#WFC1982 – Gerry Armstrong & Real Club Deportivo Mallorca

Segunda División de España
R.C.D. Mallorca v Racing Santander
Saturday, 11th April 2015, 4pm
Iberostar Estadio
Entrance €20/5, Programme €free
Distance (from Vicarage Rd) 1136 miles, Attendance 5475
Forgiveness is a strange thing.
Three hours earlier; I’d watched anxiously as my 12 year old son was escorted, by total strangers, around to the other side of the stadium in a foreign land. Stuck inside I monitored his progress, impatiently mirroring their pace round the vast open concourse. Blagging my way – with zero Spanish – through each security checkpoint, I wondered whether social services might be wanting a word with me in days to come.
Following a fantastic tour round the hugely impressive Cathedral of Santa Maria of Palma much earlier in the day; whilst wife and daughter shopped far too comfortably nearby, Nicky and I bought match tickets in the new club shop on Plaça de Cort, in the old part of the city.
Behind the counter a friendly chap – who in hindsight clearly hadn’t visited the stadium – insisted the tickets would be fine despite my apparent concerns about the differing gate numbers. At the stadium however, the conversation was not so genial.
My son was not allowed in and, having already passed through the turnstiles, I was not allowed out. Heated conversations mainly in local dialect – peppered with some curt London phrases – erupted between the jobs-worth stewards and “understanding” security guards. Both inside and out, I was seething.
However successful it turned out, placing one’s utmost trust in strangers was hard enough; getting back round to the other side of the arena – with son now in tow – was nigh on impossible but thankfully we were rescued by just one female club official. Naturally 33 years ago, Gerry Armstrong’s first visit was far more, straight forward.

150411 Real Mallorca (268) (800x533) 150411 Real Mallorca (238) (800x533) 150411 Real Mallorca (262) (800x533)

Leaving his Belfast home in 1975, with his parents blessing, Gerry gave up his job in commercial property and headed for the bright lights of London and a one year contract with Spurs. Aged 21, he’d only been playing football for three years.
Starting out at St Paul’s Swifts, Gerry then moved to Cromac Albion, where he confessed he’d “only played three or four games” before moving for a couple of seasons at Bangor FC in County Down. Very industrious but lacking in experience, the ever affable Gerry explained how he badly “wanted to try” to succeed in football.
Prior to his seventeenth birthday Armstrong’s sporting world was dominated by the combative physicality of Gaelic Football and Hurling. Arriving at White Hart Lane, into a “very good youth side” of ball players and artisans alike, Gerry would stay behind for extra training. “I was in the gym every afternoon, finding out more about football.”
Though his first team chances weren’t what he’d hoped for, by the end of his Tottenham residency, Gerry was playing up front for Northern Ireland whilst partnering Steve Perryman in defence for Spurs. Though he’d already grasped that “there’s no glory playing at the back” Gerry was, he admits, a tenacious utility player – an asset to clubs – equally at home at the back or up front. It was these qualities that led Graham Taylor to start his pursuit of Armstrong.
Chelsea’s Danny Blanchflower had also been in the hunt for Armstrong but after some time, the “magic times” that he so fondly reminisces of began with his move to Vicarage Road.
“I loved the training, the fighting; I was fitter than I’d ever been. I credit Watford and Graham Taylor with so much of my success at the 1982 World Cup. He taught us so much and we totally believed in him.” The enthusiasm in Gerry’s voice was unmistakeable, passionately recounting his three years in Hertfordshire with numerous anecdotes.
Having spoken to Graham Taylor at the start of this season, it came as no surprise to hear he’d once instructed Armstrong to “keep running at them; they’re scared shitless.” Armstrong was a fearless warrior up front, adopting all the attributes of his Hurling past, to lead the line.
Having helped the side to promotion and scored Watford’s first ever top flight goal, the characteristics that had attracted both Keith Burkinshaw and Graham Taylor also led to him overturning some unpopularity within the Spanish support.
Whilst Armstrong would return to play in England again, and even try his hand in management – David Johnson and Marc Falco would both team up with him – the move to Mallorca was at the time, Gerry told me “just too good to turn down.”
Though España 1982 was dominated by Paolo Rossi and Sócrates, for many sporting romantics key figures in the Northern Irish success were the highlight of the tournament. The impression left by Armstrong scoring to beat the hosts was too much for some of the locals – “I wasn’t too popular” he admitted with characteristic understatement of his reception on the mainland thereafter – but once the Mallorcans witnessed his determined style of play, they were soon won over.
“When I arrived, fans were used to seeing 5-4-1, with wingbacks pushing forward. Watford played a different style of football. The Mallorcans appreciated me being more physical.”
With no team mates speaking English, Gerry very quickly threw himself into the local language and culture with the same gusto he’d adopted when changing sporting codes in his late teens. Armstrong scored his first league goal; the opening goal, at the Camp Nou, which Gerry jovially added “I think it upset Maradona so much he tore us apart”. Watford went over to compete in a summer tournament at his behest and soon, Armstrong was organising the first Spanish International on the island; an entertaining 0-0 draw against his and Billy Bingham’s Northern Ireland.
Though they still maintain a home in St Albans – living with wife Deborah in Santa Ponsa – it’s more than clear Gerry’s life on the island is something he treasures. Discussing the ‘Hermanas Portals’ restaurant Debbie and a friend owned in Portals and ‘Gerry’s famous paella nights’ he laughed, confessing proudly “I hate not doing anything. I have to keep active.”
Gerry still happily works 2-3 days a week with Sky – the anecdote of this coming about through a 5-a-side event in Battersea Park, arranged by George Best, but who pulled out days before, leaving Armstrong to finalise, is utterly priceless – but on the whole the gregarious Ulsterman oozes enthusiasm for his family and for life itelf.

150411 Real Mallorca (168) (800x450)150411 Real Mallorca (104) (800x450)150411 Real Mallorca (54) (800x450)150411 Real Mallorca (8) (800x450)150411 Real Mallorca (167) (800x450)150411 Real Mallorca (107) (800x450)

A few days earlier, when Nicky and I eventually settled into our seats in the Iberostar Estadio all about us there was much the same enthusiasm and togetherness; families and groups chatting easily, children playing about with friends. It wasn’t so much a football match, it was a day out.
On the pitch, things started brightly with a celebration of youth football, whilst dancing cheerleaders and fan groups began their respective performances; ones which would last until final whistle. Unlike the fans, sadly the players laboured through the first period.
Whilst neither side was dominating, Quique González opened for the visitors with a deft glancing header on twelve minutes. Thereafter was a tale of missed passes, airkicks and yellow cards. The latter could be attributed some abominable play-acting; something that still riles the normally affable Armstrong.
Midway through the second period however, the teams were losing the attention of their supporters, and Nicky was asking about food yet again. Even when Xisco levelled on 68 – hammering home the rebound after hitting the bar – one felt the family conversations were still winning the lure of entertainment.
As my disbelieving son tucked into an enormous chocolate delicacy – doubting we’d witness something so similar – I explained why he should never stop hoping in football, highlighting the importance of Alan Sunderland’s winner and the enduring legacy of the closing minutes of the 1979 FA Cup Final.
How wrong I was… The final minutes of our game were, for any neutral, superb. Álvaro García put Santader ahead after a calamitous defensive mistake, then Xisco bagged his second to tie the game with a minute left and before the announcer had finished screaming GOOOL, Santander’s Sylla Diallo had struck winner in injury time.
Discussing the defensive frailties of his local side with Gerry afterwards, it was fairly obvious he was thinking the same as me; a very promising utility player, with boundless determination – a player perhaps with a Hurling, All Ireland medal, won with Antrim at a tender age – is exactly what Mallorca need right now.
For me this game more than any summed up my travels this season. Nicky and I had watched an game of football – incredible in every sense of the word – with a stunning finale that was greeted sarcastically with home fans waving white flags. Like Gerry Armstrong’s, the path might not always be a smooth one but with belief, we’d reaped the dividends of a good day out at football.
Heading back towards the stunning coastal life at Portals Nous, the anxiety of handing over my child had subsided. Sat in the back of the cab, we considered all the great aspects of life on this island. The weather and sea life; the food and the warmth of the locals… It was a culture I done little to appreciate in my first holiday away here with friends in the mid-80s, but one which Gerry Armstrong had much more appropriately immersed himself in completely. He is reaping the rewards of his endeavours; I am playing catch-up.
The restaurant may now be in the hands of a new owner – a very genial Brighton fan named Dominic Millott who was hard at work readying it for the new season when I found it – but the many “great experiences” which Gerry spoke of; the “magic times” of Watford & Mallorca, are not over yet for either club or this very engaging and swashbuckling Ulsterman.
Final score: R.C.D. Mallorca 2-3 Racing Santander
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Because these articles are initially appearing in the 2014-15 Watford FC matchday programmes, they will consequently have a delayed publication on here.

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