When we think back to USA ’94, it’s hard to look past that astonishing victory over Italy. We often reminisce joyously about McGrath frustrating Roberto Baggio, Ray Houghton confounding Gianluca Pagliuca and Jack Charlton berating every nearby FIFA official.
It’s quite easy to forget whatever else occurred during that tournament. We prefer to envisage the team as heroes and the manager as a genius. In truth, the subsequent three matches brutally exposed the cracks that were beginning to appear.
We were always familiar with Charlton’s stubborn manner, but at that time his attitude had become downright complacent. FIFA had held a workshop before the tournament to educate coaches on how to deal with the stifling heat of an American summer.
It was a lecture that Charlton failed to attend. Ireland went on to engage in their usual high pressure, energy-sapping tactics against Mexico in Orlando in 120 degree Fahrenheit heat. Needless to say, our scorched, shattered troops were effortlessly defeated. A gifted Dutch side later callously tore our ageing side asunder, and sent us on a flight home.
Surely it was time for change? No, Charlton was to stay on for another qualifying campaign; the qualifiers for Euro ’96. Group minnows Latvia and Liechtenstein were comfortably disposed of. Our first test would be a trip to Windsor Park to face our noisy neighbours; the rascals who came so close to preventing our journey to America almost exactly a year earlier. Not a problem. A 4-0 victory reminded the North who the bosses were on this island.
The situation appeared to be positive once more. Our fans began to look forward to the short trip to England for the upcoming championships. What better way to wet the appetite than a friendly against our imminent hosts at Lansdowne Road in February 1995? As we all know, that night is impossible to erase from memory; English hooligans extinguished all that is good in the game. It would take a while for all involved to recover; none more so than Charlton.
During our frequent meetings with the old enemy, the World Cup winner was constantly taunted by English fans feeling betrayed. The incidents of that fateful night cast him right in the middle of a sickening situation that left the stern Geordie visibly shaken.
The team showed no evident trepidation two months later. The golden generation of Portugal left Lansdowne empty handed. A rousing 1-0 victory left the Irish in a wonderful position. Why had we worried? Jack could still give it a lash. Lansdowne was still a fortress.
Our next result was a scoreless draw with Liechtenstein. Yes. That’s true. A 0-0 draw. It’s still hard to grasp. In our defence, we had 36 attempts on goal and their keeper, Martin Heeb was Man of the Match. To make things sound worse, Heeb had to remain on the pitch and work afterwards as he was also the part-time groundskeeper.
In the later stages, with the long ball method drastically failing, Niall Quinn was replaced by Tony Cascarino; grimly revealing Charlton’s lack of a Plan B.
Next up were two consecutive fixtures against an inconsistent Austrian side. In both encounters our unstable defence conceded three minutes after we scored. Both games finished in 3-1 defeats. The campaign concluded with a 3-0 defeat to Portugal.
How had the wheels so radically come loose? Our once intimidating squad of warriors had become jaded and tame, almost overnight. Amazingly, Northern Ireland had done us a favour by beating Austria 5-3 in Belfast, thus qualifying us for a play-off – one last hope for Charlton to grace the big stage.
The opponent? Holland once again. We never stood a chance, did we? The Dutch swept us aside with an arrogant swagger and nobody, not even Charlton himself, was under any illusion. It was time for a big change.
Indeed, a 2-0 defeat to Holland declared the grim finale of the Charlton era, but perhaps that should have came after the first one, two years earlier in America.
Robbie Ryan, Pundit Arena