Northern Ireland open their Nations League campaign against Greece on Thursday and it brings back bittersweet memories for one of our football pioneers, Derek Spence.
nowball, as he was known for his dashing blond hair, signed for Greek top club Olympiakos from English Third Division club Blackpool in the mid-1970s and, although he didn’t stay too long, it left an impression sustainable.
“I would call it organized chaos,” says Belfast-born Spence, who won 29 caps for Northern Ireland and scored three goals.
“You had to get used to playing in the scorching heat at 3pm on a Sunday afternoon and, of course, there was the culture of leaks and corruption. But for all that, they were very good times.
“I remember going for a trial in Brugge thinking I would sign for a Belgian team, but the agent said I was wanted at Olympiakos. I had never even heard of them .
“So I phoned the assistant manager of Northern Ireland, Tommy Cavanagh, and he said, ‘Sign up, it’s going to be a fantastic experience for you.’
“He was right, the only regret was not seeing my three-year contract.
“At the end of my first year I was buzzing, but halfway through the second I came back to Blackpool and was their top scorer and player of the year. It was a great curveball. learning for me.
Playing on foreign grounds in the 70s often seemed like a world away from the hustle and bustle of British gambling.
“You felt completely and utterly isolated,” adds the 70-year-old, who also later played in the Netherlands before joining George Best in Hong Kong. “There were no cell phones in those days and you never had scouts.
“When the team was chosen for a World Cup qualifier against Holland at Windsor Park, the telegram was sent to Panathinaikos. It wouldn’t matter much because Olympiakos didn’t not give two words about Northern Ireland.
“At that time, the Greek national team was chosen from local players. Now almost none are based there.
“At the time, the Greek players were technically very good, but they didn’t have the right work ethic. Some were prima donnas, but players such as Liverpool’s Kostas Tsimikas are now complete.
“When they won Euro 2004, it surprised a lot of people, but not me. They have fallen back a bit since then, but they are dangerous opponents.
Spence speaks enthusiastically of the atmosphere at Windsor Park as he continues to be the 12th man in the country.
But he doesn’t think that will intimidate the Greeks, whose fans may be just as passionate but far more volatile.
“We faced our big rivals AEK Athens in the Greek Cup semi-finals on their home ground, but our bus broke down on the way and we had to walk the rest of the distance,” recalls- he.
“I’ve never had so much stick and we had to dodge punches and spit. Didn’t bother me too much, I’m from Belfast.