This week, as Conor Heffernan continues his series on the history of football in Ireland it’s time to take a look back at Euro ’88 and the Republic of Ireland’s first ever taste of tournament football, under manager Jack Charlton.
Republic of Ireland fans have had to content themselves over the last few weeks with reading of Northern Ireland’s great achievements during the 1980s. Yes ‘Norn Iron’ experienced a relative golden period during this time but by 1988 she was waning.
In her place came the upstarts from the South, led by Jackie Charlton, a no-nonsense English manager, who would soon be adopted into Irish hearts. Today we look at how the Republic made it to the finals, how we beat England and how we nearly made it through our group. It’s a story Irish fans love to hear.
When the Republic began her qualifying campaign in 1986, hopes were not high amongst Irish fans. Drawn into a group with highly fancied Bulgarian and Scottish teams, it appeared as if the Euro’s would be a faint dream for the Boys in Green. Yet victories over Belgium at home and Scotland away meant that going into the final round of qualifying matches, Charlton’s men still had a chance.
Ireland waited out the final round of qualifying matches knowing that only a Scottish victory over Bulgaria would mean Ireland were through to the European Championships. Jackie Charlton either couldn’t bear or didn’t want to watch the match. He was out fishing while the Scots fought for Ireland’s cause.
Typical Chalrton fashion. Unlike their manager, Ireland’s players watched anxiously as Scotland came closer and closer to that all important win. Pandemonium soon ensued in Irish homes when Scottish substitute Gary Mackay netted home the only goal of the match in the dying minutes. Scotland’s win saw Ireland qualify for their first ever Tournament.
In only two years Jack Charlton had done the impossible. The Republic had come agonisingly close under John Giles and Eoin Hand but had never reached a major championship. Ireland had topped her group and were headed to West Germany for the finals! The country celebrated, Jackie Charlton was slowly cementing his place in Irish hearts and Ireland’s players were gearing up for the adventure of a lifetime.
Oh what an adventure it would be. Ireland were drawn into a group with the ‘old enemy’ England, the USSR and Holland. No one said tournament football would be easy, but Ireland had been given a tough group. Few held out any hope for Charlton’s men but as we all know, the world would soon be shocked by the exploits of the Boys in Green.
12th June, 1988, the Irish take the field to face off against England. Ireland hadn’t played England since their 2-1 loss at Wembley in ’85. Irish fans and players were hopeful of inflicting revenge. Ireland hadn’t beaten England since 1949. Ireland’s first ever match in competition football and it was against England. It doesn’t get any bigger than that.
The Irish got off to a bright start with Irish legend Paul McGrath scuffing a shot after two minutes. English fans briefly felt panic shoot through their bones. Surely the Irish wouldn’t put up a fight? She had been England’s whipping boys for nearly 40 years! Five minutes into the match a long free kick is floated into the English goalmouth.
The ball is mishit by England’s Kenny Samson. It floats in the air. John Alridge heads the ball towards Ray Houghton. It’s all happening so fast, fans from both sides hold their breath’s. The ball meets Houghton’s head and the ball is sent looping over English goalie, Peter Shilton into the back of the English net. The players freeze. Was it offside? Was their a foul? Was this real life? The referee blew his whistle and pointed to the centre-circle. It counted! 1-0 to the Boys in Green. 15:06 12th June…an Irish legend is born.
England are stunned but this is only momentary. They soon recompose themselves and seek retribution. They will not be embarrassed by the Irish. Gary Linker soon reminds the Irish the game isn’t over just yet with a dangerous strike towards Packie Bonner. 26 minutes into the game John Barnes appears to be fouled in the Irish penalty area…the referee waves play on. England finish the half 1-0 down.
The second half is all about English dominance. The English throw themselves forward in twos and threes while the Irish desperately try to hold on. Going into injury time it appears the Irish have succeeded but England get one last chance. A Hoddle free-kick into the Irish Box is met with an English strike…Packie Bonner, in one last moment of heroism pushes the ball against the post and out for a corner.
RTE’s commentators asked desperately if he (the referee) has blown the final whistle yet? It’s the question millions of Irish fans want to know. Will they hold out? Seconds afterwards the Referee answers Irish prayers, he blows his whistle. The Irish have successfully parked the bus for 84 gruelling minutes. Ray Houghton has just become an Irish legend and Ireland have beaten England for the first time in nearly forty years. Not a bad way to begin tournament football.
Irish fans stayed in Stuttgart stadium for over an hour after the match singing and enjoying every moment of the victory. It was Euro 1988 where the Irish fans assumed the title of, the best supporters in Europe. What a start!
Ireland went into their next match against the USSR with a new-found confidence. They had beaten England…why couldn’t they beat the Soviets? This new sense of worth saw the Irish go out on the offensive from the word go. In one of the greatest Irish performances under Charlton, Ireland dominated the Soviets for large parts of the game.
The first half sees Ireland go 1-0 up after an incredible volley from Liverpool’s Ronnie Whelan. Irish fans can’t believe it. It looks like another historic victory is going to materialise. Irish hopes were soon dashed midway through the second half however when Oleh Protasov equalised for the Soviets. Ireland had to settle with a 1-1 draw. The world was beginning to take notice of the Irish.
Ireland’s last match was against Holland. A win or a draw would place Ireland in the semi-finals of the tournament. If Ireland could get a result who knew where she could end up? Anything could happen in tournament football. The first half sees Irish superstar Paul McGrath shock the Dutch with a ferocious strike that crashes off the Dutch post. The game remains 0-0. Ireland don’t mind. Only 45 minutes to go and she’s in a semi-final.
Ireland went into the last group match against the Netherlands knowing that a win or a draw would earn a place in the Euro ’88 semi-finals. Despite a heroic rear guard action by the Irish, which saw them hold out until the 83rd minute it was not to be.
The game continues to drag on in the second half. Holland and Ireland both attack but neither can find that ever elusive goal. 83 minutes into the game Ronald Koeman volleys the ball in the Irish box. It hits the ground and begins to spin wildly. Neither team knows what to do. The Dutch are quickest to react and Vim Kieft glances the ball towards the Irish goal.
The ball appears to be heading past a diving Bonner, and wide of the post but the spin on the ball takes it beyond Bonner’s finger tips and into the back of the Irish net. Dutch elation, Irish deflation. The final whistle blows. Holland 1-0 Ireland. seven minutes. seven minutes and Ireland would have made it to the semi-finals. Ireland are heading home, but unlike Euro 2012, the Irish return to a heroes celebration. Their heads are held high and Jackie Charlton can now do no wrong in Irish eyes.
What is it about Ireland and tournament football? Northern Ireland reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup in her first major competition and the Republic of Ireland nearly reached the semi-finals of the European Championships in her first major outing.
Born to shock the world it would seem? The Republic were now on the up. Fans in the South were optimistic of a strong Irish qualifying campaign for World Cup ’90. Fans of ‘Norn Iron’ were hopeful of a Northern qualification. The two teams would meet each other for the first time in World Cup qualifiers. Only one would qualify for the games. We all now the outcome but few know the story. Join us next week when we examine Jackie’s Army and World Cup of 1990.
Conor Heffernan, Pundit Arena.