NORTHERN IRELAND: 11 CAPS

(CAREER: 73)

V Finland, Belfast, 14 November 1984

V England, Belfast, 27 February 1985

V Spain, Palma, 27 March 1985

V Turkey, Belfast, 1 May 1985

V Turkey, Izmir, 11 September 1985

V Romania, Bucharest, 16 October 1985

V England, Wembley, 13 November 1985

V France, Paris, 26 February 1986

V Algeria, Guadalajara, 3 June 1986 (World Cup)

V Spain, Guadalajara, 7 June 1986 (World Cup)

V Brazil, Guadalajara, 12 June 1986 (World Cup)

Jimmy Nicholl is one of those few Albion players who have touched the pinnacle of the game, playing for his country in a World Cup Finals tournament while still a Baggie.  Nicholl’s moment of glory came in the 1986 tournament in Mexico, though he was fortunate to get there given that he was one of a few who was exiled from his club side by the arrival of Ronald Saunders as manager.

“Ron Saunders had come in and we didn’t see eye to eye shall we say, so I wasn’t in the team the last couple of months, I was training with the reserves and the kids, and this was the period leading up to the World Cup which was a worry for me. But I spoke to Billy Bingham, and he told me to keep my head down, keep fit and as long as I was in good shape when the squad was announced, I’d be fine.

“I was pleased to hear it because we’d done great to qualify from a really hard group with England and Romania in there. We needed a point going to Wembley for the last game, it ended up 0-0 and coming off the field, our centre-half, Alan McDonald, was interviewed and he said, “I’m telling you now, if anybody says that was a fix, they’re wrong!” Nobody had said anything, but big Alan was denying it already! Pat Jennings was magnificent that night, made some great saves, we worked really hard and got the result we deserved.

“Big Pat was a great goalkeeper. He was so laid back, the coolest man you could meet. He’d have been in the Rat Pack easy, him, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Peter Lawford, he’d have fit in easy! The last couple of years we played for Northern Ireland, he’d say to me, “You’re my Bank of England. I’m nearly finished, I’m nearly 40 years of age, I’m a good looking big man and I want to remain good looking. So when I come off my line for a cross, all I’ll be looking for are elbows. If I see an elbow coming, I’ll be taking my eye off the ball, so you make sure you’re on the goal line.” That’s what I did. Any time I saw him go for a cross, I’d get back on the line. It was great for me because the commentators would all be saying, “Yet another goal line clearance from Nicholl!” He was a great goalkeeper and a calming influence.

“A country like ours just goes to the World Cup to enjoy it, do the best you can but really pleased to be there, and especially twice in a row as it was. You think all them great players like George Best and all who didn’t go because we’d not got there since 1958, and there were a few decent teams in that period as well. To go in 1982 was great,  out to Spain. Big Norman Whiteside suddenly appeared, 17 years old, making his international debut, then Gerry Armstrong won the British player of the tournament award even though Dalglish, Keegan, Robson, people like that were out there as well. It was great to be a part of. Everything snowballed during the group, you could see it all opening up.

“We used to win games we should have lost and lose games we should have won, you never knew what was going to happen, but Billy Bingham slowly turned that round and we had great belief among ourselves. The opening two games, we drew 0-0 with Yugoslavia and 1-1 with Honduras, Norma Whiteside proved he was already a man in those games, and that set up the game against Spain on the Friday night, which is one of the greatest games I’ve ever been involved in for a feeling of achievement. Down to ten men, in Spain’s own backyard, in Valencia and still coming through to beat them 1-0.

“Later, I had six years at Raith Rovers, we were quite successful, won the Division One title a couple of times, got in the Premier League, a wee run in Europe, beat Celtic in the Cup Final, and these were part-time players on £50 when I arrived and we slowly built it. Whenever I needed to tell them about what they could achieve in the game, it was always Northern Ireland stories I used to tell them. I never spoke about Manchester United or Glasgow Rangers, it was always Northern Ireland, “Here’s what you can achieve when you put your mind to it.”

“The hardest thing to win is the first thing. Once you do that, you start to believe you’re a better player than what you thought, you see average players blossom. In 1982, we beat Spain and then in the next group phase, we drew 2-2 with Austria after being 2-0 down, then we were 1-0 up against France, we had another disallowed which should never have happened and we got beat 4-1, but the confidence we took from that was massive, and so did the supporters. Because of what we did there, we went to Mexico in ’86 believing we were going to do something.

“Before the tournament, we went to Albuquerque for ten days to acclimatise. Billy Bingham had this track at a certain level, then a run up the mountains at another level, maybe only a couple of hundred yards long, but it took you nearly six minutes to run it, up a hill. Horrific it was. But when we came back down to sea level and had a couple of games at local colleges, you felt great after the altitude training. But you could do nothing about the heat which was overpowering. But we had no excuses, we were disappointed to go out in the first stage – we drew with Algeria then got beat by Spain 2-1 which was a bit of a grudge match for them after ’82 I suppose.

“The final game was against Brazil, they beat us 3-0 to send us home. Josimar hit one from about 45 yards to score the second. That was a learning experience. The saying men against boys, I could never understand what that meant. I always thought if you were any kind of man, you’re out on the park doing your best whoever you’re up against. But that day, jeez! If there was ever men against boys, that was it. If you went to close somebody down, he’d hear you coming and he’d touch the ball and run. You’d think he’d lost it but he’d just put it into space for somebody else to run onto. It was great to watch, which is what we did! It was coming down to earth with a bump from ’82, that’s what the game’s all about, that’s the real world class players and teams. All you can do is get your head down and get back to work at your own level and do your best to improve.”