Belfast-based writer and director Evan Marshall has been on a lifelong quest to put the ‘legend’ of Northern Ireland’s 1982 World Cup odyssey to paper.
Fields of Wonder, which traces the remarkable history of Billy Bingham’s legendary team in the early 80s, is now available in all good bookstores.
The publication, which includes a foreword by former international captain Martin O’Neill, will officially launch at the old Tesco building in Belfast on Monday evening.
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And that concludes several years of searching for Evan who was a starry-eyed 11-year-old when Northern Ireland reached the second phase of Espana 82.
Fields of Wonder follows on from Evan’s previous book ‘Spirit of 58’ which chronicled Northern Ireland’s historic charge up to the 1958 World Cup quarter-finals in Sweden.
And just like Spirit of 58, which was a follow-up to an acclaimed sports documentary of the same name, Fields of Wonder will be released as a film later this year.
Evan said: “The idea was always to write a sequel to the 1958 World Cup book and bringing the story of the 1982 World Cup to life on its 40th anniversary was a sequel. obvious.
“It’s a story I’ve always wanted to tell. I watched the 1982 World Cup as a kid in Ballybeen and all my life I’ve stuck with the legend of that Northern Ireland team.
“I was 11 years old and I was in P7 at school when the 1982 World Cup took place, so my memories are of playing football on the streets, collecting Panini stickers and all that.
“At that age you eat, sleep and drink the World Cup, so I was playing football against garages every day with friends, reliving games from the night before.
“It was a magical moment and watching the Northern Ireland games was so exciting because I was young enough to naively believe we could win the tournament.
“At this age, you say to yourself ‘why not?’ At 11, you’re the perfect age to take it all in but also believe that anything is possible. It was a very special moment.
Evan used interview recordings of previous talks with legendary boss Billy Bingham and key players who helped Northern Ireland reach the second round of the tournament.
The story covers Bingham’s appointment as manager in 1980, winning the British Championship in 1980, the ups and downs of qualifying and the drama of playing in the final in Spain.
“I spoke with Billy and interviewed just about every major player from 1982,” Evan said.
“I spoke with people like Martin O’Neill, Pat Jennings, Billy Hamilton, Sammy McIlroy, Gerry Armstrong, Jimmy Nicholl, John McClelland and Norman Whiteside.
“Looking back, 1982 was a wonderful roller coaster, not just to get to the finals, but to do what this team did in Spain.”
After drawing with Yugoslavia and Honduras, Northern Ireland advanced to the second leg with a famous 1-0 win over hosts Spain, with Gerry Armstrong scoring the winner in Valencia.
But with the second round consisting of a three-team group stage, Bingham’s men retired after a manic 2-2 draw with Austria and a 4-1 loss to a Michel Platini-inspired France in Madrid.
When asked if any anecdotes or revelations surprised him while writing Fields of Wonder, Evan said, “Some of the local media coverage, and how hostile it was, actually surprised me.
“Every bad result, the team was sliced and diced and some of them were a little discolored. In fact, I mentioned it to the players and they were aware of it.
“When I looked at the newspaper archives, it wasn’t always a case of ‘our little country is doing well, isn’t it fantastic’. The team was heavily criticized after a few results.
“Another thing that jumped out at me was how the Irish FA almost hindered the potential success of this team; for example by arranging a crucial qualifier with Sweden in June.
“The English leagues had closed for the summer and the Swedish league was booming. We lost 1-0 and it looked like our hopes of qualifying were gone after that result.
“The players were upset and there was actually a quote in the Swedish press the next day where they thanked the Irish football authorities for playing the game in June.
“Jock Stein, who managed Scotland who topped our qualifying group, said after that game ‘football in the summer is good for the administrators, but not so good for the players’.”
Despite their summer setback in Stockholm, Northern Ireland managed to secure a place in Spain, at the expense of the Swedes and Portugal, with a home win against Israel five months later.
And the rest, as recorded in Field of Dreams, is history.
- Fields of Wonder: The Incredible Story of Northern Ireland’s Journey to the 1982 World Cup will launch at 2 Royal Avenue, Belfast (the old Tesco building) on Monday evening (7pm-9pm). Everyone is welcome.
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