The Irish Enigma; Why wasn’t this team more successful?
Irish fans south of the border had to wait until 1988 for their first ever appearance at a major international tournament, whereas their neighbours had enjoyed days out in Sweden 1950 and memorably Spain 1982 and Mexico 1986. Arguably, the Republic had the better talent. In fact the team of the late 1970’s were probably better, man-for-man, than the side Jack Charlton put together to shock England in Stuttgart in 1988 and Italy in 1994. But for some reason they flattered to deceive.
When you look at the side they were like an English First Division XI.
Liam Brady. One of the finest midfielders of his generation. A talisman of the Arsenal side which reached successive FA Cup Finals from 1978-1980. Runners-up medal in European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1980. Later moved to the mighty Juventus, much was the high regard he was held in.
Steve Heighway. Part of Bill Shankly’s new breed in the early seventies and an integral part of Bob Paisley’s Liverpool side which conquered Europe late in the decade. He won four league titles, two European Cups, two UEFA Cups, an FA and a League Cup winners medal.
Gerry Daly. Was an important part of the new Man United that Tommy Docherty built which got to two successive FA Cup Finals in 1976 and 1977, and then moved onto Derby County.
Mark Lawrenson. Then a promising young centre-back at Brighton who would become one of the most cultured defenders of his era at Liverpool.
Tony Grealish. The mainstay of the West Brom revolution at The Hawthorns, when they were one of the top sides in English football for a couple of years in the late seventies.
Don Givens. Top scorer when Queen’s Park Rangers were pipped to the title by Liverpool in 1976 and regularly featured in the top goalscorer charts.
David O’Leary. Part of the furniture at Highbury where he featured in the FA Cup Finals as Brady did.
David Langan. A reliable right-back at Derby County before his move to Birmingham City at the beginning of the eighties.
Paddy Mulligan. Was part of the Chelsea side which won the Cup Winners’ Cup and League Cup at the beginning of the seventies, moving to Crystal Palace and then became a mainstay at right back for West Brom for four years to the end of the decade.
Gerry Peyton. Peter Mellor was a legend as a keeper at Fulham, despite a couple of mistakes which handed the FA Cup to West Ham in 1975. Peyton took over at Craven Cottage and soon became a fans favourite. Never played in the top flight, though.
Mick Martin. Earned over fifty caps for his country, was part of the Manchester United side which got relegated to Second Division in mid-seventies. Spent three years at West Brom before playing six seasons with Newcastle United.
Mick Kearns. Probably the one weak link in the argument for many Irish players playing at the top level. Kearns made nearly 250 appearances for Walsall in the Third Division.
Jim McDonagh. Began his career at Rotherham but made his name at Bolton Wanderers where he spent four seasons. Was signed by Everton when Bolton were relegated but he was back at Burnden Park as Neville Southall emerged as number one at Goodison Park.
Michael Robinson. Made his name with Preston in the Second Division before Malcolm Allison paid a record £750,000 to bring him to Manchester City. He was sold to Brighton in the same season and was instrumental in helping them reach the FA Cup Final in 1983. Then moved to Liverpool where he played in their ‘treble’ season in 1984.
Paul McGee. Started his career at Sligo Rovers. In 1977 QPR signed him where he played for two years before he moved to Preston and then back to Ireland. He is League of Ireland’s record goalscorer.
Gerry Ryan. First appeared in the English First Division when Derby signed him from Bohemians. He very quickly made a move to Brighton who were heading for promotion from the Second Division. He earned the notoriety of scoring the goal which ended Nottingham Forest’s forty-two match unbeaten run.
Micky Walsh. Had six good years at Blackpool where many consider him a legend. Didn’t quite make it at Everton or QPR where he was at the end of the seventies.
Johnny Giles. Spent seven years as player-manager of the national side. This straddled the end of his brilliant Leeds United career and his move to West Brom.
Chris Hughton. From 1977 he spent thirteen years at Tottenham where he won two FA Cup winners medals and the UEFA Cup.
Ronnie Whelan. Came into the side in the early eighties. Burst onto the scene with two goals to help Liverpool come from behind to beat Manchester United in the Milk Cup.
Kevin Moran. Former Gaelic footballer, won FA Cup with Manchester United in 1983 and 1985.
World Cup 1978
For the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, UEFA only consisted of thirty-two countries with West Germany qualifying automatically as holders. With eight and a half places open for Europe out of sixteen qualifiers three of the nine groups contained just three teams. The Irish were drawn into one of these groups alongside France and Bulgaria. Bulgaria certainly had a long way to go to be anywhere near the side which performed admirably in USA 1994. The French were also a few years away from their golden generation of 1982. They hadn’t made it to a Finals stage since 1966, in fact they’d only competed in one of the past four World Cups. Bulgaria had faired better, competing in the last four tournaments, never getting past the group stage.
Their campaign got under way in November 1976 in Paris. A month before the French had been held to a 2-2 draw in Sofia and the Irish earned a 1-1 draw at Wembley. A week later they travelled to Ankara to meet Turkey and were two goals up inside the opening quarter of an hour, thanks to goals from Stapleton and Daly. But three goals in thirteen second half minutes looked to be giving the home side the win before Grimsby’s Joe Waters equalised.
Against France after a goalless first half, the deadlock was broken very early after the restart. Two of the team’s most experienced players, Mick Martin and Johnny Giles, were far too casual at the back and after Dominique Rocheteau nicked it off Giles, Michel Platini was able to run at Kearns and slip it past the Irish keeper for the opening goal. The Irish had a goal disallowed, which they still believe should’ve been given, when Stapleton put the ball in the net. But they were unable to get back on level terms and with just minutes to go Platini was again involved as the home side doubled their lead. In the inside right position with the defence retreating, Platini played it to his left where St. Etienne’s Dominique Bathenay had far too much time and space to fire past Kearns for a 2-0 win.
Before their next game in the group they suffered defeat at home to Spain where Jesus Satrustegui scored the only goal of the game. In March the French visited. Giles made just one change from the side which lost in Paris, as Ray Treacy came in for Stapleton up front. 48,000 were packed into Lansdowne Road for what would go down in Irish folklore as a memorable match. Ten minutes in and the home side had a free-kick midway into the French half. Giles took it and it was headed back out but straight to Liam Brady, who controlled it with his chest down to his left foot. The French defence was moving out towards him and he faked to pass, then chipped the ball between two of them and suddenly he was clear. As the keeper advanced he slid it under him and the place erupted.
The French tried to come back into it but a mixture of stubborn defending, poor finishing and good old Irish grit & determination kept them at bay and the Irish had pulled off a famous win. Now if they could get a result in Bulgaria it would be all to play for.
A month later they couldn’t emulate their success as they played out a goalless draw at Dalymount Park against Poland. Ireland had two matches, both against Bulgaria, to try and qualify for a major tournament for the first time. First up Sofia. A win would see the Irish go top of the group but with just one win away from home in three years, the odds were particularly long.
In front of a packed and hostile crowd at the Vasil Levski Stadium, Bulgaria took the lead after fifteen minutes when Panov scored. Early in the second half a Johnny Giles corner was headed in by Don Givens. Now the momentum was with the visitors and they scored again when Steve Heighway turned his man down the left and his cross was volleyed home by Giles. Controversially the goal was ruled out on the basis the linesman thought Heighway was offside when Giles scored. Few witnesses seem to be able to corroborate this and the resultant loss of discipline suggested the players weren’t convinced either. Not long after, Frank Stapleton was fouled by Tsvetkov and a mass brawl broke out. Two players from each side were sent off, Mick Martin and Noel Campbell for Ireland, and David O’Leary had his nose broken. Bulgaria were then awarded a free-kick in the final quarter of an hour, again disputed by the visitors and Jeliazkov scored. For player-manager Giles the whole episode left a bad taste in the mouth.
“I think we were robbed in Bulgaria and robbed in France. We were getting closer and closer all the time and if those decisions had gone our way we could have made it. But we were a few players short as well”, Giles would say in an interview years later with Eamonn Sweeney of Irish Independent.
In 2009 Don Givens said to Vincent Hogan of the Independent;
“I remember a row erupting around the half-way line,” recalls Givens. “I was up front and I’m looking at it thinking, ‘I’m not going to get involved in that…’
“But it seemed to go on for so long, I ended up getting involved as well. It spilled over onto the running track and, to be honest, in the end I think the ref just grabbed four and sent them off. It could have been any four. I don’t think he had a clue who was to blame.”
Mulligan, who also played that night, concurs. “I’d say it was only because Mick and Noel both had red hair that they got sent to the line. The game was full of bookings. Crazy stuff. Tackles were flying in. It was just a very abnormal atmosphere.”
To compound the Irish frustration, player-manager John Giles then had what looked a perfectly legitimate goal ruled out for offside and the defeat, followed by a 0-0 draw against the same opposition at Lansdowne Road, cost the team their hopes of playing at the ’78 World Cup finals in Argentina.
“It was hard to take,” reflects Givens. “Because around that time, we were starting to become a decent team. In my early days as an international, you’d go to eastern European countries and you’d hardly get a kick of the ball. But under Gilesy we were getting a little bit more competitive and professional. We actually played well that night.”
The referee at the Bulgaria match was a Greek called Niklos Zlatanos. There remains a story about him which may also be myth or legend but French manager, Michel Hidalgo, was attending the match in Sofia. The night before he was woken in his hotel room in the middle of the night as someone burst in. It was a middle-aged man with two stunning women, presumably paid to be with him. Next day Hidalgo saw the man again, it was Zlatanos. If you wanted to believe he’d been paid off then you could build a story Bulgarian officials had provided the ladies for his entertainment and in return he was to favour their team. Hidalgo did say publicly “it was impossible to Bulgaria with that kind of referee, Ireland were robbed and I saw nothing wrong with Giles’ goal”.
Bitter or not the Irish had to lick their wounds and look forward to the return fixture in Dublin in October. France and Bulgaria both had three points with the Irish on two. Nothing other than victory would be enough for the Irish with the other two due to meet in Paris a month later. Despite dominating the match with countless chances they just couldn’t score. It was one of those games where you couldn’t necessarily say Bulgaria defended well, the Irish just couldn’t hit the target to finish the excellent chances they’d created. The game ended goalless and the Irish hopes of making the World Cup had gone.
As it was victory wouldn’t have been enough anyway as the French eased past Bulgaria, 3-1 in Paris to book their place in Argentina where they went out in the Group stage having been drawn alongside the hosts and Italy.
European Championship 1980
After three friendlies where they won, lost and drew, the Irish were then back into competitive action as they attempted to qualify for the European Championships to be held in Italy in 1980. One of those friendlies had been an exciting win against Turkey in Dublin when they were 4-0 up inside the first twenty five minutes with Ray Treacy scoring twice.
The qualification campaign was one of the most anticipated in years as the Irish were drawn in a group with Northern Ireland and England. The two Irish nations had never met in an international match before and given the political tensions either side of the border there were plenty of nerves as well as excitement at the prospect of the encounter. The other two countries drawn in the group were Denmark and once again, Bulgaria.
Ireland’s first test was a trip to Copenhagen to meet Denmark. The match was played before the World Cup finals with the Danes not expected to be too tough an opposition. They would emerge in the next Euros as a force to be reckoned with although they contained the likes of Soren Lerby, Morten Olsen and Birger Jensen.
The Irish made the perfect start as Stapleton gave them a tenth minute lead. Twenty five minutes in and Tony Grealish doubled their lead. The Danes pulled one back before the break but midway through the second half Gerry Daly looked to have given them an unassailable 3-1 lead. Into the final ten minutes and the home side were given a penalty which Benny Nielsen duly converted and before the Irish could regroup, Soren Lerby equalised. A great comeback from the home side but Ireland definitely felt they’d dropped a point in a game they really should’ve won.
This was yet another example of the Irish failing to finish sides off, or fully press home an advantage in the balance of a match.
September 20th 1978 saw an historic meeting for the first time between Republic and Northern Ireland when the two lined up against each other at Lansdowne Road. 46,000 packed into the ground but unfortunately the quality of the game didn’t live up to the pre-match hype and the match ended goalless.
On the same night England won a crazy match in Copenhagen beating Denmark, 4-3. Denmark then played their third home match of the campaign when they were held to a 2-2 draw by Bulgaria. With only one side qualifying from a group of five, it was quite clear England was the team to beat. They visited Lansdowne Road in October. England were rejuvenated under Ron Greenwood after the stumbling tenure of Don Revie. The team revolved around the burgeoning partnership of Kevin Keegan and Trevor Brooking, and both were prominent in the early exchanges. Inside the opening ten minutes Brooking’s right footed corner from the left wing was headed on at the near post by Jimmy Holmes but despite plenty of Irish defenders around, the ball fell to Everton’s Bob Latchford who headed it in. The home side suffered another scare when Coppell’s shot from outside the area rattled against the crossbar.
Brady was coming more and more into the game and it was his quick thinking which lead to the equaliser. They had a free-kick on the right wing and with the English defence expecting the ball to be floated into the area, Brady picked out Daly on the edge of the ‘D’ and he fired it in. England had the better of the chances after that and really should’ve scored in the second half when Holmes cleared Brooking’s shot off the line. The Irish had a goal disallowed yet again, but this time there was little dissent as Givens fouled Clemence before Ryan slotted it home. The game ended 1-1 with Ireland’s best chance of taking points off the favourites gone.
Northern Ireland ended the year with victories over Denmark and Bulgaria and now topped the group. They were then replaced the following February when England beat them comfortably 4-0 at Wembley.
The Republic now had two crucial matches in May where they would host Denmark and visit Bulgaria, and anything less than four points would seriously jeopardise their qualification prospects. Oddly enough, the Denmark match in May was the first outing of the year for the Irish and a hard fought battle saw them have to wait till just before the break when Gerry Daly turned in Paddy Mulligan’s right wing cross. The Danes’ ranks now boasted Allan Simonsen, Frank Arnesen and Preben Elkjaer so the Irish did well to further extend their lead when Daly turned provider as his cross from the right was headed in at the far post by Givens.
2-0 gave the Irish their first victory of the group, and although they were still unbeaten they needed England to slip up somewhere. Both teams had to visit Bulgaria, never an easy fixture for Western European teams. Europe was still divided by East and West with Bulgaria under communist rule and the whole experience, travel, accommodation, reception, always increased the odds in the favour of the home team. The Irish visited there a week after beating Denmark. Despite adding the firepower of Mickey Walsh, now with QPR, Ireland just couldn’t break down the home defence and with ten minutes to go Chavdar Tsvetkov scored the only goal of the game for Bulgaria and the Irish had finally been beaten.
The Irish were now hoping England would slip up in Sofia too, but they saw off their hosts comfortably, 3-0. On the same day Northern Ireland’s campaign looked to be all but over when a twenty-one year Dane, Preben Elkjaer, scored a hat-trick in a 4-0 win. Soon Europe would discover the talent Elkjaer possessed.
Kevin Keegan’s goal helped England beat Denmark in September to go back on top of the group. The Irish were four points behind them with just three matches to play. They were two points behind Northern Ireland, who’d played a game more, and they were England’s next opponents.
October was going to be pivotal in the group. The Irish were at home to Bulgaria whilst England travelled to Belfast to meet Northern Ireland. Victory for both Irish sides would see England remain top but only on goal difference from Northern Ireland with the Republic just two points behind. We still have the wonderful prospect of England v Republic of Ireland as the final game in the group too.
Before June 1977 the Irish had never met Bulgaria before, now this would be their fourth meeting in two years and the Irish were yet to taste success. Fulham’s keeper Gerry Peyton had been brought in as well as Manchester United’s Ashley Grimes. Paul McGee earned a starting place ahead of Mickey Walsh.
Since their meeting in Sofia, the Irish had played three friendlies and lost them all, against West Germany, Wales and Czechoslovakia. The nervy first half was lit up by Mick Martin’s goal just before the break. But the home side came out firing for the second half and Tony Grealish soon doubled the lead. Frank Stapleton’s goal in the final ten minutes sealed the victory and all eyes were now on events in Belfast.
Irish hearts were dashed as news came in of England’s 5-1 thumping of Northern Ireland. Only goal difference could see the Irish qualify now and England’s final two matches were both at home. The Irish were away in both of theirs, in Belfast and Wembley so England had all but qualified now.
Windsor Park, Belfast was the setting for the second ever meeting between North and South and after the goalless first match, the Republic knew anything less than a win would mean England had qualified. In front of a capacity crowd the first half was goalless but ten minutes into the second period and a right-foot cross from the left-wing by Sammy Nelson was headed in by an unmarked Gerry Armstrong and the place erupted.
To confirm things, on the same night England eased past Bulgaria with Glenn Hoddle scoring on his debut.
The final game of the group was a win for England as Keegan scored twice, including one memorable chip from outside the area, and Ireland’s campaign had ended with a whimper with three defeats in the second four matches in the group.
Despite the disappointment of qualification, 1980 was quite a good year for the Irish. They won in Cyprus beat Switzerland at home and then gave World Champions, Argentina, a good match at Lansdowne Road in May. Argentina were complete with a young Diego Maradona and it was his free-kick which was headed in by Valencia for the only goal of the game. Then in September came a famous victory for the Irish.
World Cup 1982
Qualification for the 1982 World Cup would see two sides from each group qualify for a new expanded tournament. Many countries like Ireland felt this presented an excellent opportunity to make it to the finals. But the luck of the Irish handed them a tough draw, alongside Netherlands, runners-up in 1978, France and Belgium, who were runners-up in the European Championships. Cyprus would make up the group and as mentioned, the Irish won the first match in Nicosia thanks to two goals from Paul McGee.
After the failure to qualify for the Euros, The FAI decided to part company with Jonny Giles and put Eoin Hand in charge. Hand had lead his Limerick team to the League of Ireland title in his first season in charge and so he rapidly moved to the top of the ‘eligible’ list.
In September the Dutch came to Dublin. The first half was goalless but just before the hour van Deinsen ran diagonally from the right wing into the area and as Peyton came out, he managed to poke the ball to his left where Simon Tahamata passed the ball into the empty net. The Dutch, who had been disappointing at the Euros in Italy, were now expected to go on and make the game safe but the Irish had other ideas.
With twelve minutes to go Grealish played a one-two with Stapleton before clipping the ball into the area where Gerry Daly scored. Then with five minutes left Brady floated a free-kick into the area where Mark Lawrenson was unmarked and he headed past Hiele to put the Irish in front. 2-1 it remained and they’d pulled off a fantastic win. What a start for the new manager, and a wave of cautious optimism was beginning to build.
A month later and Belgium were the visitors. Four months previously Belgium had surprised Europe by finishing runners-up to West Germany in the European Championships in Italy, so they posed a stern test. They showed their class early on as Cluytens raced through the defence, rounded Peyton and slotted the ball into the empty net. But before the break the Irish were on level terms. Lovely interplay in midfield between Daly, Brady and Grealish saw Brady play a cute through-ball for Grealish to run onto, and he too rounded the keeper and scored.
The game ended level and the Irish could be reasonably pleased with their five points from their opening three matches, but they knew they were going to need to take points off France and/or Belgium to stand any chance of qualifying.
Their next big test was to come in Paris facing France and Platini again. Thirty-odd countries took part in qualification on those days and yet the Irish seemed to keep coming up against France or Bulgaria.
Hand picked, what looked like, a formidable side. Manchester United’s Kevin Moran had recently been added to the side and he and Lawrenson would provide a young vibrant partnership at the back. Platini was going to be the key, though, as he was emerging as a major player on the world stage. Ten minutes in and a cross from the left dropped just over Hughton at the far post and landed perfectly for Platini to take it on his chest and then slip the ball past Peyton for the opening goal. It was going to be a long night. But they’d come back from a goal down against both the Dutch and Belgium so no need to panic.
Chances went begging, shots were blocked and generally the French were able to contain the attacks the Irish put together. As time ran out and with the visitors pushing players forward, Tigana began a counter-attack with Rocheteau taking the ball all the way to the edge of the area, before slipping Zimako in and he made it 2-0. The French had just too much class for their opponents and the Irish had suffered their first defeat of the campaign.
These were days long before the international calendar was invented by FIFA so fixtures turned up at random usually with just two teams in action. November saw four nations involved on the same day. Belgium hosted Netherlands and an Erwin Vandenbergh penalty early in the second half gave the home side a 1-0 win and further problems for the Dutch.
At Lansdowne Road Cyprus were the visitors. Gerry Daly put the home side in front early on from the penalty spot and then three goals in five minutes midway through the half put them in complete control. Daly scored again, with Grealish and Robinson getting on the scoresheet. Further goals from Stapleton and Chris Hughton gave Ireland a comfortable 6-0 win, which would do well for goal difference should it come down to this at the end of the group.
The year ended with Belgium winning in Cyprus and moving into second place in the group behind Ireland with two games in hand.
The return fixture saw the Belgians suffer a shock as an early two goal lead was wiped out on the hour. Jan Ceulemans rescued them to put them level with Ireland on points, but to re-iterate how goal difference could be important, the Irish were two goals to the good in comparison.
Four days later the Dutch finally got off the mark as they beat Cyprus and so to March where another important double header fixture was scheduled with the four main favourites in action. In Rotterdam, Ipswich’s Arnold Muhren scored the only goal of the game as the Dutch beat France and things looked to open up for the Irish. But they couldn’t capitalise. Hand selected Bolton’s Jim McDonagh in goal for the trip to Brussels, with the rest of the team unchanged.
Think back to the Bulgarian match a few years ago and this too would go down in Irish history as a time they felt they were robbed. Nineteen minutes in and Frank Stapleton had a goal disallowed, for reasons which still remain unclear. The linesman kept his flag down but Belgian defender, Eric Gerets, lay on the ground in the area. It was not clear whether any Irish player had come near him but the referee saw the defender on the ground and blew his whistle for a free-kick to the home side. With minutes to go Heighway seemed to be unfairly adjudged to have fouled Gerets. The free-kick hit the bar went straight up in the air and as it came down two Irish defenders were pushed out of the way allowing Ceulemans to head it in. It was a bitter pill to swallow when a point seemed to fitting reward for their hard work.
Belgium were now top of the group and the only unbeaten side. Ireland were three points ahead of the French but they had three games in hand. In April, another double-header saw the Dutch struggle to beat Cyprus and Belgium succumbed to defeat at last, at the hands of the French. Vandenbergh gave Belgium an early lead but by half an hour they were 1-3 down. Ceulemans scored in the second half but they’d missed a chance to virtually book their place in Spain. Ireland had just two matches left, a trip to Netherlands and then France at home. Realistically they could ill afford to drop any points.
Into September and the Irish had a tricky visit to Rotterdam to meet a Dutch side which was stuttering in their own efforts to qualify. Things didn’t begin well when Steve Heighway was too casual with a pass from deep in his own half and the Dutch were ruthless in taking advantage as Ipswich’s Frans Thijssen put them 1-0 up. As half-time approached Heighway was able to make amends. The Irish were enjoying a spell of dominance and Martin and Brady combined to play Heighway in on the right wing. He got to the bye-line and crossed to Robinson who volleyed it in from around the penalty spot. It was as much as they deserved. Midway through the second half Johnny Rep took on Dave Langan down the left, he beat him on the inside and the Derby defender lunged to try and get the ball back and brought the Dutch striker down in the area. The Irish protested but Ipswich’s other Dutchman, Arnold Muhren, coolly converted the penalty. The Irish were behind for just seven minutes when Lawrenson took on the legendary, Ruud Krol and beat him on the right wing, got to the bye line and crossed to the far post where Stapleton headed home. The game ended 2-2. It had been dramatic and exciting in equal measure but it was a result which suited neither side.
On the same night goals in each half saw Belgium beat France 2-0 in Brussels to avenge their defeat five months previously. Belgium had now booked their place in the finals. Second place was still a fight between the Irish, Dutch and French. The French had three matches left, the Dutch two and the Irish just one.
For both the French and Dutch failure to qualify would be unthinkable. October presented them with an opportunity to prove their credentials. Netherlands would host Belgium and the French travelled to Dublin.
55,000 were packed into Lansdowne Road to welcome to French. The atmosphere was electric and the Irish flew out of the traps. They were first to the ball and tigerish in the tackle and it was this style which lead to an early lead. Langan closed down Platini on the left, allowing Martin to steal possession. Robinson picked up the ball on the halfway line and he was away, charging towards the French goal like a wing three-quarter. Bossis came across to slide tackle him and he simply pushed it past him, resulting in the French defender colliding with one of his compartriots. Robinson reached the bye-line, pulled it back and Mahut got his foot to the ball first before Stapleton, but put it through his own net for a three minute lead. The place went wild.
But the celebrations were short-lived as Platini and Girard started to run things in midfield. Before the opening ten minutes were up the French were level. Bellone was given far too much time to turn on the edge of the area and he beat McDonagh. On twenty three minutes the home side were back in front. Liam Brady’s right wing corner was poorly dealt with by the French defence and came out to Martin on the left wing. He curled a right foot cross back in which the French were equally poor at dealing with as the keeper flapped at it again. At the far post Moran turned it back in and Stapleton scored. This time the Irish not only held their lead but improved on it. A long kick from McDonagh was headed on by Robinson, but the ball fell to Janvion who inexplicably wrong footed his own defence by passing it back to the Irish striker who calmly fired it past the stranded French keeper to make it 3-1. The game had already gone when Platini pounced on a poor clearance near his own goal-line by Hughton, as the Irish pulled off a famous victory.
As the Irish put the French to the sword, the Dutch did the same to the Belgians. A 3-0 win kept their hopes alive, even if they were hanging on by a thread. The Irish had done all they could, given the circumstances they found themselves in. They were in second place with the Dutch a point behind and the French four points behind. Two games left, both involving the French. If the Dutch managed a draw in Paris then the Irish would be through. Victory for the Dutch and they would be through. If the French won then they’d simply have to get past Cyprus in the final game and they’d be in Spain. All the Irish could do was sit & wait.
A nervy atmosphere filled the Parc des Princes as the home side couldn’t afford anything less than a win. The first half was goalless, upping the tension further. But seven minutes into the second half and the French had a free-kick to the left of the area about twenty yards out. It was made for Platini and he didn’t disappoint, beating van Breukelen on his left post. Into the final ten minutes and Six made certain of the win when he turned in Rocheteau’s cross and the Dutch were out. Losing finalists in the last two World Cups and now they would be sat in front of their televisions come the following June.
For the Irish they had the further tension of awaiting the result of the final game of the group where France took on Cyprus in Paris. Surely the French couldn’t mess this up? But they would have to get through it without their talisman, Platini.
For the first twenty five minutes it was all a little nervy but then the home side had a free-kick about twenty five yards out. As there was no Platini, Rocheteau took it and fired it into the roof of the net. Four minutes later some good work down the left from Bossis and Six crossed for Bernard Lacombe to head in. They made certain of the victory with goals in the last ten minutes from Lacombe and Genghini and France had won and secured second place in the group, if only on goal difference.
It was heartbreak for the Irish. They’d been eased out of second place on goal difference, despite wins against the Dutch and the French. The other difficult pill to swallow was that both England and Northern Ireland qualified with fewer points than the Irish. In fact there were just two countries who finished second on more points than they did.
The Irish spent the first half of 1982 giving others match practice for the World Cup. They travelled to Algeria then Chile, losing to both and then finally to Brazil where they played the inaugural match at the Joao Havelange Stadium in Uberlandia, South East Brazil. Against a side which would become known as the greatest never to have won the World Cup, the Irish were given a lesson losing 0-7, in front of 72,733. The final nail in their four week trip around the world was a 1-2 defeat in Trinidad. Four matches, four defeats just one goal scored.
Ireland travelled to South America without many of their regular players as English clubs wouldn’t release their players during the Falklands War. They were supposed to play Argentina but the game was cancelled days before the trip started. Hand admitted years later that the trip should never have taken place, mainly against the backdrop of the Falklands War, and the squad were travelling on the cheap with barely time to acclimatise.
Qualification for the Euro ’84 wasn’t quite as exciting as they were beaten twice by the Dutch and also by Spain and finished well short. By 1986 they were an ageing side still relying on Brady & Grealish despite the emergence of players such as Kevin Sheedy and Jim Beglin, who both won League championship medals with Everton and Liverpool respectively. They won just two of their eight qualifying matches in a group with Denmark and Soviet Union, failing to score in any of their away games.
The FAI decided to dispense with Eoin Hand’s services and turned their attentions to Jack Charlton and the rest, they say, is history.
So why did Charlton succeed where Giles and Hand didn’t?
Some simple answers could lie in the fact Charlton was willing to dig a lot deeper into players’ ancestry. Had previous managers been able to call on the services of players such as John Aldridge or Ray Houghton then they may have enjoyed more favourable results.
Aspects which may point to the frustration surrounding manager’s performance were highlighted by Hand in an interview with The Irish Times (8th March 2003). Hand revealed stories of the hypocrisy of administrators who had no money for facilities for the players yet soon found it when officials required it.
One story surrounds a request Hand made to the board for a chef and food to be brought to Moscow with the team. The request was denied yet Hand still took his wife along to do the cooking. In Moscow the very official who’d turned it down the request then told Mrs Hand to keep quiet and make sure he had a cooked breakfast every morning.
Other examples were where Hand booked air fares early to save the FAI money, yet when it came to the trip the officials would all jump on first class travel and sod the expense. Hand wanted to go to the European Championships on a fact-finding mission but again the FAI turned him down, which angered him as he’d been travelling the country watching players at his own expense.
When Jack Charlton took over as Ireland boss he took advantage of the fact the FAI had courted him for his services and demanded many things Hand never enjoyed. He also seemed to benefit from far more luck than his predecessors but maybe the answer lay in the type of football he got his sides to play. Hand tried to bring Brady into the game as often as possible and so building from midfield became the key. Charlton preferred to concentrate on a big centre-forward and not bother too much with midfield.
Any World Cup or European Championships would have been a fitting stage for the likes of Lawrenson, Brady and Stapleton but it wasn’t to be. Perhaps history has forgiven this aberration with Big Jack’s success at the helm but there was something distinctly Irish in the effort, the promise and ultimate disappointment of trying to join Europe’s and World’s elite.