Northern Ireland legend Billy Bingham lauded after he turns 90

Billy Bingham celebrates leading Northern Ireland to the 1986 World Cup after a hard-fought goalless draw with England at Wembley.
Steven Beacom

WHEN Michael O'Neill was guiding Northern Ireland to the Euro 2016 finals, he received thousands of messages wishing him and his team well. There were two that meant that little bit more. One was from his childhood hero Kenny Dalglish. The other from Billy Bingham's family.

O'Neill was following in Bingham's footsteps taking the country into a major tournament. Bingham had done it twice before at the 1982 and 1986 World Cup finals. Decades earlier the Belfast native played in the 1958 competition in Sweden with Northern Ireland incredibly reaching the quarter-finals.

Earlier this month Billy turned 90 with ex-players and supporters sharing their thoughts on social media, as is the modern way, on one of the most inspirational leaders in Irish sport.

Bingham lifted footballers to the clouds with motivational words and could spot talent in an instant such as when after just one training session he decided teenager Norman Whiteside was ready for a World Cup at 17 years of age.

Tactically he was also astute, recognising weaknesses in opposition sides that his own could exploit, like in his most famous victory over Spain in their own bullring when Gerry Armstrong scored in the summer of 82.

That night a key element was for midfield quartet Martin O'Neill, Sammy McIlroy, Whiteside and David McCreery to stifle the Spanish playmakers with Bingham feeling that if a single opportunity arose Billy Hamilton and Armstrong had the power and poise in front of goal to take advantage. The plan worked in a 1-0 World Cup win made all the more remarkable due to Mal Donaghy's harsh red card in the second half.

If he was lauded all over the globe for that, many on this island were annoyed with Bingham ahead of his final match in charge of the North.

You'll know the one - A Night in November 1993 when the Republic came to Windsor Park in the middle of one of the most horrific periods during the Troubles aiming to qualify for the World Cup in the USA the following year.

Calm heads were required for the powderkeg fixture. Few were normally more measured in the media than Billy which was why even those inside the Northern Ireland camp were surprised when he described Jack Charlton's players as 'mercenaries' in the run up to the match.

In reference to English and Scottish born footballers, such as John Aldridge, Andy Townsend and Ray Houghton, playing for the Republic, Bingham said: "They couldn't find a way of making it with England or Scotland. I take a totally cynical view of the whole business. I am not prepared to skirt the issue, the same as I am happy to state it is our intention to stuff the Republic!"

Shamefully the all-island clash brought the worst out in some in the stands with Republic players subjected to sectarian abuse and Paul McGrath and Terry Phelan suffering racial taunts.

The game ended 1-1, enough for the Republic to go to the States, with Charlton and Bingham having a fall-out at the final whistle.

What's not so widely known is that these two iconic international managers met up inside Windsor post match with Charlton presenting an award to his long standing friend to mark his retirement. In the calm after the storm they enjoyed a special moment.

Bingham was destined for a football life playing for Glentoran as a kid before moving to Sunderland in 1950, flying up the wing as an outside right, prior to spells with Luton, Everton and Port Vale. A fine player, he proved to be a fantastic manager, who many of his peers sought out when advice was needed.

First time around for Northern Ireland was between 1967 and 1971. It was from 1980 to 1993 when his status shot through the roof with two Home Nations Championships won in that time. He also bossed Linfield and Everton among others and wasn't afraid to coach abroad taking charge of Greece.

I haven't spoken to Billy for years, and am told he is not too well these days, but it was an education when I did. Wisdom and knowledge of the sport he loved oozed out of him. Think what it must have been like to play under him.

Now Stoke manager, O'Neill, who played under Bingham, said: "Billy was a wonderful manager and I loved playing for him. When I was in charge of Northern Ireland I was really touched to receive a message from his family wishing us well."

Former Burnley and Oxford striker Billy Hamilton recalls Bingham's genius prior to the World Cup in Spain.

"While other teams were going off to exotic climes we went to Brighton for our pre-tournament training. It proved to be a masterstroke because Brighton was in the middle of a heatwave which helped us when we got to Spain," said Hamilton.

"There was an Ethiopian marathon runner at Brighton University and Billy got him to do stamina runs with us. Gerry Armstrong was the only one who could keep up with him!

"After working us hard during the day, Bingy would let us go out and have a few pints. Those bonding exercises were brilliant for team morale. Going to the World Cup was a dream for all of us and Bingy was the inspiration behind it all."

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