Gerry Armstrong: From Croke Park to the World Cup
‘Páidí ó Sé could make no fist of Gerry Armstrong who roamed out the field and left Kerry defenders
flat-footed with his devastating bursts of speed…’
The Irish News, August 18, 1975
THAT extract is taken from a report of the All-Ireland U21 semi-final in which Antrim went toe-to-toe with a Kerry side packed with future household names like Pat Spillane, Mikey Sheehy and Páidí ó Sé.
Kerry won, but Antrim gave them their fill of it for a time and the sadly departed O Se, who went on to win eight senior All-Irelands, was given the run-around by Gerry Armstrong.
Yes, that Gerry Armstrong, the Northern Ireland World Cup 1982 hero, the Sky Sports Spanish football pundit… that Gerry Armstrong.
His career for his club St John’s and for his county are among the GAA’s best kept secrets.
Everyone knows that Kevin Moran won an All-Ireland playing for Dublin but who knew that Armstrong was a skilful, quick and fearless centre half-forward who played minor and U21 football for the Saffrons and senior from the age of 17 until he was 21 and left for Spurs?
Who knew he scored a goal against Dublin at Croke Park, made his debut for St John’s in an Antrim Senior Football Championship clash at Casement Park aged 15 and came off the bench to score a goal, won Ulster titles with ‘the Johnnies’ and Antrim and has an All-Ireland hurling medal in his collection?
Armstrong, affectionately nicknamed ‘Gock’, says himself “I was a much better Gaelic player than I was a soccer player” and the question will always be: What might have been if Antrim had kept him and the rest of that 1975 side together?
The west Belfast native didn’t play soccer seriously until he was 16 and, but for a twist of fate, he might never have gone on to enjoy the career that took him to White Hart Lane and spells at Watford, West Brom and Real Mallorca among others and included 12 goals in 63 caps for Northern Ireland and appearances at the 1982 and ’86 World Cups.
The soccer started with a scrap on the street.
“It was Friday night on the Falls Road,” he recalls with a laugh that says ‘that’s just the way it was’.
“I caught this guy on the top of the head instead of the jaw with a left hook. It was instinctive – I’m sure it hurt him, but it hurt me more.”
A few days later, St John’s met Cargin in the Antrim minor final and Armstrong pulled a glove over his cast and played. Again there was an ‘instinctive’ reaction when he got in harm’s way.
“I got into a bit of a row in the middle of the field and this guy threw a punch at me,” he adds.
“I threw one back instinctively with the hand that had the cast on and busted his jaw. I got sent off and a four-week ban.”
He was never one for sitting about and so, with GAA off the menu, he decided to try soccer. After an initial knock-back from Cromac Albion, Oldpark Celtic gave him a game.
“I played for them against the league leaders at centre-forward and we won 4-1 and I scored all the goals,” he recalls, adding epically: “The rest, as they say, is history…”
Cromac soon changed their tune but Armstrong played just three games before he was spotted by Bangor’s Bertie and Billy Neill who invited him to train with the Irish League club.
The following Tuesday evening he was picked up at the back of Belfast City Hall and taken to Clandeboye Park where he started a career that took him to Spurs in 1975 and on to the 1982 World Cup via Watford.
“So that was the end of your GAA career?” I assumed wrongly.
“Nooooooooo,” he replies and I learn to my surprise that there was much more to come.
“I played on,” he explains.
“I played soccer every Saturday and Gaelic every Sunday. I kept playing for St John’s and Antrim. I stopped when I was 21 (when Spurs signed him for £25,000) so I never got near my peak but I was a much better Gaelic player than I was a soccer player, lets put it like that.
“I played Gaelic from I was 3-4 years of age. That’s what I was brought up on and my grandfather Joe Gallagher was a founder member of St John’s.
“He was a brilliant hurler and all my uncles played for the club – Seamus, Michael, Henry and Pat.”
The highlight of his soccer career was the 1982 World Cup. He scored three goals in the tournament including the winner against hosts Spain when he cracked a crisp volley through the legs of hapless goalkeeper [Luis] Arconada. In GAA, perhaps his best days came with the Antrim U21s throughout the summer of 1975.
Armstrong had played his part early in the 1974 campaign when Antrim beat Tyrone to win Ulster, then saw off Cork in the All-Ireland semi-final and lost the final to Mayo after a replay.
Yet Armstrong was the star of the 1975 side that saw off Down, then Armagh (who included Joe Kernan) and Tyrone (who included Mickey Harte) to retain their provincial title and book a last four showdown with Kerry in Tralee. According to reports, the Saffrons were two points down but well in the game until the loss of Brendan Tully to a red card derailed their efforts. The Kingdom went on to win comfortably.
“Páidí ó Sé was supposed to be marking me, but he didn’t get too close to me, God rest him,” Gerry recalls.
“Pat Spillane and all those boys were playing and Mick O’Dwyer was the manager. I’ve met them all since and had a couple of great nights out. Apparently Mick O’Dwyer said to them: ‘I tell you now, none of you will get anywhere near Armstrong’.
“They didn’t because I was fit, I was training four times a week, I was near enough professional because I was training with Bangor and Antrim and St John’s plus I was playing at least two games a week, sometimes three. I did back-to-back games at minor and senior for Antrim against Derry in Ballinascreen one day.”
Quite simply, he just loved playing football and he was always available, always up for a game or for training. Have boots, will travel… Since his days, Antrim Gaels have had the odd memorable Sunday but never consistent success.
Meanwhile, St John’s – once a powerhouse in Antrim with Andy McCallin (Antrim’s only Allstar), Gerry McCann, Armstrong and the rest – are still producing county players but they have been overtaken by St Gall’s and Cargin.
Gaelic Football has changed too – and perhaps not for the better.
“I loved it, but it has changed a lot now,” says Armstrong.
“There’s too much hand-passing. I used to love jumping and catching the ball in the air, timing your run and catching it…
“It was fantastic for athleticism. I talked to Pat Jennings, Niall Quinn and Gerry McElhinney (Derry and Northern Ireland star) about it.
“Gerry and I played against each other when he was playing for Derry and I was playing for Antrim. I played a National League Division Two semi-final against Dublin at Croke Park. Kevin Moran (Manchester United and the Republic of Ireland) was playing for Dublin around that time. I scored the last goal in that match. We were about six points behind so it didn’t make too much difference, but it was a good goal.”
Of course we’ll never know how good Armstrong could have been, but he says his GAA career gave him a headstart when he moved to England and the tackles started flying in.
“The Gaelic set it all up for me,” he said.
“I played in a lot of games where there was punching off the ball and it toughens you up. When I went to play soccer and they tried to tackle me I used to laugh at them – ‘you call that a tackle?’ I always had a competitive nature and all my managers and coaches loved me because I loved training and I would be setting targets for everybody.”
What a career he had. But are there any regrets. Well, just one…
“I captained the Antrim Vocational Schools side in the 1971 All-Ireland football final against Mayo,” he says.
“That game still bugs me, we should have won, but they beat us by a point.”
You can’t win them all, Gerry...