Football: Gentleman and a survivor: Eamon Dunphy meets Billy Bingham on the eve of his exit from football

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THE Prince of Wales Hotel, Southport. A good hotel, a good town, the seaside but not Blackpool, the saucy, neon-lighted playground along the Lancashire coast where people go to commit adultery and have fun. People dream of retiring to Southport. Blackpool is Big Ron and Graeme Souness. Southport is Billy Bingham, who this week takes his leave of the game he has graced with quiet distinction for more than 40 years.

It's one o'clock in the Prince of Wales. Men in tweed jackets and brown brogues read the lunch menu, table d'hote, and order for their prim respectable partners. Feminism has not yet reached Southport. This is England as it used to be, John Betjeman's mellow yesterday rather than the nihilistic contemporary urban nightmare imagined by Martin Amis.

The setting is important, the contrasting faces of England explaining something about our subject, who has chosen to live here, and the game which, like the country, has changed so much since Billy Bingham arrived from Belfast as a lad to join Sunderland. Like the nation it still enthralls, English soccer today is, despite the endemic banality, more Amis than Betjeman. A cause for concern. Worse, an excuse to weep.

He arrives promptly. Billy Bingham MBE, for services to professional football, in particular to the game in the beleaguered province of Ulster. He cuts a dapper figure: silver hair, black polo neck, a neatly casual jacket. His face is ruddy red, his eyes twinkling with life, the spirit and bearing of a man 10 years younger than his 62. His greeting is warm yet short of fulsome.

Shrewd. On and off the field, shrewd is the word associated with Bingham. You need to be shrewd to remain in gainful employment in football management at the age of 62, to be leaving, as Billy is this week, on your own terms, dignity intact, scars healed, a few shillings in the bank.

He won't be drawn on the rights and wrongs of playing Wednesday's World Cup qualifying match against the Republic at Belfast's Windsor Park except to point out that football has escaped without serious incident throughout the Troubles and he sees no reason why this week should be any different. Between a southern Catholic and a northern Prod, reference to the savage sectarianism that curses our island is unavoidable. Had the Protestant/Catholic thing ever surfaced in his teams, I wonder, more a conversational gambit, for I know the answer? 'No, of course not,' he replied (knowing that I know). Sport has enabled Billy and his players, all of us indeed, to escape what he describes as the parochialism of the Province.

To escape, yet still to understand exactly what divides Papist from Prod. Of the difference between the two warring tribes, between the Irish Nationalists and the British Irish, Billy is well qualified to speak. And does so with impressive yet gentle conviction.

He was born on 5 May 1931 in a two-up-two-down on Woodstock Road, East Belfast, a Protestant ghetto in the shadow of the Harland and Wolff shipyard. 'I'm the product of a mixed marriage,' he reveals. My surprise evident, Billy bursts out laughing: 'Yes, my dad was a Presbyterian, my mother Church of Ireland' (a separate Protestant denomination). This clever Irish joke, which we both savour, underlines an Ulster truth rarely fully understood outside the Province: the Troubles are not about religion but about cultural allegiance, about loyalism and republicanism rather than Catholicism and Protestantism.

Behind that fundamental truth, there lies another complicating factor: the Troubles are not helped by the contrasting characters of the protagonists. Protestant fastidiousness rubs uneasily against the quintessential Roman Catholic type, who is expansive, disregarding what is or seems to be proper. Of the former, Billy Bingham, Shrewd Billy, is a fine example. Or so it would seem until you dig beyond the neat, well-trimmed surface.

Talking about his formative years, to someone likely to understand, he is fondly passionate about his culture and time. 'My dad worked in the shipyard, so although we weren't well off we weren't poor, poor. We knew we were different from Catholics. As a lad I'd go throwing stones at Catholic lads from the Short Strand which was just across the road. It was nothing personal. We didn't really understand the larger picture.'

Yet, he recalls, his Ulster identity was different from that cherished by his Catholic contemporaries. 'I remember when I was about seven or eight hearing older kids singing a street song with the line 'Mrs Simpson stole our King'.' He remembers also being selected to play for Northern Ireland schoolboys against the Republic in Dublin - 'My first trip abroad.' We laugh. We can afford to, having escaped that Ireland and reached some understanding of its beauty and madness.

Young Billy was a scholarship boy forced to leave school early to be apprenticed as an electrical engineer in the shipyard. He was a prodigious goal-scoring centre forward, small at 5ft 7in, but quick and clever. He made his first team debut for Glentoran aged 16 in 1947, long before the cult of youth was known. And, long before weight training was recommended for footballers, as a scrawny teenager Billy shrewdly joined Buster McShane's Belfast gym to put some flesh on his Protestant bones.

Beefed up by McShane, who later coached Mary Peters to Olympic gold, Billy eventually signed for Sunderland who were to English football then what Blackburn Rovers are today, a club intent on buying success. Bingham was a modest acquisition purchased to understudy the great North-east stars of 1951, men such as Len Shackleton, Trevor Ford and Ray Daniel, whose names still reverberate on Wearside. Billy's Presbyterian father insisted that he finish his apprenticeship in the local shipyards, where he began each day at 7am.

Different times: a maximum wage of pounds 12 a week (supplemented by the occasional illicit pounds 5 from Sunderland's notoriously profligate board); 50 or 60 full-time professionals on the club's books, cheap labour on a grand scale; and a manager called Captain Bill Murray. Billy Bingham was now a winger, 'a goal-scoring winger' he points out, because it matters very much to him that this southern Catholic understands that imagination, he prefers the word 'fantasy', is as vital to his tradition as to mine.

'I've always improvised as a player and a manager, backed my fantasies. Some days as a winger, you'd never see the ball so I'd go looking for it whether the manager liked it or not. If the action was elsewhere, I used to say to myself 'Come on, Bingy' and go on what I called my adventure raids.' The record shows how profitable Billy's adventures were. In 419 Football League games he scored 102 goals, an extraordinary strike-rate he came close to emulating in his 56 appearances for Northern Ireland (10 goals). He played in the losing Luton Town side in the 1959 FA Cup Final and won a First Division championship medal with Everton in 1962/3. This notable career was embellished further when, in 1958, Northern Ireland reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup in Sweden, the tournament which introduced Pele to the international game.

That particular adventure raid was commanded by Peter Doherty, a great player, a great leader of men whom Bingham acknowledges as one of two powerful influences on his own football philosophy. Listening to him talk of fantasies and adventure raids I begin to understand that shrewdness, that canny Protestant virtue, will not alone explain what he has achieved in his 14 years as Northern Ireland team manager.

For it is as a manager that Billy Bingham will be remembered, not a club manager (he managed six with varying degrees of fortune) but as the man who guided (for once that word is apt) Northern Ireland to two World Cup finals, Spain '82 and Mexico '86, and two British championships in 1980 and '84. Football folklore attributes the success of Bingham's Irish teams to nothing more magical than shrewdness. Made in the image of their leader, these teams were said to be well-organised, hard-working and admirably spirited. In this analysis, camaraderie counts for more than talent. This is true but hardly all the truth.

There was more than blood and guts camaraderie to Bingham's best side. The extra quality was the uniquely Irish gift for dreaming. The Celtic penchant for a little fantasy rooted in the wisdom Bingham had acquired growing up with men such as Doherty, Johnny Carey, Danny Blanchflower and his brother Jackie, Jimmy McIlroy and Bobby Collins, large characters in the game of yesterday that is sadly no more.

There is a touch of Boys' Own about Billy as he reflects on his rich past which begins with Len Shackleton and moves swiftly through the Busby Babes, 'Gentleman' Johnny Carey, Doherty, Bill Shankly, Stan Cullis, Bill Nicholson, moves on past the removal of the maximum wage to George Best, Malcolm Allison, Denis Law, Bobby Charlton, through to now . . . to Gazza, Graham Taylor. From the beautiful to the banal. Listening as he quietly turns the pages of football history, from the Charles Buchan Football Monthly to the sardonic, derisive fanzines of today, the image of shrewdness finally dissolves.

Shrewd, perhaps, but a romantic Celt at heart, a believer in adventure raids in a world where few are inclined to back their fantasies. But trusting not in dreams alone. Doherty, judged by some who saw them both to be an even better player than George Best, left his passionately romantic mark on Bingham. Carey is the other powerful influence. 'They were both great men. Peter was Northern Irish, very direct and zealous, Johnny was more, well, southern, subtle, quiet, thinking more than he'd say outright.'

Football as something you thought about, imagined in your own way and then expressed according to your gift was the faith preached by Doherty and Carey, who was Bingham's boss at Goodison Park. And asked to explain his success in football management, Billy refers to his mentors, stressing above all that he hoped that he had their gift: 'judgement of players.

'You've got to play players in the positions that suit them. Northern Ireland have always had a small squad which forced me to be resourceful. I'd play matches in my head, imagining so-and-so in this or that position, looking at the pluses and the minuses, trying to work out how one man's weakness could be compensated for by another's strength.

'Gerry Armstrong was an ordinary centre forward, honest but ponderous. Martin O'Neill was a good forward runner but not much use when it came to defending. I imagined Gerry playing wide on the right, having more time to control the ball, not having to receive it with his back to defenders, using possession sensibly and maybe sneaking in for the odd goal on the far post. I was looking for a way of accommodating both of them and strengthening my team. Gerry wouldn't be exposed and Martin wouldn't have to worry about the donkey work of defending which Gerry would do all day.' A story not from Boys' Own, rather the perfect example of imagination bearing fruit, for it was Armstrong's inspired burst through a disbelieving Spanish defence that set up the goal which helped Northern Ireland dump the hosts out of the '82 World Cup.

On Wednesday night at Windsor Park, a stone's throw from the stone-throwing of his youth, Billy Bingham MBE will take the final bow. He leaves, with no regrets, a contemporary game whose ills he identifies, pithily, as being the consequence of 'too many clubs, too few players'. He will admit to no emotions about this week. He is an Ulsterman after all. His hope merely being that the promising new team he's built will do itself justice.

Billy's pleased that his last game will be a 'big game', the Republic needing a win to be certain of qualifying for next summer's World Cup finals. And a pro to the end, he will remind his players that Jack Charlton 'rubbished' them earlier this year, something that rankles with Billy. Low-key and quietly ambitious to the end, a true son of his caste and his province. His epitaph might read: gentleman survivor in a cruel game.

(Photograph omitted)