IN THE SPACE of 10 weeks, Gerry Armstrong went from 71st minute substitute for Northern Ireland against Brazil at the 1986 World Cup in front of 51,000 in the Estadio Jalisco, Guadalajara, Mexico, to centre forward for Brighton & Hove Albion in front of 13,723 at the Goldstone Ground in a season-opening 0-0 draw against Portsmouth.
That 3-0 defeat to the mighty Brazilians signalled the end of an international career in which Armstrong had written his name in Northern Irish football history at the 1982 World Cup in Spain four years earlier. He had scored 12 goals in 63 appearances for his country but none as important as the one which beat hosts Spain to send the Irish through to the quarter-finals, which I shall come on to.
Four years later, while away with Ireland in Mexico, former Spurs striker Armstrong took a call at the team’s hotel from someone else who had made his name with the North London club – Alan Mullery – who had recently been restored to the managerial chair at Brighton.
“Alan knew I was a free agent and I promised to talk things over with him when I got back from Mexico,” Armstrong said in a matchday programme article. “I was impressed by the manager’s ideas for the future and Brighton appealed to me because I have always liked the club,” he said.
“I always got the impression that there is a good, family atmosphere here and I liked that.
“In many ways, Brighton reminds me of Watford. I had three very happy years there and I’m looking forward to enjoying myself just as much here at Brighton.”
Born in Belfast on 23 May 1954, Armstrong grew up in the Falls Road area and initially played Gaelic football and could have made that his chosen sport. But while he was banned from playing, he took up soccer with junior Irish clubs St Paul’s Swifts and Cromac Albion before beginning a three-year spell playing semi-professionally with Bangor between 1972 and 1975.
Spurs manager Terry Neill had family in Bangor and Tottenham paid a £25,000 fee for Armstrong’s services in November 1975. He made his Spurs debut in a 3-1 defeat at Ipswich Town on 21 August 1976. The season ended in relegation for the North Londoners but the young Armstrong was trying to make his way.
He said: “I was basically big, strong and courageous but that wasn’t enough alone so Spurs made me skilful as well.
“I set myself the task of gradually playing more first team games each season and managed to achieve it.”
After scoring 10 goals in 84 league games for Spurs, Armstrong was sold to Watford for £250,000 in November 1980.
When the Hornets made it to the top division for the first time in their history, Armstrong scored their first goal at that level, against Everton, and they finished the season as runners up.
“Graham Taylor influenced me more than anybody,” he said. “My time at Spurs was going stale because they were using me in all sorts of different positions but, at Vicarage Road, Graham taught me about forward play and then gave me the chance to repay him.”
Nevertheless, it was breaking through at Spurs that helped Armstrong onto the international stage. He made his debut for Northern Ireland playing up front with George Best in a 5-0 defeat to West Germany in Cologne in April 1977. And in November the same year he scored his first goals for his country, netting twice in a 3-0 win against Iceland in Belfast.
His stand-out moment in football which fans still talk about came when Northern Ireland were minnows at the 1982 World Cup in Spain. In front of a crowd of 49,562 – mostly Spanish – packed into Valencia’s Estadio Luis Casanova, on 25 June 1982, Ireland beat the hosts 1-0 and Armstrong fired home the only goal of the game in the 47th minute.
“I cracked it in between a couple of defenders, but couldn’t really believe it because there was this deathly hush. Fifty-five thousand people (a bit of Irish overstatement) all there to see Spain, and we ruined the party!”
He added: “It was a very satisfying one to get for the team, because it was a great win for us. “The odds were against us because there was a huge crowd in the stadium and virtually all of them were backing Spain. Nobody really gave us a chance, but it was a great team performance.
“All the players worked hard for each other and that game summed up the excellent team spirit I have enjoyed with the national side over the years.”
Armstrong also scored Ireland’s only goal in their 4-1 quarter-final defeat to France.
The Spanish climate obviously agreed with Armstrong because in the summer of 1983, having scored 12 goals in 76 league games for Watford, Real Mallorca signed him for £200,000. Although he got stick from certain sections of Spanish supporters who remembered the goal he scored against them, he spent two years with Real Mallorca scoring 13 times in 55 league games.
On his return to the UK in August 1985, he initially signed for West Brom on a free transfer but struggled with travelling to and from London to train and play, and picked up some injuries. He spent the second half of the season at Chesterfield so he could get some game time to put him in contention to be selected by Northern Ireland for the 1986 World Cup.
A free agent on his return, he joined Mullery’s Brighton. However, it was 17 games before he managed to get on the scoresheet – in a 3-1 defeat at Leeds – although he did score again in the very next game, as Shrewsbury were beaten 3-0 at the Goldstone.
When Mullery’s second spell as manager ended rather abruptly, in January 1987, Armstrong was loaned to Millwall. New manager Barry Lloyd did restore him to the Albion line-up for the final eight games of the season, but the side finished in bottom place.
Back in Division 3, Armstrong was transfer listed along with Steve Gatting and Chris Hutchings as Lloyd was forced to shuffle the pack. He stayed with the club, but only got one full game, in a league cup tie, all season: he came off the bench 11 times and was a non-playing sub on 14 other occasions.
He was suitably philosophical about his involvement from the bench, however, and said in another matchday programme interview: “Over the years I’ve gained a bit of a reputation for grabbing goals when it matters most, and I figure that if I only get on for the last 20 minutes then there’s even more reason to take the game by the throat and get stuck in.”
In the 1988-89 season, Armstrong managed four starts but was once more on the bench more often than not and eventually was appointed reserve team player-coach.
But his time with the club ended ignominiously. In a Sussex Senior Cup tie at Southwick in January 1989, following the first ever red card of his career, as he walked off, he took exception to a comment from a supporter, jumped into the crowd and headbutted the person concerned.
The incident is referred to amongst the annals of assaults by players on fans. Armstrong left the club a fortnight after the altercation but the matter ended up in court and the footballer received a conditional discharge.
His final games as a player were at Glenavon back in Ireland after he had spent some time as a player-coach at then non-league Crawley Town.
In November 1991, he became manager of Worthing and led them to a promotion before being appointed assistant manager of Northern Ireland by his former teammate Bryan Hamilton. Although leaving that role in 1996, he reprised it under Lawrie Sanchez between 2004 and 2006. In 2011, the Irish FA recruited him as an elite player mentor – in essence to try to persuade young Catholic Northern Irishmen considering playing for the Republic of Ireland (a choice made by Shane Duffy, for example) to stick with the country of their birth.
Throughout all of this time, Armstrong has also forged a successful media career and is probably best known for his work with Sky Sports coverage of La Liga.
In 2015, the Belfast Telegraph did an interview with Armstrong and his wife Debbie in which they spoke about running a restaurant in Majorca, and his involvement as part-owner of a football club in Portugal.
Pictures from the Albion matchday programme and in the international shirt from the Irish News.