Modern Northern Ireland team dancing to a familiar beat
Assistant boss Jimmy Nicholl sees similarities to the great side from the 1980s
Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill (right) speaks to his assistant Jimmy Nicholl during a training session at Saint-George-de-Reneins. Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire
There used to be a nightclub on the top floor of the Europa hotel in Belfast called the Copacabana. It was mentioned 40 miles north of Lyon yesterday because Jimmy Nicholl was recalling how Northern Ireland players would celebrate after a big win.
“You had to go back to the Culloden hotel for soup and sandwiches with [manager] Billy Bingham, ” Nicholl says, “watch the highlights of the game. Win, lose or draw.
“After that, straight back into Belfast. There was a nightclub at the top of the Europa called the Copacabana.
“Then you’d come back to the hotel and big Pat [Jennings], Gerry [Armstrong], Martin [O’Neill], they’d get the fiddles out. Big Pat has a massive family and they all play fiddle or guitar – really good, and they’re singers. It was great. Brilliant.”
The Europa’s reputation as the most-bombed hotel on the continent did not deter happy players. It was a regular IRA target but as Nicholl says: “It seemed to be be left alone on a Wednesday. I think it was the weekends when it was a bit . . . we didn’t go after Saturday games.”
November 17th 1982 was a Wednesday and on that night a 21-year-old that West German players are unlikely to have known much about, Ian Stewart, scored a famous goal at Windsor Park.
It beat the Germans, who five months earlier had been in the World Cup final. And Stewart’s goal started something.
Believe it or not, from that match in 1982 to 1996, either as West Germany or the re-united Germany, Northern Ireland faced them five times, winning twice and drawing three. Northern Ireland came to resemble bogeymen to Germans.
That game in Belfast was followed by the return in Hamburg a year later and again Northern Ireland won 1-0. This time 18-year-old Norman Whiteside scored the winner.
Nicholl, now Michael O’Neill’s assistant, played in both.
“These things don’t happen to the Germans,” Nicholl says. “It was an affront to them.”
And now Northern Ireland prepare to meet Germany again, in Paris on Tuesday, where a point would surely take O’Neill’s squad through to the last 16.
It must be said the last four meetings have all been won comfortably by Germany – by a combined score of 14-2 – but Nicholl sees in O’Neill some of what he saw then in Bingham. And some of what he saw in his team then, he sees in Northern Ireland today.
“When I first started playing for Northern Ireland, Danny Blanchflower was the manager and Northern Ireland won games we should have lost and lost games we should have won,” Nicholl says. “You didn’t know what you were getting.
“Then Billy Bingham came in and there was discipline on and off the field. Then you realised, it didn’t matter where you were going, you had that discipline. And that underdog feeling we always had. Playing West Germany or Albania, you still had that same underdog feeling.”
Organisation and attitude can carry a team a distance and, on certain nights, opposition complacency can help.
“This can happen,” Nicholl says. “If they disrespect you, or are over-confident, then you have a chance of winning.
“You can sense disrespect when you’re on the park and you can take advantage of that. You might get into a position they can’t come back from.”
Nicholl is not suggesting the current world champions will feel this way on Tuesday but if they do, Joachim Löw “will know after 10 minutes.”
There is a changed mood in the Irish camp. After the disappointment of the 1-0 defeat by Poland came the euphoria of the 2-0 win over Ukraine.
“Poland? That wasn’t us,” Nicholl adds. “All that preparation and then we stand off our opponents?
“Players would be embarrassed if you said the occasion got to them, but it can happen. Players think they’re doing a good job by being goal-side. But they’re not. You’ve to go and get personal, not treat opponents like china dolls.
“It took a couple of days to get over it. We were trying to lift them. It really hurt them.”
But against Ukraine all saw the Northern Ireland from qualification, the players Nicholl recognises as “warriors” – even if they are of the quiet variety.
“Warrior was a word I used in training the other day to describe some of them,” he says. “I said to them, ‘We’ve a bunch of warriors here’.
“That’s why the first game was so disappointing. Look at Gareth McAuley, yes, but what about Aaron Hughes coming in against Ukraine and Conor Washington at the other end? There’s just this collective spirit.
“The team spirit is stronger now, but in a different way. The game has changed in the sense that players are just a lot quieter these days. It’s a different society. They certainly don’t go to the Copacabana.
“There’s no really great shouters in this team. But they still get the job done.
“It’s more relaxed, a lot more relaxed than it was under Billy. Michael treats them as they expect to be treated. Michael can handle situations, that’s just the way he is.
“But when it comes to being unhappy with an individual or the collective, you can see it in him. That’s when you get the benefit of temper – you see it in the players – it has to have an impact.”
O’Neill has decisions to make before Germany. But as he showed in replacing half his outfield 10 from Poland to Ukraine, O’Neill is a bold man.
“We had sat and discussed it for a couple of days,” Nicholl says. “We were all sitting around the table – the coaching team have all got some input – and in my experience there’s a certain tone that can suddenly be struck and, bang, the manager will say: ‘I’m going to play him and him’. Once he says it like that, that’s it. It’s done. Nobody else says anything.
“I thought: ‘That’s it, I can hear it in your voice, stick with that’. We’ve all been asked for our opinions but I can hear it in your voice, you believe in that. Stick with it.”