BEFORE JACK’S Army, there was another band of ‘Men in Green’ who against-the-odds qualified for World Cups, scored unexpected victories, and did much better than anyone expected.
This was the Northern Ireland team of the 1980s, a team which boasted players like Sammy McIllroy, Norman Whiteside, Gerry Armstrong, Chris Nicholl, and current Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill, not to mention the great Pat Jennings in goal.
Under the guidance of manager Billy Bingham, himself a veteran of Northern Ireland’s 1958 World Cup exploits (where they reached the quarter-finals), the team won the British Home Championship in 1980 and 1984; qualified for Spain ‘82, dramatically beating the much fancied host nation with a goal from Gerry Armstrong, and progressing through to the second round; and concluding a magical period by reaching Mexico 86.
That final match in Mexico 86 was a 3-0 walloping by a Brazil side featuring Socrates, Zico, and Junior. It was the last match Pat Jennings ever played, and the first game of football I ever saw. That, and family tree reasons have kept me a ‘Norn Iron’ supporter since, and now, that World Cup campaign has been turned into a film - Shooting For Socrates - set to become a highlight of this year’s Galway Film Fleadh.
Shooting For Socrates charts Northern Ireland’s journey to Mexico 86, and the parallel stories of Billy Bingham’s attempts with his team, and a father’s attempt with his son, to give, through football, some hope, pride, and enjoyment in a society torn apart by sectarianism, political instability, and war.
The film features John Hannah (Spartacus, Elementary) as Bingham; Richard Dormer (who played Terry Hooley in the magnificent Good Vibrations) as the father, Arthur; Conleth Hill (Game Of Thrones) as UTV commentator Jackie Fullerton; and Bronagh Gallagher (The Commitments, Star Wars, Grabbers).
It was scripted by Belfast playwright Marie Jones, best known for Stones In His Pockets and A Night In November, which deals with the controversial Republic of Ireland v Northern Ireland 1994 World Cup qualifier. It also contains footage of the late, very great, Brazilian footballer Socrates, after whom the film is named.