GERRY Armstrong was driving through Valencia with his wife last summer when the notion suddenly took him to swing by the scene of what was unquestionably his finest moment as a player – the Mestalla.
His first visit to the stadium, where Celtic will take to the field on Thursday evening in the second leg of their Europa League last 32 double header with Los Che, some 36 years earlier had certainly been an enjoyable one.
The then Watford striker had netted the winning goal for Northern Ireland in their World Cup group game against hosts Spain in 1982 to ensure that his country progressed to the second round of the finals as section winners.
His return was to prove every bit as entertaining.
“As we were being shown around the tour guide started talking about the fact the stadium had been used in the World Cup – and the only match Spain had lost there had been against Northern Ireland,” he said. “Then he mentioned my name. There were a couple of English guys on the tour and they were looking at me with puzzled expressions and giggling. It was bizarre and quite funny.”
Armstrong was signed, due in no small part to his performances for his national team in that memorable tournament, by Real Mallorca the following year. He spent two seasons being heckled and harangued by opposition supporters who remembered his strike. But he had the last laugh.
“I did get stick, particularly when we went to play Valencia,” he said. “Obviously the home fans recalled only too well what I had done to them. We were losing 2-1 until I scored the equaliser – into the very same net that I had with Northern Ireland. We drew 2-2.”
Armstrong, now a forthright and knowledgeable television commentator on Spanish football, has no doubts the Celtic players and fans will savour their excursion to what is one of the beautiful game’s great arenas every bit as much as he has over the years despite, after the 2-0 defeat they suffered in the first leg, their slim chances of success.
The Mestalla may only have a capacity of 49,500, far less than the likes of the Benito Villamarin, the Bernabeu, the Metropolitano and the Nou Camp, but it is famous around the globe for the steepness of its stands, the close proximity of spectators to the pitch and the febrile atmosphere that is invariably generated within.
“It is a real cauldron,” he said. “The Valencia supporters are fanatical. They love their football, are very passionate. You will always get a buzz playing there.
“The Nou Camp is obviously massive, at one stage it used to accommodate 120,000, but now it takes just under 100,000. The Bernabeu is another one that has a great atmosphere that houses 85,0000. But the Mestalla is something special. It doesn’t have a big running track around it so the fans are really on top of you. The Celtic players will love it. It is one of the best stadiums you can play in.
“The Mestalla, the Vicente Calderon Stadium before Atletico Madrid moved to the Metropolitano a couple of years ago and the Estadio Benito Villamarin were all electric. But, even by Spanish standards, the Mestalla is incredible.”
It certainly brought out the best in Armstrong and his Northern Ireland team-mates, who included future Celtic manager Martin O’Neill, against Spain in their final Group Five match in the 1982 World Cup.
“I loved it,” he said. “You certainly knew you were on a big stage and in those circumstances you know you have to perform. But Northern Ireland were a good side. We hadn’t lost in about three years going into the World Cup so we had a lot of confidence and belief.
“We had drawn our first two games against Honduras, who I had scored against, and Yugoslavia. We were quite confident. We were under a lot of pressure, but we knew we would be. Martin, who was our captain, had said to us beforehand ‘we’re going to have everything thrown at us in the first 20 to 25 minutes’. That is exactly what happened.
“But we withstood that and gradually got a foothold in the game and started playing. We had five or six opportunities, I managed to put one away after Luis Arconada had palmed a Billy Hamilton cross to my feet and we held on and won 1-0. We played the last half-an-hour with 10 men, too, because Mal Donachy got sent off.”
Brendan Rodgers insisted Celtic can still, if they can net an early goal in the Mestalla, progress to the last 16 of the Europa League after the 2-0 defeat they suffered to Valencia at Parkhead last week.
Armstrong, who will be providing expert analysis at the game for Virgin Media viewers in Ireland, feels the Scottish champions will find the outing every bit as difficult as Northern Ireland did against Spain, but he agrees with his compatriot.
“Valencia have got a very good young side that they have developed over the last three or four years,” he said. “They play attractive football. Their movement is good, their passing is excellent and they have some individuals with real pace. It is all skill and technique with them.
“It is shame Celtic have drawn a team who are, for me, one of the favourites for the competition. There are a lot of good teams left in the Europa League and they are definitely one of them. But Valencia can be got at. If they can keep it tight for the first 15 or 20 minutes they can do something.”
Regardless of the outcome, Armstrong feels Scott Brown, James Forrest and Callum McGregor should soak in every minute of the outing.
“It could be the last occasion they get to play there,” he said. “Valencia are building the new stadium not far away. They have been for some time due to financial problems they have had. But I think they are moving there in another year or so.”
Armstrong has been pleased to see his Rodgers do so well at Celtic in the last two-and-a-half years. He believes the former Swansea City and Liverpool man, who is a fluent Spanish speaker, has shown he is capable of managing in La Liga, as his countryman has expressed a desire to do, if the opportunity arises in the future.
“I have met Brendan several times,” he said. “He is a very astute coach and has done very well in his career. But he is very technical when it comes to coaching and that is the sort of thing they appreciate in Spain. There is absolutely no reason why he couldn’t manager there.
“His background in English football will help him. The links between Spanish and English football in the last 10 or 15 years have been greater than ever. There are a lot of Spanish coaches in England now, Rafael Benitez, Nuno Espirito Santo, Unai Emery.
“Gary Neville managed Valencia and Davie Moyes had a spell in charge of Real Sociedad and they both struggled, but I think Brendan could go there and do well.”