Billy Bingham, who has died aged 90, did more for Northern Ireland in World Cup football than any other figure, both as a lively and elusive outside-right when they reached the 1958 finals in Sweden and later as their inventive and resilient manager, taking them twice to the finals – in Spain in 1982 and in Mexico in 1986.
He was an important member of the Northern Ireland team that reached the finals of the 1958 World Cup, eliminating Italy en route. Not only did Northern Ireland become one of the smallest nations to have made the finals up to that point; they progressed to the quarter-finals in Sweden by qualifying ahead of Argentina and Czechoslovakia in the group stages.
Bingham, on the right wing, appeared in all five of his side’s matches during the tournament, including in the quarter-final against France, which was lost 4-0. Things might have worked out better in that match had Jimmy McIlroy accepted an early chance made for him when Bingham, in a pre-planned move, flicked on Danny Blanchflower’s throw in. But the opportunity was spurned, and the weary effort then collapsed. It was 24 years before Northern Ireland appeared again in the World Cup finals, and on that occasion Bingham was instrumental once more – as manager. Qualification for the 1982 finals was made easier by a dispensation that allowed two teams, rather than one, to qualify from the European groups. But for a side with Northern Ireland’s limited resources, to qualify at all was a massive achievement; and by that time there was no George Best to inspire the side.
For the matches in Spain, Bingham profitably used Gerry Armstrong – then no more than a reserve centre-forward at Watford in the Second Division – on the right wing, and he had clever midfield players in Martin O’Neill and Sammy McIlroy.
Their finest game was against the hosts, Spain, in the oppressive heat of Valencia, where Mal Donaghy was unfairly sent off but Armstrong scored the goal in a 1-0 victory. Bingham’s bold decision to use Norman Whiteside, at 17 the youngest player to figure in the World Cup finals, paid off handsomely as his side topped their group above Spain, Yugoslavia and Honduras. But having got through to the second round of matches, Bingham’s men drew with Austria, 2-2, and lost 4-1 to France, which ushered them home.
In the 1986 qualifiers Bingham’s well organised team won four and drew two of their eight matches, including crucial home and away victories against Romania, allowing them passage into the finals along with England, who were also in their qualifying group. Forty-year-old Pat Jennings was a superb goalkeeper and Whiteside confirmed his promise. In the finals in Mexico they could only draw with Algeria, then lost 1-2 to Spain and 0-3 to Brazil in the group stage, yet getting there at all had been remarkable. Born in Belfast, Bingham attended Belfast College of Technology and planned to become an apprentice electrician at the Harland & Wolff shipyard. But he shone in schoolboy football and in 1948 joined the local semi-professional club, Glentoran, in the Irish League, along with his near neighbours, the Blanchflower brothers Danny and Jackie.
Initially a small, light, quick centre-forward, before long Bingham realised that his physique suited him better as a right-winger. He made 60 appearances for Glentoran over two years until, in 1950, he was transferred to Sunderland, who had just finished third in the First Division.
Sunderland paid £10,000 for him, a huge fee then, and he joined a team of stars: Len Shackleton, Ivor Broadis and Trevor Ford among them. At Sunderland for eight years, he made more than 200 appearances, but the club’s best finish during his time at Roker Park was fourth in 1954-55.
In 1958 Sunderland were relegated from the top division for the first time in their history, and that summer Bingham, who had an uneasy relationship with the manager, Alan Brown, was told the club were minded to transfer him to Luton Town. Shocked at first, he eventually agreed: Luton were deeply unfashionable compared with Sunderland, but at least they were in the First Division.
As it turned out, Bingham arguably had his finest years at Luton, curling his insidious crosses into the murk at a home ground with inadequate floodlights. Luton surpassed themselves in reaching the 1959 FA Cup final at Wembley, though there they lost 2-1 to a Nottingham Forest team reduced to 10 men for most of the match.
In 1961, after Luton had been relegated, Bingham moved again, this time to Everton. He stayed a couple of seasons at Goodison Park, winning a First Division championship medal in 1962-63 before moving in 1963-64 to Third Division Port Vale, where he won the last four of his 56 caps for Northern Ireland, a record at the time. He had made his international debut in 1951 as a 19-year-old.
Bingham had qualified as a senior coach at the age of 28, so when he stopped playing at age 33 after breaking his leg at Port Vale, he moved into coaching at Fourth Division Southport in 1965, rising to become manager later that year when Willie Cunningham was sacked. In his first full season in charge (1966-67), Southport finished in second place, gaining their first ever promotion. By October 1967 he had been appointed part-time Northern Ireland manager, while also taking charge of Plymouth Argyle between 1968 and 1970, followed by a season as manager of Linfield, steering them to the 1970-71 Irish League title.
Having experienced moderate success with Northern Ireland, including narrowly missing out on qualification for the 1970 World Cup finals, in 1971 he resigned from the job – and his Linfield post – so he could manage Greece. After they failed to qualify for the 1974 World Cup finals, the Greeks let him go in 1973, and he returned to the UK to manage Everton for three full seasons, in which they finished 7th, 4th and 11th – coming close in the 1974-75 season to winning the title.
A poor run of results led to his sacking in early 1977, after which he moved back to Greece for an unsuccessful six-month spell with PAOK Salonika and then to Mansfield Town, where he spent almost two years with little to show for his efforts. He became manager of Northern Ireland for a second time in 1980 and was appointed MBE in 1981.
After the great successes of 1982 and 1986, Bingham struggled with a gradually ageing side, and the retirements of O’Neill, Jennings and Whiteside restricted his options. Returning to type, Northern Ireland were unable to qualify for either the 1990 or the 1994 finals, prompting Bingham’s resignation in 1993. The end was disappointing, but nonetheless he bowed out as the most successful manager in Northern Ireland’s history. He was later director of football at Blackpool, and in 2008 came briefly out of retirement to act as a scout for Burnley.
He was twice married and divorced – first to Eunice Oliver and then Rebecca Van Strang. The two children from his first marriage, David and Sharon, survive him.