Fitting though that seems, that’s all about to change.
Billy Hamilton was a bit of a hero for me long before he arrived at The Manor for his fleeting, yet legendary, stint partnering John Aldridge. This, in part, was because he played a significant part in me developing a favourite score line: the 1-0 win.
The casual or indifferent follower typically judges a game by the number of goals scored. 1-0’s are exclusively for the proper football fan, illustrating the fine line between success and failure.
It illustrates that it is not the number goals, but the context in which they’re scored that makes the game what it is. And understanding the context requires dedication and time. The more you dedicate, the more you appreciate the context, and by that token you are rewarded by the result whilst all those more casual trudge off in disappointment.
In 1982, I assumed that the home nations were practically guaranteed a World Cup spot. I certainly didn’t appreciate, for example, that Northern Ireland were the smallest country ever to qualify for the tournament, beaten only in 2006 by Trinidad and Tobago. Or that they remain the smallest country to have qualified more than once. Add to this the context that Europe is the toughest qualifying region, and you’re really starting to get some perspective on their achievements.
Having drawn their opening games, against Yugoslavia and Honduras, Northern Ireland’s World Cup adventure looked set for a swift and predictable end. Hosts Spain were their final opponents and only a victory would see them progress.
In ’82 Spain was very far away; the pictures were grainy, the sound crackled like it broadcast came from the moon. I’ve always thought that HD sharp pictures and Dolby Surround Sound has made international games less exciting, not more. 1982, those were the days.
Holding Spain 0-0 at half time was admirable enough, but two minutes into the second half striker Gerry Armstrong fed Billy Hamilton down the right-wing. Not a man known for his wing play, Hamilton jinked his way to the by-line before firing in a low cross to the edge of the Spanish 6 yard box. Luis Arconada, one of the greatest keepers in the world, spilled the cross into the path of Armstrong, who blasted home.
From there, Ireland dug in, Mal Donaghy was sent off on the hour, each substitution made them more defensive. They retreated and retreated, but ultimately Spain couldn’t break through. It was a majestic result, a classic 1-0.
Having qualified as group winners, the tournament then entered a second group phase; Hamilton scored a brace in a 2-2 draw with Austria, his second a ‘falling oak’ diving header. Finally, the French put them to the sword 1-4.
Four years later, in Mexico, Hamilton became the first (and only) Oxford United player to play in a World Cup whilst at the club. It wasn’t as stirring a campaign. A draw with Algeria immediately made the prospect of qualification a remote one. Hamilton started that game, but had to be satisfied with substitute appearances in the revenge defeat to Spain and a 3-0 destruction by Brazil.
It marked the end of Hamilton’s international career and he played just twice more for Oxford as he battled with injury. He eventually headed back to Ireland where he wound his career down. He finished with 41 Irish caps and 41 Oxford games scoring near-on a goal every other game. They gave him a testimonial a few years later at the Manor, not bad for a bloke who barely registered a whole season of appearances for the club.