Billy Bingham, an English championship winner with Everton and the Club's manager for nearly four years from May 1973, passed away at the age of 90 on Thursday.
On Bingham's 89th birthday, in August 2020, evertonfc.com spoke to the great Northern Irishman's son, David, about his dad's extraordinary life and career – and the uplifting story of the pair's encounter with dementia after Billy's diagnosis 16 years ago.
David Bingham is describing his father’s frighteningly single-minded nature when he draws a striking parallel.
“Loyalty to brethren or family is important to him,” explains Bingham, “but nothing compared to the prize at stake – like Achilles.”
“My dad is the sort of hero from classical times.
“There is this old idea of heroes who would trample over everything, including themselves, to reach the point they need to get to.
“I wouldn’t characterise my father as being like that.
“But he has a bit of it at work.
“That fire and drive.
“Modern heroes are depicted as kind, all-round good people.
“But international athletes are very self-focused, they have to be, they are not necessarily balanced characters.
“And my father is not the archetypal modern sporting hero.”
That the fire in Billy Bingham is still burning is the point his son wants to emphasise above all others.
Bingham was a courageous footballer – too courageous – strong-willed and perceptive.
A title winner with Everton who came close to matching that achievement as manager of the Club, he enters his 90th year today and has spent the past 14 of those living with dementia.
David counts the round-the-clock care he provided for his dad as a success on account of it pushing back the day Billy had to move into permanent care until two years ago.
And he’s still fighting, this old warrior.
“He is not caught up with the idea he has a problem and is not feeling sorry for himself,” says David.
“Not in any sense having any remorse about his situation or fate.
“There is no self-pity.”
Billy Bingham was 15 when he began a weight training regime with Buster McShane, a weightlifter and bodybuilder – described by one of his friends as a “human crane” – and trainer to Mary Peters, the Northern Irish woman who won pentathlon gold at the 1972 Olympic Games.
“They had a nice friendship,” says David.
“Buster was enormously broad. Dad remembered them getting the tram into town to go to dances and always having Buster’s shoulders pressing into him.”
Bingham was a centre-forward and wanted to fill out a “spindly, wiry” frame.
It is a sad irony that one of the consequences of Bingham’s enhanced power was an extra spring.
More aerial challenges, more bangs to the head.
“If you want to trace the origins of dad’s dementia, they go back to before he was 20 years old,” says David.
Bingham suffered three head traumas before leaving Glentoran for Sunderland aged 18.
Memories of one of those incidents were limited to opening his eyes in hospital.
But, converted to an outside right – or right-winger – and in Glentoran’s first team at 16, Bingham’s chances of embarking on “a route which helped him avoid the fate of dying an early death having worked in the shipyard” were climbing.
He was brought up in a “strong, warm, kind, working-class, Protestant family,” relates David.
“A nice, protected household. But poor, in those days.”
When the Binghams moved out of a “dilapidated” home near Belfast’s Harland & Wolff shipyard where young Billy worked first as a marker boy – meticulously drawing chalk lines on steel plates to denote the area for cutting – then an apprentice electrician, his mother insisted on transferring the “meagre” family belongings under the cover of darkness.
David has listened to his dad’s tales of blinking behind a dazzling lamp as he travelled on a horse and cart for the surreptitious process.
“It was so the neighbours wouldn’t see,” explains David.
“They were moving up town to Bloomfield on the edges of Belfast.
“My dad remembers finding himself in ‘luxury’ conditions – although they still had an outside toilet.”
A County Antrim Shield winners’ medal Bingham won in his final season with Glentoran 70 years ago sits alongside his English championship prize, locked away in what David calls a “very safe place… not in the house”.
Every memento collected reflects a meaningful marker along that route Bingham followed out of the shipyard – not that crossing the Irish Sea for Sunderland spared Billy his shifts on the docks.
David laughs a lot in the course of a 90-minute conversation.
He mined his dad for stories and information following Billy’s retirement from football in 1993, spurred by a sense of duty to document memories and deepen his understanding of a straight forward man.
“I got a sense of how he forged his career and drove himself on,” says David.
And he enjoys disclosing that Billy “couldn’t change a plug” despite – under sufferance – continuing his electrician’s apprenticeship in Sunderland’s Austin & Pickersgill shipyard.
“His dad was concerned about what would happen if the football dream burst and insisted he should have a backup,” says David.
“But I’m not sure how much of the technical knowledge being imparted to him was absorbed.”
Only once does David tend towards sadness talking about his dad and the reason for his anguish is one of the side-effects of the dementia “stripping away” Billy’s mind.
“It is hard to say this,” starts David, “but he has lost interest in the game now.
“His judgement has been affected.”
Billy adored football.
David was born in 1961 and his lived memories begin around the time his dad was managing Southport in the middle of that decade.
He knows Billy Bingham the player only through precious few moving images, including the Pathe newsreel showing his dad scoring for Luton Town against Norwich City in a 1959 FA Cup semi-final.
“He scored in every round, except the final [Luton lost 2-1 to Nottingham Forest],” inserts David.
“He explained to me he was double marked after all those escapades in the earlier rounds.”
Bingham grew up playing on Belfast’s Orangefield Park.
His first youth team, Orangefield Star, was managed by Selina Blanchflower, mother of Danny and Jackie, Bingham’s future international teammates.
He recalled every street in Bloomfield being jammed with children playing football.
Those unable to afford a ball created hankyballs – newspaper bundled up and stuffed inside a handkerchief.
It is hard for David to reconcile the dad so consumed by football – “It possesses people when they play and even more as a manager when the stakes are higher” – with the Billy Bingham indifferent about his first love today.
Even more so when he relays Bingham’s emotions on leaving his “protected” home for Sunderland.
“Billy was full of beans and confidence on his own patch,” says David.
“The only way was up.
“He was unstoppable and had no fear – or no awareness of fear.
“The transfer was big for him – but also a shock.
“He was out of his comfort zone and way down the pecking order – he had three right wingers ahead of him.
“He learned the real matches were not played in front of thousands of people but in competition with his peers.
“People supposedly belonging to the same team were kicking lumps out of him – that was a revelation to him.
“Defenders warning him he’d be flat on his back if tried a trick on them again.
“He was a scamp in terms of getting the ball round people.
“It toughened him, firmed his mentality and cemented his determination to prevail.”
Billy Bingham recounted terrific detail from his eight years at Sunderland, of hurdling that trio in his way – not trampling over them – to become first-pick right-sided attacker.
He could shut his eyes and hear the Roker Roar all over again, relive sharing a field with Len Shackleton and responding to the “paternal, insightful” management of Bill Murray, whose successor, Alan Brown, in the gimlet-eyed Bingham’s opinion, “didn’t have the same breadth of understanding, or inspire loyalty”.
David learned long before sourcing football anecdotes that his dad met Eunice, David and older sister Sharon’s mother, at a dance in Sunderland, Billy soon discovering Eunice’s father was a foreman at the Austin & Pickersgill employers he was so eager to see the back of.
But David has also heard stories of those blasted old leather footballs – heavy enough that Buster McShane could have incorporated them in his weight-training regime – his dad would spend hours heading to perfect his scoring technique.
“My father was always up for a header,” says David.
“Those old leather balls soaked with rain and mud swelled to twice their weight.
“They were like medicine balls and you’re heading them as hard as possible.
“Dad said technique was important.
“If you caught that ball wrong, with a glancing blow, it could knock you out.
“He would also be contesting with defenders and heads might clash.
“Goalies came to punch the ball and would punch your head.
“He remembers being knocked out three times as a young player with Glentoran – and once waking up in hospital.
“The considered opinion when he was diagnosed in 2006 was that he had a percussive dementia, the sort suffered by boxers, footballers, and rugby and American Football players.
“Football has a journey to travel to accept the consequence of heading those old footballs is an illness and debilitation as a result of playing the game.
“It is only through an autopsy you discover for certain the type of dementia someone has suffered.
“But as far as I understand it my father’s dementia is caused by a long sporting career and from years of impacts to his head.”
Billy Bingham signed for Everton in October 1960.
He’d joined Luton in 1958 after deciding Brown wasn’t for him at Sunderland – and directly following a notable role in Northern Ireland reaching the quarter-finals of that summer’s World Cup in Sweden.
Billy Bingham, front row, far left, in the Everton line-up in 1960
It was at that tournament he studied manager Peter Doherty and began to understand the decisive impact clever leadership could exert on a team.
Bingham scored 16 First Division goals in his second Luton season but was fighting a lone hand and the team was relegated.
He made his Everton debut in a 3-2 win at Fulham and waited until only his third appearance for his first goal, gaining a sliver of revenge on old Cup foes Nottingham Forest in another victory for his team.
Bingham was undroppable for more than two years.
Then, with Everton top of the First Division in February 1963, manager Harry Catterick – who had replaced Johnny Carey in summer 1961 – went to Rangers to spend £35,000 on Alex Scott.
Bingham made his 22nd league appearance of the season in a 2-2 draw at Sheffield Wednesday three days before Christmas 1962 but played only once more as Catterick’s team won the Club’s sixth English title.
“He treasures his championship medal,” says David.
“The tide changes, perhaps your game and the way you play hasn’t changed, your form hasn’t dropped.
“But what the manager needs has changed.
“I suspect he would have understood there was nothing he could do to change the situation.
“He was a shrewd judge of circumstances and his role in them.
“If he sensed he wasn’t wanted, he wouldn’t hang around, hoping things would change.
“He was a pragmatist and wouldn’t spend time moping.
“Dad held Everton in extremely high esteem and was pleased to be in the company of very accomplished players.
“It was an entirely positive time in his career.”
David has heard his dad relive the moment when, slumped on the turf at Brentford’s Griffin Park, he peered down at his leg to see bones protruding through the skin.
And he’s wondered at the cussedness of a man who believed he would recover from his compound fracture to continue playing for Port Vale, the Third Division team he joined in 1963 after 98 Everton appearances and 26 goals.
“Breaking his leg was the one thing he wasn’t prepared for and he had trouble coming to terms with it,” says David.
Bingham, reckons his son, would have signed up to anything to prolong his playing time.
“Ryan Giggs is the example,” advances David. “He used yoga to extend his career. Dad would have done the same but didn’t know about those things back then.”
Bingham’s Sunderland teammates had look askance at the Northern Irishman pushing weights before and after training.
His grounding with McShane created an advocate for the merits of sky-high fitness and after belatedly accepting “the game was up” following his leg break, Bingham transferred those practices into his first management position with Southport.
Bingham’s focus on physical conditioning had intensified by the time he was in charge of Northern Ireland at the 1982 World Cup.
Billy Hamilton, a forward in Bingham’s team, remembers a pre-tournament camp in Brighton where the manager sent his team on training runs with an Ethiopian marathon runner from the town’s university.
David is still treated to recollections of Southport’s pre-season ahead of the team’s promotion into Division Three in 1967.
“He trained them like dogs,” laughs David.
"I speak to some of the players who are still around and they laugh about it.
“He had them running up the biggest dunes on the beach, going to army assault courses.
“The players didn’t appreciate it when they were experiencing the gut-wrenching tiredness but they are grateful now.”
Bingham first managed Northern Ireland at the relatively tender age of 36 and quickly agreed to double up as boss of Plymouth Argyle – a decision David calls “a triumph of ambition over the possibilities of what could be achieved”.
“His fortunes were mixed but he went at it with gusto and was learning as he went along,” says David.
Undeterred after leaving Plymouth, Bingham managed Linfield to a Northern Irish League title during his final year in charge of his country in 1971.
When he succeeded old friend Danny Blanchflower for a second go at the Northern Ireland job nine years later he was, says David, “at a rich point in his knowledge”.
Bingham had overcome the “sadness” of being dismissed by Everton, too.
“Of all the jobs he lost that was the one which upset him most,” says David.
“It was an easy decision for him to come back as manager, it was a big club but he’d had that heartfelt association and understanding of what made Everton tick.”
Not that David and Sharon – now living in Manhattan – were turning cartwheels over the prospect of their dad accepting the Everton post when Catterick left in summer 1973.
Their father had spent the previous two years as boss of the Greece national team.
The Binghams lived in the chic Athens suburb of Kifisia and the colourful capital city hummed with life, 50 years away from pledging to ban diesel vehicles to suppress an escalating pollution problem.
“It was lovely, we were relatively privileged and life was good,” says David.
“We went to an international school and were exposed to different people and cultures.
“And we were in the sunshine.
“Dad had intense self-belief and would not let fear get in the way of opportunity.
“He learned the language and how to deal with different players and personalities.
“He thought he was making a really good move to Everton.
“But my sister and I weren’t too keen.
“We came back to rainy northern England, there were strikes and the prospect of a three-day week, and I thought, ‘What are we doing here?’
“But this is the itinerant lives of families who follow where football takes them.
“There is a lot of displacement, having to re-orientate and make new friends.
“It causes a break in the pattern of your development, I think.”
Bingham brought down the curtain on some illustrious Everton careers, including those of Howard Kendall, Colin Harvey and Joe Royle.
He signed Bob Latchford during his first season – when Everton finished seventh – and added Martin Dobson at the start of his second.
Everton topped the table after drawing with Burnley on 4 April 1975 but won only one of their final four games to slip to fourth.
Analysing the whole picture, if Everton had reversed a pair of defeats to bottom team Carlisle United they’d have pipped Derby County to the title by one point.
Bingham was sacked in January 1977 after three-and-a-half years in charge and his subsequent club management experience was limited to short periods with PAOK back in Greece and Mansfield and a fixed-term spell with Saudi Arabians Al-Nassr which he juggled with his international role in the late 1980s.
“Falling away at last minute when they were pushing for the title was a big source of regret,” explains David.
“Dad really wanted to do well for Everton and that was a real sadness when he left.
“It affected him and he had to find his way back into the game on terms he found okay.
“Being back in the cauldron wasn’t that appealing to him.
“Results would have an impact on him at home.
“But he was strong minded, defeats might leave a bitter taste but he wouldn’t chew over them too much.
“He was all about winning.
“He was sympathetic to players’ individual interests but his priority was the team.
“He wasn’t sentimental.
“He had to push towards what he thought were the right decisions.
“I remember his early period at Everton as being quite successful.
“But overall, it was mixed, and Everton wanted more.
“The ambition was to be right at the top.”
David was aware his dad was different from most of his friends’ fathers as soon as he became “a functioning young child”.
But the protracted operation of covering Southport’s one-mile long Lord Street on foot when Billy was in charge of Everton created a broader understanding.
There was the time, too, when Bobby Robson, who was managing Ipswich Town, turned up in Switzerland during a family holiday to discuss a possible move for Everton midfielder Bryan Hamilton.
Eager to charm his hosts, Robson asked David for his opinion on the player and was met with the teenager parroting every word his dad had said about Hamilton, while Billy watched on aghast.
Ipswich got their man but David doesn’t know if his confident testimonial affected the £40,000 fee.
“My dad’s identity followed into my experience at school,” says David, who attended Crosby’s Merchant Taylors’ School For Boys.
“I threw myself into sport, I had the same competitive spirit as my dad and that was what got me through.
“I played football for Northern Ireland schoolboys but wasn’t that skilled with a ball at my feet.
“I was more skilled with the ball in my hand, so I played rugby. I loved it.
“Dad would watch the games from a distance, he didn’t want it to be about him.
“I saw him in action when people would stop him wanting to say hello, or shake his hand, or give him a piece of their mind about the team he picked.
“I could see he had a persona to deal with that.
“A way of managing people which became quite polished.
“He gave time to everyone because he realised football is built on the supporters.”
Billy obstinately batted away the notion his failing memory was a symptom of dementia, even after initial diagnosis.
David’s words on how he resolved to care for his dad as Billy’s condition worsened, and the subsequent emotionally uplifting experience, are reproduced here, untouched.
“People who have dementia don’t want to believe they have it.
“They feel they are fine and can function and their memory loss is simple forgetfulness.
“If you are used to being director of your own life, you don’t want some other orchestrator coming in and telling you what’s what.
“At the mid-stage of the illness, the person can be quite distressed with it.
“Things are not as they want them to be and they don’t understand why.
“It becomes a deeper pool of confusion.
“I gradually built a series of carers, until someone was always with dad.
“He had help with medication and assistance to cope as long as possible in a home environment.
“I knew that’s what he would want.
“He would probably look around and think… ‘I am fine’.
“He was being looked after and in his own home, able to potter in the garden.
“All the things were in place that made him think life was continuing and he was okay.
“If you’d taken away those props, he wouldn’t have been able to sustain himself.
“It maintained an illusion that all was well.
“That is beneficial for someone who has that kind of illness.
“Why should you be pondering your deterioration all the time?
“It is nicer to think you are on top of things.
“He used to think the carers came because they were pleased to see him.
“And I didn’t disabuse him of that.
“There is no point in sharing the truth, if the truth is unhelpful to the person experiencing the illness.
“I had my fears about caring for dad.
“I think all carers feel they will be dragged down by the decline of someone they care for and are worried about.
“Families and relatives feel the anxiety for the person who is not well.
“It was deeply worrying but it turned out to be surprisingly different.
“The service and care I invested to help him transformed me and him, I think.
“I think only positively about it now.
“It was a personal and spiritual transformation.
“You see yourself a certain way, then discover things are not quite what you thought they were.”
Valencia, 1982. The scene and date of Billy Bingham’s magnum opus.
Upstarts Northern Ireland had qualified for the World Cup at the expense of Portugal and Sweden.
They started the competition with draws against Yugoslavia and Honduras before producing one of the great upsets by beating hosts Spain 1-0.
Bingham celebrates Northern Ireland's famous win over hosts Spain at the 1982 World Cup
Goalscorer Gerry Armstrong corroborated David’s opinion of his father as a master of “developing systems to maximise his players’ abilities rather than being tied to what he wanted for them”.
Bingham had his team “so well organised”, related Armstrong, a striker told to play wide on the right, with 17-year-old midfielder Norman Whiteside stationed up front.
“Billy told me he was thinking of putting Norman up front and playing me on the right,” said Armstrong.
“We tried it in training and it worked really well.
“Norman held the ball up well and gave us balance.
“The defenders found it hard to pick me up. I was playing in a deeper role and getting forward when I could.
“They [opposition teams] were looking at me as a midfield player, so I was coming into the box late and that’s where the goals would come from.”
Northern Ireland eventually lost to France in what was essentially a shoot out for a semi-final spot.
Bingham led the country to the Mexican World Cup four years later – Northern Ireland waited 30 years to qualify for their next major tournament – and between times masterminded home and away victories over West Germany in the 1984 European Championship qualifying competition.
It is an enduring matter of regret for David that he wasn’t in Spain 38 years ago.
“My father had divorced,” he says.
“Our lives were different.
“He was in a new relationship and it was built around that.
“None of that got in the way of me realising what an incredible achievement it was.
“I know from talking to the players, their lives were transformed.
“They can walk into any pub in Northern Ireland and their money is no good.
“It is the footballer’s dream to be transported to a place where you are forever remembered.
“Nobody expected them to progress and that fired up my dad, he used it as fuel for his players.
“It is all motivational tricks.
“But if you sustain success year in, year out, it is not a fluke. Something is working.”
The 1-0 home win over West Germany in November 1982 was a product of Bingham’s keen eye.
“Windsor Park can be inhospitable and the weather was bad,” says David.
“He saw these superstars, players like [Karl-Heinz] Rummenigge trotting out to have a look around, he looked at them and thought, ‘They don’t fancy it’.
“He went back to the dressing room enthused and told the players, ‘They don’t really want this, they are somewhere else’.”
Bingham retired 27 years ago after a second spell in charge of Northern Ireland spanning 13 years.
The Northern Irish twice won the old British Home Championship under Bingham and David wryly observes the competition was scrapped following the second of those successes in 1984.
The nation’s talent pool dwindled in the second half of Bingham’s tenure and his remit of reaching major finals was replaced by the task of maintaining a competitive team.
“He had drunk from the goblet of success and knew how it tasted,” says David.
“So it wasn’t a particularly sad period for him [when his Northern Ireland side failed to qualify for tournaments after 1986], he was realistic.
“I think once managers have had success, they are more settled.
“He had something no one could take away from him.
“He was ripe for retirement. He had done all he needed to.”
Bingham was appointed an MBE in 1981 and 11 years after retiring was the recipient of a FIFA Order of Merit award.
David thinks it curious there was no recognition beyond the MBE, given the “superlative things” his dad achieved in the intervening years.
“But,” he asserts, “those garlands are not as important as how he thinks of himself.”
Bingham briefly worked as director of football with Blackpool and in his final assignment was a talent scout for Burnley.
“He found out those things were not especially rewarding and that sitting in a boardroom is not much fun,” says David.
“They were interests – and he took them seriously but never in the same way as management.”
Billy Bingham has been in a specialist dementia care home for two years following a “couple of false starts” elsewhere.
His medical diagnosis is vascular dementia.
“It is a mark of success we kept him at home so long before that level of professional care was needed,” says David.
“The average period people survive after diagnosis is five years.
“This is not a professional opinion, I am not medically qualified, but it suggests the dementia has affected different areas of his brain from conventional dementia.
“A conventional dementia not caused by sporting activity might have taken him before now.
“It says something about his durability that he can endure this illness for so long.”
The coronavirus pandemic is limiting David to video contact with his father which, he concedes, is harder going for families of sufferers, because “people with dementia are living for the moment in the day, if they are occupied it is not so bad.”
On their calls, Billy needs time to register his son is staring back from the inanimate object in front of him.
Then he settles, the old warrior, fighting his Achilles heel.
“I am delighted to report he is extremely happy,” says David.
“His illness is stronger than ever.
“But a core of who he is remains.
“And a memory of who he is remains.
“Even though he is a long way down in this dementia journey now.
“He still has some elements of judgement.
“That shrewd eye which weighs things up can still operate at times.
“He is very much present and in there, even though the illness is stripping away his mind.
“Somehow, he has found a way to become accommodated to that.”