Billy Bingham: The forward-thinking manager who shaped Northern Irish football

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Billy Bingham’s influence on Northern Irish football over the past 60 years was unparalleled.

A veteran of three World Cup finals, one as a player and two as a manager, Bingham’s blueprint for how his small country could deliver success – through collective spirit, superior fitness and professionalism – was followed by one of his former players Michael O’Neill in guiding them to Euro 2016, their first major tournament in 30 years.

Bingham, who has died aged 90, was the man who made a Catholic his captain and lobbied for an inclusive new national stadium three decades before it happened.

Billy Bingham led Northern Ireland to victory over hosts Spain at the 1982 World Cup
Billy Bingham led Northern Ireland to victory over hosts Spain at the 1982 World Cup (PA).

He masterminded the country’s most famous result when they beat hosts Spain at the 1982 World Cup and in doing so did more for cross-community unity than any politician could manage at that time during the Troubles.

An East Belfast boy, Bingham once quipped he came from a “mixed marriage” given his parents belonged to separate branches of the Protestant faith, and his formative years were spent playing football on the street alongside future international colleague Jackie Blanchflower.

Bingham progressed through the ranks at Glentoran alongside Jimmy McIlroy, another who would pull on the green and white jersey, and he played for the Glens part-time while working as an electrical engineer in the shipyard before big-spending Sunderland took him across the water in 1950.

As an outside right he possessed impressive speed and an eye for goal, scoring 10 times for his country in 56 appearances, although his greatest trait could have been his will to win – a characteristic that would stand him in good stead in his next occupation.

Billy Bingham is held aloft by fans after scoring the goal which sent Luton to the FA Cup final
Billy Bingham is held aloft by fans after scoring the goal which sent Luton to the 1959 FA Cup final (PA).

His international bow came in a 2-2 draw with France in 1951, Northern Ireland’s final game before Bingham’s “idol” Peter Doherty took charge. Seven years later they made their first World Cup finals in Sweden and a team featuring Harry Gregg, Blanchflower, Bingham and McIlroy upset the odds to reach the last eight.

In doing so they defeated Czechoslovakia after extra-time in a group play-off, with Bingham displaying his managerial instinct by instructing colleagues to perform stretches prior to the additional period in a psychological ploy.

His best club moments came after that World Cup as his semi-final replay winner took Luton to a 1959 FA Cup final at Wembley, while Bingham would also win the First Division title with Everton prior to moving into management.

Bingham managed a handful of clubs, guiding some while leading Northern Ireland at the same time, but it was his second spell as manager of his country beginning in 1980 for which he is most fondly remembered.

In an an era where football had a drinking culture, Bingham introduced curfews, milk and orange juice, and had an international marathon runner improve his team’s fitness.

Gerry Armstrong scored Northern Ireland's winner against Spain at the 1982 World Cup
Gerry Armstrong scored Northern Ireland’s winner against Spain at the 1982 World Cup (PA).

He was willing to make bold calls too. Future Republic of Ireland boss Martin O’Neill was his skipper, the first Catholic to have the honour bestowed on him during the Troubles, and received threatening letters as a result.

In 1982, Bingham called up 17-year-old Norman Whiteside, who remains the youngest player to feature at a World Cup finals, after just two senior appearances for Manchester United and denied George Best, then 36, a romanticised international recall. Bingham would later be one of Best’s pallbearers.

He was successful too. The 1980 British Championship success was Northern Ireland’s first in 66 years and they reached back-to-back World Cups thereafter, topping their group in the first thanks to that unlikely triumph over Spain.

The morning after Gerry Armstrong’s strike delivered that win, Bingham’s players were inundated with telegrams from every section of the Irish community, messages from Catholics and Protestants alike.

In 1982 a murder took place during the Troubles roughly once every three days. Only one was recorded in the two-and-a-half weeks between Northern Ireland’s first and last matches at the World Cup.

The following year they became the first nation to beat the Germans at home since the war and Bingham later remarked to Armstrong that his XI featured six Catholics and five Protestants. In the country’s darkest times, their football team had shown what togetherness could achieve.

The 1986 World Cup saw the Northern Irish eliminated without winning a game and there would be no more tournament football before Bingham departed following a bad-tempered finale against the Republic in 1993.

Jack Charlton’s team’s World Cup dream was in the balance and Bingham, with “one team in Ireland” chants still ringing in his head from the reverse fixture, lit the blue-touch paper by accusing his opponents, many of whom were born in Britain but qualified to represent the Republic, of being “mercenaries”.

The 1-1 draw at Windsor Park sent the Republic to the 1994 World Cup but did little for cross-border relations as Bingham, then 62, stepped away from his final managerial post.

He will be remembered as having a philosophy where his team of hard-working underdogs combined to ensure the whole was greater than its parts.

“Winning’s great, of course,” Bingham once said in the Spirit of ’58 book detailing the country’s World Cup campaign that year. “But when you’re not expected to win, it’s even greater.”

He is survived by his son David and daughter Sharon.

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