Back in the summer of 1982, I remember feeling such a buzz of excitement around my first World Cup finals as a supporter.
Apparently, I had been allowed glimpses of the previous tournament in Argentina as a five-year-old but I do not really recall any vivid details. I’d really got into football in 1979 so watched the European Championship the following year with great interest (a tear-gas episode involving the England players and a sublime goal by my favourite player Ray Wilkins instantly spring to mind, in addition to the inevitable heart-breaking exit for the Three Lions) but this was my first proper World Cup.
It was the first time England had even qualified in my lifetime and much of my attention was focused on our midfield star Bryan Robson, shedding his bubbly perm and emerging as a hero from the first game against France, plus wing-wizard Steve Coppell and, of course, Wilkins. Match magazine gave away a floppy record version of ‘This Time’, the official song belted out by the squad, on its cover and optimism was naively high.
Yet something else piqued my interest before Spain ’82 got under way and it centred on a certain Norman Whiteside.
The young Belfast boy had made his United debut as a substitute against Brighton in the previous April and scored against Stoke City, in the final game of the campaign. He clearly looked an exciting prospect and, incredibly, there was speculation he could gatecrash the Northern Ireland squad, just in time for the tournament.
This seemed a little peculiar to me as I was used to players seemingly having to prove themselves over a matter of years in the top flight before earning international recognition. Whiteside was different – a man in a boy’s body and, at 17, was pushing for inclusion. In retrospect, and with no disrespect, maybe the strength of the group was not as high as I'd imagined with two Glentoran players and one apiece from Coleraine and Linfield involved.
I remember hoping, really hoping, that this young striking hope would get in Billy Bingham’s 22-man squad. And then confirmation arrived, via a grainy photograph in the newspaper (presumably pictures of the boy wonder were still hard to come by) that he had indeed been given a spot, the last one listed in the graphic – even if it would transpire that he wore no.16.
I was overjoyed because this was a youth-team product with bags of potential and he would be fulfilling every boy’s dream in competing at the World Cup. Not only that, but he’d become the youngest footballer ever to do so – breaking the record held by a certain Brazilian icon called Pele.
What a feat to achieve – one that remarkably still stands to this day – and I tried to work out if I could beat it myself. Unfortunately, not only would be impossible (I’d be 17 years and nearly eight months in 1990 and he was only 17 years and 41 days) but I also fell somewhat spectacularly short of that loftiest of ambitions. That's the trouble being nine years old, your footballing dreams are ridiculously unrealistic.
Nonetheless, my support for Whiteside remained undimmed and, again to my shock, he was named in the XI for the clash with Yugoslavia, coming up against the first foreign recruit at United in my time in Nikola Jovanovic. I remember how strong he looked despite his tender years and he led the line well, even if he didn’t score in a 0-0 stalemate. He did pick up a yellow card, something we’d forgive him for regularly as he always played with a raw aggression that would only endear him further to me.
The teenager was withdrawn against Honduras, in a 1-1 draw, and I wondered if he would feature against host nation Spain in a match everybody expected Northern Ireland to lose. Instead, Gerry Armstrong profited from some charitable keeping by skipper Luis Arconada to score a famous winner and Whiteside looked the part in Valencia against hardened, top-class defenders.
If any proof was needed for me that Whiteside was the real deal, this was it. Even as a kid, it was evident these Spain defenders were real hard men (hatchet men some might say) and yet he stood up to any rough treatment and played his part in an incredible victory for his country.
A slightly bizarre three-team group followed in the next stage of the competition, which led to England crashing out without losing a game, something that irked me no end at the time. We’d only let in one goal in the five matches and it was torture being eliminated after successive goalless draws with Germany and Spain. Little did I know at the time that losing on penalty shoot-outs is even tougher to take. Perhaps.
Northern Ireland were still punching above their weight, securing a 2-2 draw with Austria with Whiteside being replaced in the second half again, a sign he was perhaps showing elements of fatigue. In any case, he played the full 90 minutes against France but it proved a step too far for Bingham’s boys as one of the classiest international teams I have ever seen cruised to a 4-1 victory with the peerless Michel Platini orchestrating things in midfield.
Little matter as Whiteside had made his mark at the highest level possible. I thought he still cannot order a pint of beer or even buy a firework and yet here he is mixing it at the top table with the best footballers on the globe.
It was exciting to imagine what the centre-forward would become for United and, despite his much-publicised injury travails, he delivered in my eyes. Not only scoring in both the League Cup and FA Cup finals a year later but, obviously, curling arguably the most iconic goal of my childhood past Everton’s Neville Southall to win the FA Cup for the 10-man Reds in 1985.
I was chuffed for him when he did get off the mark at the World Cup in Mexico ’86, as a goal was all that had been missing really in Spain, netting an early strike against Algeria and I did not even begrudge him (too much) scoring against United after his move to Everton. Well, it was impossible to dislike Whiteside, this hard-man also graced with genuine natural ability.
Luckily, I’ve got to meet him since working for United – interviewing him on his birthday at the Old Trafford cricket ground no less – and he was charming and great company. As another World Cup prepares to start, I wonder when that youngest-player record will be broken.
Others seem to have been eclipsed in rather cheap circumstances at times – I’m thinking of Millwall’s Curtis Weston becoming the youngest player to appear in an FA Cup final and Ryan Giggs’s Welsh record going to Ryan Green, something that seemed to upset Giggsy even more than it did me (Harry Wilson of Liverpool has since lowered that mark even further). Even Robbo’s fastest World Cup goal (the first of his double against France in those 1982 finals) has been beaten – by Hakan Sukur of Turkey.
Yet Whiteside still stands supreme and his name remains synonymous with the greatest show on Earth. As the youngest player in the squads announced for Russia is 19-year-old Australian Daniel Arzani, the feat will hold for at least another four years. And it’s why all young fans will continue to hear the name of Norman Whiteside when the World Cup comes around.