Most people will know Gerry Armstrong either as the Northern Irishman that scored ‘that goal’ against Spain in the 1982 World Cup, (probably the defining moment of Gerry’s football career), or as one of the voices of Sky Sports’ Spanish football commentary.
People tend to forget the time he spent at Tottenham and Watford amongst other teams, so when I spoke with him I wanted to delve a bit deeper into other aspects of his life and career than just the one, albeit very famous, goal which he’s probably talked to death over the 31 years (sorry Gerry!) since it happened. Here’s what Gerry had to say:
JP: Who was/is your biggest influence either personally or professionally and why?
GA: My parents were undoubtedly the biggest influence on me. Both of them were very hard working. I had 3 brothers and 5 sisters, we didn’t have much money at the time and my parents both had two jobs to pay their way. The biggest lesson they taught me was that hard work and perseverance gets you a long way.
JP: You took up football quite late at 17 and only because of a long term ban from gaelic football. I understand that the ban came about for fighting and I imagine that an upbringing in West Belfast at the time was quite tough. Can you give me a flavour of how things were for you personally around this time and do you think that your environment held you in good stead for the harsh reality of top level English football?
GA: It was hard yes, but that’s just how it was and you got on with it. I think the hardships that you experience in your life are the things that make you tougher, it’s part and parcel of growing up. I always played hurling as well as the gaelic football and you had to be really rough and ready to survive in those sports at the time.
We trained hard on a big pitch and that definitely made me stronger and physically fitter which really did help me when I played football – if a football player put in a strong tackle I’d just laugh.
I was a late developer in football terms and it took me 3-4 years to learn the game properly.
JP: As a proud Northern Irishman, can you put into words your feelings on making debut alongside your hero George Best, and what is your opinion on the state of Northern Irish football today?
GA: Yes, I was very proud. When I heard from Danny Blanchflower that I was going to be in the team, against West Germany as they were then, the world champions, and to be playing alongside my all time sporting hero Georgie Best who was the best player I’d ever seen up to that point, well it was just a huge privilege……and I didn’t think I would get more than one cap!
I’m disappointed that we [Northern Ireland] are not higher in the rankings at the moment to tell you the truth. We are playing really good football, better than we have for a while. We are creating chances under Michael O’Neill but we are not scoring goals. We don’t have a David Healy type player who was scoring goals for fun a few years back. I think we should be patient, give the manager time and we’ll be ok.
JP: You played in both England and Spain during your career which are two differing styles of football. What does it take to be a success in either league and how did you adapt your own game to be successful at Mallorca?
GA: Spain has a very different way of playing and training to England, based more on technique rather than physique. When I left England to go to Spain I wanted to embrace the culture, the lifestyle. I was very open minded and wanted to learn the language, and this definitely helped me to settle in. I worked hard in training and matches and I managed to successfully mix both styles of play to suit my own game.
JP: A few years ago you were quoted as saying that Lionel Messi was better than George Best in his pomp. Given that you played alongside Best and against the likes of Maradona, Cruyff and Platini, what is it about Messi that puts him at the top of the tree?
GA: Bestie was put under the most intense pressure at 17, 18, 19 years of age and he had no one to turn to. He found it difficult to cope with the pressure and left Manchester United before he’d got anywhere near his peak in my opinion. He got hammered week in week out with tackles from behind but just got up and on with the game.
He went to the US for a quieter life really. He wasn’t under the microscope and that suited him. George scored goals but nowhere near as many as Messi.
Messi is more protected than George ever was. There are a lot of people around to guide Leo, to look after him and I believe by having everyone around him that has enabled him to become a better player. Messi scores and creates much more than George ever did and he is just getting better and better, phenomenal.
JP: Does the lack of English teams in the latter stages of this seasons Champions League indicate that the gap is widening between the Premier League and elsewhere and if so, what can English football as a whole do to arrest the slide?
GA: I don’t think the gap is getting greater as such. Manchester United were very unlucky in their match, Arsenal drawing Bayern……Chelsea who won last year and have not had the best season this. I think just circumstances this year have conspired to see no English sides do particularly well but they will be back next year.
The European style is definitely better suited to the Spanish teams, it’s why Barcelona and Real Madrid have been so successful. I just hope they both avoid each other and the top two teams in the world at the present time in my opinion contest the Final in May. [This interview took place the day after the La Liga match v Celta Vigo]
JP: Last question. Please pick a couple of young players as ones to watch for the future and your reasons for choosing them.
GA: There’s a young Northern Irish lad at Liverpool, Ryan McLaughlin. He’s 18 years of age and is a Dani Alves type player. He should be a right back but plays more in the midfield and he could be the next big thing for Liverpool.
Cristian Tello is going to be a big star. His first touch is ok at the moment but will improve with experience and you have not seen the best of this young man. I said the same about Pedro a few years back, he’s developed and after a bit of a dip in form he’s come back, look at him now. Tello will be a massive star in the future, trust me.
Montoya too, he’s only young and not had many games because of having Alba and Alves in front of him but he looked good last night [v Celta]. Barca know how to develop really talented players and they just keep coming.