction of scoring goals at Croke Park, Windsor Park and the World Cup finals.
He dines out to this day on that famous Northern Ireland winner against Spain in Valencia in 1982, when he and his sweat-soaked team-mates achieved mission impossible, plotted, he acknowledges, by master motivator manager Billy Bingham. It made him this country’s most celebrated player since George Best.
From that fateful moment, Gerry has been, and still is, living the dream at 64. On his CV, a proven goalscorer at the top level in England and internationally.
Going on to play in Spain in the era of Maradona, later settling on the holiday isle of Majorca, partying at Elton John’s mansion, joyriding in the star’s Ferrari with team-mate Luther Blissett. Working for over 20 years as Sky’s voice of Spanish football and, his proudest moment of all, marrying his former model wife Debby, 21 years his junior, and a cousin of Snow Patrol’s Jonny Quinn.
And it all began on that August morn in 1971 when, as the song goes, armoured cars, tanks and guns came to take away the sons of west Belfast.
Remarkably, until then, aged 17, Gerry had never played organised club football outside the school playground and street kickabouts.
“Gaelic and hurling were my games,” he explains.
Brought up in Mica Drive in Beechmount, Gerry had been a successful Gaelic footballer and hurler with the St John’s club. He won Ulster Club titles with St John’s, an All-Ireland Vocational Schools’ football medal with Antrim against Tipperary in Croke Park in ’71 and a Leinster medal with Antrim hurlers.
“My grandfather was a groundsman at Casement Park and one of my earliest memories is of riding around the ground on his tractor and trailer. While he was working, I would be kicking a ball around.”
Football, in which he was to make his name and fame, wasn’t on the young Armstrong’s radar.
“Then internment came in and a local team found themselves a few players short and I was drafted in. As a big Gaelic player, they thought I would make a good centre-half and stuck me in.”
Soon, though, Gerry was scoring goals for fun and being noticed.
Still, he turned down his first chance to go on trial at Everton, as he had A levels to complete, after being scouted as he scored twice to help his school, St Thomas’s, win the then Schools Cup.
“It was the Sir Robin Kinahan Cup (named after a leading former Unionist politician and Orangeman) and I brought it home and set it on our dining table but I just wasn’t bothered about football as a career,” he says.
His next foray again came about by chance. He had left school and after a job in an architects office, he moved on to the commercial property section of the Housing Executive, working alongside those two great Larne football stalwarts of the ’80s, Tom Sloan and Paul Carland.
“I was banned for a month from Gaelic for fighting and desperately wanted a game,” he relates. “I was put in touch with Cromac Albion and turned up to play but didn’t get picked.
“I was walking back into town with a mate, Bobby McAuley, who went on to be a smashing Irish League player, and we met some lads from a side called Oldpark Celtic who were short of players, bottom of their league and due to face the top team.
“We played and I scored all their goals in a 4-1 win. Manager Sammy Watson was round my house that night to get me on an Amateur League form.”
And now Gerry is back to his grassroots, having disposed of his property and business interests in Spain last month, to move lock, stock and barrel back to Belfast.
The reason, he explains, is less to do with the ending of Sky’s Spanish football contract as he has new offers of work coming in. As we chatted, a Canadian TV company called to sound him out.
He has returned in the educational interests of his youngest daughter Marianne (11) who is showing promise as a drama and singing student. Another daughter Caitlin (18) is at uni here.
Marianne, fluent in Spanish, is rehearsing a role at The Mac in Belfast as Gerry and I chat while he waits to drive her home.
Gerry is an interviewer’s dream because he not only talks (at length on any subject) but because he also has something to say.
An interesting, chatty, yet unassuming character for all his legend status, Gerry is a people person. As our coffee arrives, he breaks off to chat in Spanish to our server, a Mexican student, making him welcome in Belfast.
It is easy to see why former team-mates, managers and media colleagues speak highly of him.
He considers himself fortunate ‘that goal’ was his passport to a life he could never have imagined and, in return, lends his name to help and promote various causes.
In his first week back here, he signed up as an ambassador for the NI Hospice.
Gerry’s old boss Billy Bingham was less a believer in providence.
“‘You make your own luck in this life’,” he would say. “‘The better you are and the harder you work, the luckier you will be’.”
Gerry’s rewards came first in a move from Cromac to Bangor and then Tottenham, a late arrival in the top division at 21.
“Two great characters called Bertie and Billy Neill brought me to Bangor,” he relates. “Bertie was the manager and put me straight into the reserves for a Steel Cup semi-final. I came on at 1-1 with 15 minutes to go and set up a second goal. We won 3-1 but by then I’d been sent off for a right hook on the other team’s big centre-half who’d been giving me stick.
“Bertie gave me a rollicking But he stuck by me and was good to me. He had a decent team at Bangor. In three seasons we won the Ulster Cup and Co Antrim Shield with players like Jim Thompson, Ronnie McCullough, Ian Jaffrey, Teddy Sloan and Gordon Stewart.
“Then Spurs came in and offered trials to Johnny Jameson and myself. We thought we did well but when we heard nothing for three or four weeks, we assumed they had lost interest.
“Meantime I was being linked with Arsenal, under Bertie Mee, and I thought the move was on when Bangor’s late, great, chairman Jimmy Apperson phoned one Sunday and said to meet him at the Albert Clock.
“We drove to the Dunadry Inn and Terry Neill was waiting to sign me for Spurs. I was on £23 a week at the Housing Executive and he upped it to £65. Premier League players now could not comprehend that.
“I had five happy years at Spurs under Terry Neill and then Keith Burkinshaw. But the last two years were difficult, too, because Keith played me at centre-half. I was happy to help out but by then I saw myself as a front player. I had no illusions of grandeur, though. My style was to score goals, create goals and cause havoc.
“Graham Taylor at Watford then came in for me and I loved playing for him and his chairman, Elton John. My greatest strength as a player going to the World Cup with Northern Ireland in ’82 was my fitness and I put that down to Graham Taylor. We had some great players in John Barnes, Luther Blissett and Kennny Jackett.
“I was proud to score their first top division goal. People underestimated us, saying we would go straight back down but we finished second to Liverpool.”
Asked for his memories of Sir Elton, Gerry scrolls through his phone for a picture of himself with Elton, the comic Lenny Bennett and Gerry’s Golden Boot as top British scorer at the ’82 World Cup.
“Elton was a great chairman and great bloke,” affirms Gerry. “He would invite the team round to his house for parties and I remember one night being serenaded by Elton and Kiki Dee who had that big hit ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’.
“We almost broke Elton’s when Luther Blissett and I took his Ferrari for a spin around the grounds.”
If Gerry thought he had reached the pinnacle then, his ultimate life-changing moment was still to come at that summer of ’82’s World Cup in Spain.
“No disrespect to Michael O’Neill for the fantastic job he is doing but Billy Bingham has to be Northern Ireland’s greatest manager ever,” maintains Gerry who was later to act as best man at Bingham’s wedding. “Qualifying for two World Cups and winning two British Championships is an incredible record.
“He lifted that ’82 team to amazing heights and when he told us we could beat Spain on their own patch, we believed him.”
Gerry must have been asked to relive ‘that goal’ 100,000 times yet still recites it with enthusiasm.
“Two minutes after half-time, I intercepted a pass and burst into Spain’s half,” he says. “I ran about 30 yards – Alonso (father of Xabi) tried to kick me – and laid it off to Billy Hamilton. Billy was not a great crosser of the ball, so I didn’t charge forward. He put in the best one of his life.
“Spain’s keeper, Luis Arconada, dived at the cross, flapped a punch, and it came out to me
“There were a lot of Spanish bodies in the box but it went through all of them into the net.”
The TV commentator’s ‘Arconada… Armstrong!’ call is our ‘They Think It’s All Over’ moment.
“It totally changed my life,” Gerry agrees. “What a night and what a party. Jimmy Hill welcomed us back to the hotel with champagne.
“It went on for hours and hours. I sat with Pat Jennings on a balcony and watched the sun come up. Eventually we had some sleep.”
Newspapers linked Gerry with a raft of Spanish clubs but the interest petered out as he returned to Watford and immediately suffered a long-term injury.
“I came back towards the end of that season and heard Real Mallorca were still interested. I thought, ‘I am 29 now. I have decisions to make’. They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, and another two magical years unfolded.
“I scored my first goal against the Barcelona of Maradona, Schuster and Roberto but we lost 4-1. The experience was fantastic and it gave me opportunities both in business and as a doorway to 22 years with Sky.”
And now as another door is opening in consultancy, PR and other television work, it is time to ask if he harbours a single regret.
“None,” he says emphatically. “I’ve had two careers, as a player and commentator. The most I ever earned was £500 a week and I don’t think it is a good life lesson for today’s young Premier League players to earn so many millions, so soon. How do they learn values?
“The only downside for me was injuries. I got to play on the biggest stages, with and against the greatest players and for great managers like Billy Bingham and Graham Taylor – and thanks to that goal, I am still remembered. How could I not be content?”