Football: Wily campaigner prepares for his last battle: On Wednesday, two tribes clash in Belfast, the USA at stake for one. Clive White lobbies the outgoing Billy Bingham, Northern Ireland's long-serving manager

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The Independent Online
BILLY BINGHAM would have wanted it no other way. Indeed he planned it this way: Northern Ireland v Republic of Ireland, final game, Group Three. Not that he expected it to be his swansong. Far from it. It was more likely somebody else's valediction he had in mind. Either way, Wee Billy always intended to go out fighting, scoring points as ever off the big fellas.

In his mind's eye he could easily picture next Wednesday's familiar scene, even at two years' distance: a pitch-black November night at Windsor Park with a cold wind and rain sweeping down from the Black Mountain seeping through to the very spirit of the opposition while somehow stimulating his Northern Ireland players. . .

Better teams than that built by Big Jack have crumbled in such circumstances: Franz Beckenbauer's West Germany for one. And Billy liked Franz. Relations between Bingham and Charlton were always likely to be strained even without the latter's typically blunt, but probably honest, dismissal last year of the Ulstermen's World Cup chances.

The Republic have replaced Northern Ireland as the great man- eating minnows of world football and if they win next week Charlton will have emulated Bingham's achievement in reaching two successive World Cup finals. For a man as proud as Bingham to find himself supplanted, too, in the affections of Irish people, whatever their persuasion, by someone who is not even from their parts, hurts. All the more so when the cards each has been dealt are not even from the same deck.

'Jack is not Irish,' he has said. 'He might own a little farm in Ireland but that doesn't make him Irish. As for the team, they've been waiting to do something for years because they've always had good players, even if they haven't always been born in Ireland.

'Nevertheless, if they beat us I'll say 'Congratulations, Jack', because they will deserve to go. But what I really want to be able to say to him is 'Hard luck, Jack'.'

With victory achieved and his position in the Emerald Isle still unchallenged, the game's current longest-serving international manager (18 years if you add his two terms together) will be able to move contentedly into retirement at the age of 62. Ever since his career as a club manager petered out at Mansfield after three fraught years at Everton, Bingham has preferred to lead a more diverse life. He opted for a part-time role with the Irish FA because it enabled him to take up various other attractive and often lucrative positions around the world. Like the year's sabbatical he spent with the Saudi Arabian national team.

Last year he became a director of Blackpool and he has been a driving force behind the creation of a national sports centre along the lines of Lilleshall in Northern Ireland of which he is also a director. He intends to continue travelling the world as a Fifa instructor and lend a hand with his wife's antique jewellery business in Southport, where they live. Some retirement.

Born in a Protestant working- class district of East Belfast, the son of a shipyard trade unionist and masonic lecturer, Bingham chose to dedicate his life to self-improvement. But behind the demure exterior, the soft lyrical voice, there remains a wily streetfighter ever ready to put up his dukes. Such tenacity was evident throughout his playing career as a free-scoring winger with Luton, Sunderland and Everton, not forgetting Northern Ireland.

That never-say-die attitude has pervaded his international teams. Someone once described him as a master of the art of the probable in as much as he never takes risks with either individuals or team strategies. He would hint at an attacking formation, it is said, and then retreat to the trenches within five minutes.

Yet he is indisputably a master tactician, who in the qualifying rounds for the 1984 European Championship, schemed the defeat of West Germany, home and away. Who else would have had the audacity in Hamburg, never mind the power of persuasion, to try to convince a debutant, one Gerry McElhinney, of Third Division Bolton, that he could successfully man- mark Karl-Heinz Rummenigge.

'I find out what a player is good at and emphasise it. I never labour deficiencies. I've always followed that criteria because players are less likely to let you down.'

Irishmen have never walked so tall as they did in the 1982 World Cup finals in Spain when they reached the quarter-finals after defeating the host nation. Big hearted was the best you could say about Gerry Armstrong, yet he was voted the outstanding British player of the tournament. While, memorably, a Spanish journalist was moved to write: 'In another week special stars like Zico, Maradona and Hamilton (Billy) will have gone home and Spain will be bankrupt.' His retirement looks as though it will coincide with the resignation of the England manager Graham Taylor, whose international career has barely begun by comparison. It was a job that Bingham often hankered after. The idea of him fishing (if Charlton will excuse the analogy) for talent in a far bigger pool than he enjoyed with Northern Ireland, and moulding it with his organisational know-how, was indeed an intriguing one. He is no more likely, however, to offer advice on his own successor than he is on England's, but he does say: 'I feel it's much more important in international management to have been up the mountain. Only then can you tell others how to climb it.'

(Photograph omitted)