That night against Spain

Published: Happy Days issue 6 and StateOfTheGame.co.uk, 5th September 2006, http://stateofthegame.co.uk/2006/09/05/that-night-against-spain/

No, not that night. Gerry Armstrong’s goal has its place in history and deservedly so. It ranks as one of the greatest World Cup shocks along with North Korea’s 1-0 win over Italy in 1950, and Cameroon’s opening day humbling of defending World Champions Argentina at Italia ‘90. We’ve seen the goal countless times, and will see it a few more in this next set of qualifiers on the obligatory BBC loop that runs its reel every time we’ve played Spain in the last 25 years or so. And that’s been a few.
Since that night in Valencia we have played the Spanish no fewer than 10 times, drawing three and losing seven.
It’s one of those ties that I want to bring you back to now.
11th June 2003. Northern Ireland 0 Spain 0.
Confidence wasn’t exactly high on the agenda upon entering Windsor that night. The infamous goal drought was now well and truly in swing. The players had finished a long season with their clubs and hadn’t seen competitive football for over a month. Two of the starting 11 (Chris Baird and Tommy Doherty) were earning only their second caps.
This was a full strength Spanish team who we had succumbed to twice in the previous 14 months, shipping eight goals in the process. This was a team and a manager who were starting to receive criticism from both the press and the fans. It seemed like there wasn?t a bit of confidence in the stands that night. But boy was there plenty on the pitch.
Roared on by a crowd who could do nothing but sing and shout, buoyed by some desperate defending and encouraged by a majestic performance from Maik Taylor in what was arguably his best performance in the shirt (rivaled by Warsaw 2005) as we watched him defy gravity and sense time and again to continually frustrate the Spanish Armada.
Raul, Morientes, Baraja and co. just couldn’t find the breakthrough. Northern Ireland had their chances too. Tommy Doherty saw his searing drive tipped over the bar and Andy Smith had a glorious chance when put through by Healy but with the team having gone the previous nine games without finding the net the pressure got to the Lisburn lad.
We didn’t care. This was a famous result. For the younger generation, this was our Valencia. Surely our greatest result since Gerry Taggart’s goal got Our Wee Country a result in Nuremburg against the Germans some 7 years earlier.
The Spanish flew out of Aldergrove dejected. They would have to settle for second place in the group and qualify for the European Championships in next door Portugal via a playoff. The winners of Group 7 were Greece. Remember how they did at Euro 2004?
Here’s to the underdog.

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