INTERVIEW: DOMINIC BLISS
After scoring in Northern Ireland’s famous victory over hosts Spain in the 1982 World Cup, Gerry Armstrong later spent two years playing for one of the nation’s great overachievers, RCD Mallorca. It was the start of a love affair that endures to this day for Sky Sports’ longest-serving La Liga expert
Gerry, in 1983 you made the decision to leave Watford and head for a new adventure, joining newly promoted Real Mallorca in the Primera Division. It must have been a major upheaval for you – could you speak any Spanish when you pitched up on the Balearic island?
You must be joking! I didn’t speak any Spanish when I first came over and I had to learn it while I was there. It took me three to six months to really get into it.
The first thing I learned was all the swear words from the players, you know, and all the football terminology as well. You need defenders and team-mates to help you when you’re controlling the ball and there are two people marking you, trying to nick the ball off you. In those situations, you have to understand what they are shouting at you and that’s something you take for granted when you’re playing for an English club. So a move like that teaches you to be independent.
But the island itself is gorgeous – the sunshine is part of it, but it really is a beautiful place, with lovely people. The Mallorcans are quite distinguished people and very singular in a sense. They speak their own language as well, although I can’t speak Mallorquin, I can speak Castellano.
The surroundings for the Real Mallorca training ground in Son Bibiloni are breathtaking. It must be a wonderful place to come in to work every day, particularly when your job is to play football…
Yes, but that’s only been acquired in the last six years. When I was there, we had a nightmare trying to find training facilities. There were hardly any grass pitches at all and we trained indoors a lot, on hard surfaces. We had to do our running on the golf courses early in the morning before people came out to tee off!
In pre-season for the first year I was there, we were out on the golf course to do running at 6.30 in the morning and finished at 7.30! We then had breakfast and showered before coming out again to train at 10.30 in an area under the shade, where they had set up weights and exercise points and whatever else. Then we’d come in to have lunch and a siesta before going to the stadium at around 7pm to do our football stuff on the pitch. After that we came back to eat at 9.30 or 10pm before going to bed again. That was the way they did pre-season at Mallorca back then.
Different managers had different ideas during the season, so it wasn’t always the same once the games got underway. I had two managers in the time I was there – the first was Koldo Aguirre and the second was Marcel Domingo. They had very distinct ideas about how we should train, as all managers do. But, in Mallorca, the weather dictates what time you should train at – they don’t want to train in the middle of the day when it’s 35-40 degrees because that’s madness. So they would train in the evening, when it’s quite humid, and you would sweat like mad, but you could actually get some work done in terms of crossing, shape, passing and finishing.
Did it take its toll on the pitch when you were training in the stadium each evening?
Yeah, the pitch was crap! It was hammered. There were clumps of grass on it but it wasn’t a great pitch, I must say. The type of grass there wasn’t a good kind of grass either – it was thick and leafy. But it was the best they could manage at the time and the stadium we played in back then – the Lluis Sitjar – was very dated. Now, they are in a new stadium, the Son Moix.
So was it also a culture shock for you in terms of the playing style as well?
It was a totally different style of football. When I played for Watford, we had played in a 4-4-2 formation when we hadn’t got the ball but, once we had possession, it became like a 4-2-4. So, I’d been used to that and it was very different in Spain.
When we played away from, we played like a 4-5-1 or a 5-4-1 and I was the one up front, which was not always fun. I was kind of a target man and they thought: “If we’ve got a point, we will try to hang on for the point.”
That’s the way they looked at it away from home, so I had to come to terms with that. Then, at home, we played with wingers and we had a bit of a go.
Commitment meant something different as well – players in Spain didn’t really like tackles so much but it was more technical. It was a different style of football and the technical side of it was unbelievable.
Did you develop your own game out there, or did they make the most of your Britishness?
They wanted me for my Britishness, as someone who was tough, could win the ball in the air, make the ball stick up front and work hard to chase challenges and put centre-halves under pressure.
I did well in the time I was there. We had seven or eight players come in from all over the place – from Barcelona, from Real Madrid, from Racing – but I was the one that was unique in my role, in terms of my Britishness, as you put it.
The Mallorca fans actually took to me very quickly because I was a player who put in a lot of effort and a lot of commitment and they loved the fact that I would put my head in for a challenge or put my foot in for a block. It was a very enjoyable time, I have to say.
It had been your performance in Spain ‘82 that caused a lot of people to take notice of you out there. When you signed for Mallorca were you still on the radar out there because of the goal that helped Northern Ireland defeat Spain on their own turf in the group stage?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I got so much stick when I went away, especially when I went to Valencia. I remember coming in and they went crazy as we were getting off the bus – they were throwing apples and oranges and bananas and giving me dog’s abuse. My Spanish was coming on and I could understand what they were saying, but this was about a year-and-a-half after my goal.
The press had built it up, they had said that the man who scored the goal against us is coming back with Mallorca, so they were all waiting for me.
I actually scored again that day, in the same stadium – it was a different kind of goal, but I scored again. We drew 2-2 with Valencia in that match and I was quite happy coming back afterwards. Our fans were well pleased with the goal but the Valencia fans went absolutely crazy and there were about 48,000 of them to the 2,000 Mallorca fans.
It’s a cauldron that stadium – it’s the still the same stadium but they’ve changed the name. It was the Luis Casanova but they’ve renamed it the Mestalla now.
Mallorca are now recognised as top-flight regulars but at that stage they were just beginning to establish themselves as that weren’t they?
They were a yo-yo club, who had been up once or twice but not that often, and it was a big challenge for them.
The club has come a long way in the past 20-30 years, it really has moved. They’ve played in the Champions League and, when they were playing under Hector Cuper in the late Nineties, they were finishing in the top three. He brought players in from Argentina, established a really strong team that expected to finish in the top five every season.
But in the first year I was there, we went down and I remember, towards the end of the season, we played Valladolid, who were fourth bottom of the league while we were third bottom and I scored a goal that put us 1-0 up after 20 minutes. The crowd went crazy and they all surged forward at the old Lluis Sitjar Stadium. There were 40,000 of them, a full house and the wall broke – a load of people fell into a dry moat about 8-10 feet below.
A lot of people got injured that day – not seriously, but injured – and, as a result of that, the ground was closed by the Spanish FA. We were told we had to play all our remaining games away from home, which meant our last six-eight games were all played away and that finished us off.
It was quite an unusual situation, quite unique and I remember our president, Miquel Contesti, was quite irate about it because we weren’t a big club. If you were a big club like Barcelona, Real Madrid or Atletico Madrid, you could argue against these kinds of decisions but at Mallorca we were a small club and we had no comeback.
Did you have a decision to make about whether to stay or go when the club was relegated?
No, I had just turned 30 at the time and I was committed to trying to help the club go back up again. I’ll tell you what, it was tough in the Segunda Division and it came down to the last few games of the season again as to whether we would get promotion.
I remember we were playing away to Celta Vigo and I had pulled a hamstring in the match before, but they had tried to get me fit for it. It was 0-0 in the second half and I had a 50-50 with the Celta Vigo centre-half and I fancied I could outstrip him but, as soon as I hit the accelerator, my hamstring just went, I pulled up and that was me off with about 28 minutes to go. We ended up losing 1-0 and the chance of promotion went with it.
Did you find that those technical qualities filtered down into the Segunda Division, or was there a difference in style between the top flight and the lower leagues in Spain?
They didn’t all play like they did in the Primera Division. In the Segunda, it was quite physically competitive and because we had a few technical players that didn’t always suit us. I look at the sides that we played when we were relegated and some of them are doing exactly the same now. Teams like Celta Vigo, which was a footballing club that found it difficult to try and get back up again. It was probably easier for them in the top flight than in the Segunda Division because it was really hard to go away and get results at some of the really tough clubs in there.
It’s still the case. There are several clubs who only play a wee bit of football. I looked at the Granada side that came up last year and it was organisation and pressing that got them up and kept them up. They are good to watch, especially at home, but away from home they couldn’t get a result.
You’ve been involved with the Sky Sports coverage of La Liga for many years now, both as a co-commentator and an analyst in the studio. How important has the broadcasting of Spanish football to an English audience been in the growth of our understanding of continental football?
Very important. It started off 17 years ago, when I did the first game that Sky covered and my producer asked me to try and explain to the British public what the difference was between the Premier League and the Spanish League. I said it was to do with technique and a culture whereby they wanted to embrace the ball and keep it and they didn’t believe you should be making rash challenges, that it was a tidier kind of football.
Reflecting on everything you have experienced, how pleased are you about the way La Liga coverage has taken off in England?
I didn’t know anything was going to come from it. 17 years ago, I got a phone call to see if I would come in as an analyst and talk about the Spanish league. It was one show that weekend and then there was another one the following weekend and the weekend after. Then suddenly, after a year, it started to take off and it took a while to build up.
Then they started the Revista shows and people would tune in just to watch all the goals in half an hour and find out the gossip about who was going where. With Guillem, the stories were fantastic and a cult following grew – in fact, there still is a cult following for La Liga coverage.
What I’ve realised over the years is the number of British fans who are coming over to watch La Liga games. Whenever we’re covering matches on site, the number of British fans at the game is untrue – it’s football tourism. They want to come and see the stadiums and they want to see Barcelona; they want to see Messi and Iniesta in the flesh; they want to come and see Ronaldo and Benzema play for Real Madrid.
It’s not just British, it’s people from different cultures – Japanese, Indian – they are coming from all parts of the world just to see the football being played.
I get people from India saying: “Oh look, there’s Gerry Armstrong! Can we have a photograph, Gerry?”
And I’m thinking: “What?!”
They have been watching our coverage of La Liga and they recognise me from it.
So, after all these years as a ‘neutral’ analyst, do you still have a soft spot for RCD Mallorca?
I always did. I went over to Mallorca this summer and I was talking to a lot of club people while I was out there. They remember me – the Delegado is Damian Amer, who was a player there and Lorenzo Serra Ferrer, who is now Director of Football, was the reserve-team coach when I was there. So I’ve known the people there for many years and I still get on very well with them. They have always been my club.