Scot: Billy Bingham, inspirational former Northern Ireland football manager

Billy Bingham’s impact on Northern Ireland football over the past 60 years has been unprecedented.

A veteran of three World Cup finals, one as a player and two as a coach, Bingham’s blueprint for how his small country could thrive – through collective spirit, superior fitness and professionalism – one of his former players, Michael O’Neill, helped guide them to the Euro 2016, her first major tournament in 30 years.

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Bingham, who has died aged 90, was the man who three decades earlier made a Catholic his captain and championed an inclusive new national stadium.

Billy Bingham was a veteran of three World Cup finals (Image: Ben Radford/Allsport/Getty)

He mastered the country’s most famous result when they beat hosts Spain at the 1982 World Cup, doing more for ethnic unity than any politician at the time could do during the troubles.

Bingham, a boy from East Belfast, once quipped that he came from a “mixed marriage” as his parents were of different branches of the Protestant faith and spent his formative years playing street football with future international colleague Jackie Blanchflower.

Bingham rose at Glentoran alongside Jimmy McIlroy, another who would don the green-and-white jersey, and he played part-time for the Glens while working as an electrical engineer at the shipyard before Sunderland got him afloat at a big expense in the year 1950

As a right winger he possessed impressive speed and an eye for goal, scoring ten goals in 56 appearances for his country, but his greatest trait could have been his will to win – a trait that would serve him well in his next assignment .

His international win came in 1951 with a 2-2 draw against France, Northern Ireland’s last game before Bingham’s ‘idol’ Peter Doherty took charge. Seven years later they reached their first World Cup finals in Sweden and a team including Harry Gregg, Blanchflower, Bingham and McIlroy scuttled the chances of a place in the last eight.

They defeated Czechoslovakia after extra time in a group play-off, with Bingham showing his leadership instincts by instructing his peers to stretch in a psychological trick before extra time.

His best club moments came after that World Cup when his semi-final winner of the replay guided Luton to the 1959 FA Cup final at Wembley, while Bingham also won the First Division title with Everton before moving into management .

Bingham managed a handful of clubs, managing a few while also managing Northern Ireland, but it was his second tenure as manager of his country, beginning in 1980, and for which he is best remembered.

At a time when football had a drinking culture, Bingham introduced curfews, milk and orange juice, and had an international marathon runner improve his team’s fitness.

He was also willing to make bold calls. Future Republic of Ireland leader Martin O’Neill was his skipper, the first Catholic to receive that honor during the Troubles, and Bingham received threatening letters as a result.

In 1982, Bingham called up 17-year-old Norman Whiteside, who had become the youngest player at a World Cup after just two appearances for Manchester United, and refused a romanticized international call-up to then-36-year-old George Best. Bingham later became one of Best’s pallbearers.

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He was also successful. Success at the 1980 British Championship was Northern Ireland’s first in 66 years and they went on to successive World Cups and topped their group in the first thanks to that unlikely triumph over Spain. The morning after Gerry Armstrong’s strike brought that victory, Bingham’s players were deluged with telegrams from all parts of the Irish community, messages from Catholics and Protestants alike.

In 1982, during the riots, a murder occurred about every three days. Only one was recorded in the two and a half weeks between Northern Ireland’s first and last World Cup game.

The following year they became the first nation to defeat the Germans at home since the war, and Bingham later remarked to Armstrong that his XI included six Catholics and five Protestants. During the country’s darkest times, their football team had shown what unity could achieve.

At the 1986 World Cup, Northern Ireland were eliminated without winning a game and there was no more tournament football before Bingham departed after a ill-tempered final against the Republic in 1993.

Jack Charlton’s team’s World Cup dream was in limbo and Bingham, whose one-team-in-Ireland chants from the first leg still ringing in his head, lit the blue touchpaper by accusing his opponents of being one of them many born in Britain but qualified to represent the Republic, being “mercenaries”. The 1-1 draw at Windsor Park sent Republic to the 1994 World Cup but did little to cross-border relations as Bingham, then 62, resigned from his last coaching post.

He will be remembered for a philosophy that saw his team of hard-working misfits banding together to ensure the whole was greater than its parts. “Obviously, winning is great,” Bingham said of the country’s World Cup campaign that year in the Spirit of ’58 book. “But when you’re not expected to win, it’s even bigger.”

He is survived by his son David and daughter Sharon.

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