Larne man Davy Wilson is one of a small band of Northern Ireland fans who have seen their country play at a World Cup.
Beyond that, while he was in Mexico for the 1986 showpiece, he also managed to convince some of the locals that he was one of Northern Ireland’s star players.
“I’d just turned 20 – it was the first time I’d been on a plane never mind going to a World Cup,” the 52-year-old told the News Letter this week, ahead of the kick off of the 2018 World Cup in Russia tomorrow.
“I spent my life savings getting there. I’d booked two weeks off work but ended up staying for over four.
“We started in Belfast, then Amsterdam where we slept on a park bench, then we flew via Houston to Mexico City. For a boy who had never been out of Magheramorne, it was a culture shock – dropping into the biggest, smoggiest city in the world. We then jumped onto a rickety oul bus which took nine hours to get to Guadalajara with the fumes blowing in the back window into the bus.
“The heat was unbelievable. The sweat was pumping off us. And I hadn’t even been warned to put sunblock on.
“We got there and went straight to watch Brazil vs Spain. We hadn’t washed for about three days.”
He continued: “On the first day we went into Guadalajara main square, all these people started surrounding us. They were looking autographs. They thought we were players.
“We didn’t bother to put them right. Instead we took on new names. There was four of us – one was (Norman) Whiteside, one was (David) McCreery, one was Jimmy Nicholl and I had blonde curly hair so I became Ian Stewart.
“I was having such a good time that I didn’t want to go home. I’d have stayed on longer but my dad went mad.
“I actually met a girl, started dating her and had to carry on the lie I was Ian Stewart. I got in a bit too deep. She invited me to her family house and got introduced to her family as Northern Ireland football player Ian Stewart.
“Northern Ireland were playing Algeria in the first match. I told her the day before I had to head off early and have an early night because of the big match the next day. She was a dentist, and with the match being played during the day I assumed she wouldn’t see it because she’d be at work.
“I met her that night and she hit me a whack and said, ‘You not Ian Stewart’.
“She’d watched the match to see me in action and had seen the real Ian Stewart when he came on as a sub in the 78th minute.
“Somehow the relationship carried on for a week or so. She did write to me but didn’t get a response despite my mum’s encouragement.
“I met Ian a few years back and told him the story. He laughed his head off.”
Davy said while it had cost a lot to get to Mexico, the price of their hotel – just £22 for 21 nights – had meant they were able to extend their stay.
He said: “It was very difficult to get there and money was tight so it was only the chosen few who went. But when you were out there it was just so difficult to come home. The craic in the town square was mighty and we also spent a bit of time with the players at their hotel. It was all very open with the Northern Ireland team. Fans were invited to Pat Jennings’ birthday party.”
Davy continued: “My cousin never came home from that trip to Mexico. He stayed for a year and half in Guadalajara teaching English, then he ended up marrying a Spanish girl and now lives in Spain.”
While they were in Mexico Davy and his touring party went to all three NI games against Spain, Brazil, and Algeria, as well as other games.
He said: “The beauty of that Northern Ireland team was they played hard and they partied hard. That’s how the bond formed between them.
“We deserved to be there. We beat Romania twice in qualifying and drew with England – but there was no way we were going to get beyond the group stages in those conditions. We were hot and sticky in the stands and never mind running about on the pitch.
“Probably the best game I ever saw for sheer skill and technical ability was the quarter final between France and Brazil. It ended up 1-1 and went to penalties with France going through.”
Asked was he surprised Northern Ireland has not been to a World Cup since Mexico, Davy said: “I didn’t expect to be going to the World Cup again for a long time. It was the end of a golden era and there were very few younger players coming through as back up.
“My view was it was a once in a lifetime job for a small country like ours. I was delighted to get to one. The Euros was an amazing experience that I hadn’t banked on. The Ukraine game is one I’ll never forget. We got a taste for it and were geared up to go to Russia, but we fell just short. I can see similarities between the spirit in this squad and Billy Bingham’s squad.”