Ireland’s Odyssey: Part 1 Big Jack
Here is the first part of a series about the Irish football team.
Where were you when we were f*ckin’ shite?
This refrain was popular around the turn of the millennium with Man City fans. Gradually it has been phased out but it’s always something I think about with Ireland and their international teams. We are a nation of bandwagoners. But every successful team has fair weather fans.
Of course, the age of Big Jackie Charlton started in controversial circumstances. He wasn’t the FAI’s first choice and was maybe eight minutes away from leaving had Gary Mackay not scored against Bulgaria. But as elderly Leeds United fans will attest, the man from Ashington was made of stern stuff. ‘Union’ Jack was here for the long haul.
I don’t know any of my era who would have been able to avoid the green machine of the late 80s and early 90s. An unprecedented era of success for our national football team. Success by our standards. We aren’t Germany. Hell, we’re not even Denmark. But over a couple of summers, we bragged about having the greatest football team. And well, some days we truly believed it.
This is old ground, well traipsed and relived over the years, with the legends growing stronger every year the modern version of the team come up short. We will get to those less successful moments in due course, but I will start here with what I can remember.
The Boys in Green
The first match I can vaguely recall is arguably the greatest of all time from an Irish point of view. England. Stuttgart. I was doing something else I’m sure. Maybe playing with Mask action figures or Matchbox cars. I was seven years old and just after my first communion. I want to say that it is time that has faded my memories or that perhaps Ireland hadn’t fully gotten on board with Jackie’s Army yet. Maybe both are true. Either way, I wasn’t fully aware of the football but that changed rapidly over the next week.
Wednesday came around and I didn’t even know we were playing the Soviet Union. I didn’t understand the concept of playing again and again! Surely we won ‘football’ against England and we were the best…forever!
But I definitely watched a bit of the USSR game. And I am pretty sure half the estate spilled out onto the green to try and replicate Whelan’s goal rather than watch the remainder of the actual match.
Then Saturday. Well, I was in town with the mother for that. I remember stopping at the TV shop on O’Connell Street and seeing a few moments of it. I learned later that we hadn’t got the draw needed to get through to the semi-finals.
In years to come, footage would be reprised and memories were improved upon. It might have been a surprise to the Irish public but Charlton was certainly showing signs of disappointment. He genuinely expected to get to the semis at least.
None of this was really computing just yet. But it would. That summer was the beginning of football in my life.
By that Autumn I had fallen for the Merseyside Reds. John Barnes and his twinkle- toed brilliance. But for Ireland, well I began to learn that the matches in the summer had been great but now wanted to go to the World Cup, whatever that was. This was all happening so fast. I understood that Ireland had to go to Spain with only 8 first- choice players. But I heard 8 players. Surely that wasn’t fair. Eight versus eleven!? Inevitably we lost.
We didn’t play for another 5 months in the qualifiers. I thought we were playing Spain one evening in February 89 but it turned out that was just UTV calling their team Ireland instead of Northern Ireland. Maybe there was an ‘N’ before Ireland. But I was suitably confused.
The Republic of Ireland played France in the muck and rain of Dalymount park that same evening. Another game without a goal for us.
I watched a bit of the Hungary away game and was chuffed to see the boys in white wearing the same jersey as me. I loved that one. We almost won the game with a spectacular overhead (Kevin Sheedy maybe?) but the search for our first goal and first win went on.
I was learning about football very quickly. Shoot magazines and Sunday’s News of the World were essentials for my study. At this point, I was immersed in all things Liverpool. They were hunting down Arsenal and going well in the FA Cup. Ireland simply didn’t play that often so it was difficult to form an attachment. From what I could see in the group tables, we had a lot of work to do and nobody I knew seemed too optimistic. Then April 1989 came.
In the space of a few weeks, I had seen the horror of Hillsborough play out. Then watched news bulletins as Liverpool players attended funerals. Millions of flowers on the pitch near the Kop.
Life went on from the comfort of our sitting rooms. The Ireland match seemed to sneak up on me. It was all or nothing. The campaign needed a kickstart. Spain at home. Butragueno et al. We needed a goal. And we got one! An own goal! Michel!
We were up and running. The swirling winds and pockmarked Lansdowne Road pitch would become a fortress that summer. All but one of our away matches out of the way meant we could settle in with home comforts. Four wins in a row. And then the win in Valetta. We were going to Italy. The greatest football team! Deadly!
1990- Ciao World!
The early part of the year seemed to be last call for fringe players and maybes. Bernie Slaven, Gary Waddock. Would Frank Stapleton make the plane to the World Cup? He did of course but didn’t feature.
The tournament started and like anything you’re experiencing for the first time, it was amazing. In later years purists would call it a horrible show but for me, the aesthetic was so comfortable. The stadiums, Italian TV scoreboards popping up. The Adidas Utresco. Pavarotti. Lineker’s diarrohea. Such days!
I think Euro 88 had been a pleasant surprise. For a GAA nation there was little expectation and arguably many wouldn’t have known there was any tournament ’til the team did their song on the Late Late Show.
Italia 90 was very different. These were the burgeoning years of football flowing into the mainstream. Corporate sponsored tie-ins the order of the day. Music cassettes, Tea tins, plastic footballs from Maxol, the chance of winning match tickets to Italia Novante on Know Your Sport.
The Team that Jack Built
In the end we came, we saw, we drew a lot. England did a little bit better but we had done enough. Top 8 in the world.
I watched England, Romania and Italy in O’Dwyers bar in Dunboyne. Egypt at home (TSSA!). Holland at home. I bet my dad was happy he didn’t waste his hard earned cash on going out for the Egypt game…ooh wait did we go to Batterstown for it? Hmm maybe. Definitely watched Holland at home.
After it was all over I was fluent in how football fixtures worked. My expertise in tournament football was aided by World Soccer magazine and other newspaper pull-outs from the likes of the Star. I didn’t go for World Cup 90 Stickers. Too much commitment.
By the time the European Championship Qualifying came round, I was ready. And so it seemed, did the team. Vitally England had changed manager. We might catch them cold.
Alas the 5-0 hammering of Turkey promised much but was about as good as it got. The wind was up again in Lansdowne for England but they were ready for the fight. A draw again, just like Cagliari. McCarthy almost scoring from sixty yards. We watched this in school. Or at least the first half.
The Wembley rematch is probably second to the USSR Euro 88 game in terms of legend. The game where we announced ourselves as football artisans. Rose-tinted a little bit in my view though we definitely outplayed both. Not everything changes in the game and winning your 50-50s has always meant something. Still another draw against them. With Houghton somehow refusing the offer to have even more lifetime pints bought for him. I watched this in Hanlon’s pub and remember the barman coming over to warn me about throwing beer mats at the TV during Taylor’s post match interview.
Maybe there was a bit of uncharacteristic arrogance going into the Poland double -header. The game at Lansdowne was a damp squib and Charlton strategically blamed the pitch.
In Warsaw months later we contrived to blow a two-goal lead and sales of Packie Bonner rosary beads presumably dropped. My abiding memory of this game was just how good Andy Townsend was. Many Ireland fans are often tougher on players born outside the country. Always felt Townsend never got his full dues. We looked good for most of that game, until we didn’t.
Anyway, after the Poland draws, we had blown it. The result in Turkey was academic. Lesson learned. Swagger was not for us.
1992 A Missed Opportunity
While Europe’s top 8 ( sans Italy, Spain, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and, of course us) went to Sweden for the Championship Ireland headed over to America. A bit of a fact-finding mission for the 94 World Cup as well as a potential jolly up. Mixed results. Defeat against the US and Italy with a win against Portugal. A never seen since goal from a Staunton corner kick. I’ll die happily, if I ever see it. Oh and Mick and Roy on a bus together…to be continued.
Of course, before the American trip and even before the Euros, our World Cup journey began. At home to Albania. The Albanians, playing in a gifted set of new jerseys proved a tough test but the win was got. The team had evolved a little bit over the previous two summers, though maybe not enough. Irwin and Keane were now very much part of the first team and would remain so for a decade. Aldridge continued to run his legs off at the front and surely welcomed Tommy Coyne’s arrival into the squad.
Post US Cup 92, Charlton had again carefully planned the fixtures so as to get the tough away fixtures out of the way first. Two scoreless draws followed against Denmark and Spain. Oh boy, these were huge nights in Irish sport. With Sky taking over from ITV for English league football, Ireland was the biggest box office. We were competitive in Copenhagen but Seville was another step up but we should have won. They finished with ten men after all.
1993 The Road To America
This group felt a bit more epic than the 1990 version. It had an extra team and the break up of the Soviet Bloc meant we had two unknown quantities. Latvia and Lithuania. Big Jack embarked on scouting trips with Billy Bingham which, you can imagine would be unheard of nowadays.
The year opened with a confident victory over said Billy’s boys. Staunton again scoring from a corner. All looked great heading into the Denmark home game.
The Danes had perhaps been not quite at it in the first game. Maybe still hungover from their championship win in 92, they arrived in Dublin and fancied it. Brian Laudrup was a right nuisance. In the end another draw with a rare mistake from McGrath who redeemed himself by winning a corner for the equaliser. I watched this on a big screen in The Mill House after school, almost certain.
The ship was steered adequately enough into October 1993. Wins over Latvia, Albania and Lithuania again. But this was when we all grew up, my generation’s first real brush with the reality of modern football. Alan Kernaghan had performed reasonably well up to this point but this was not a good day for him. Espana caught us cold and raced into a 3-0 lead before an hour. John Sheridan’s goal seemed academic but in the final count proved vital for goal difference.
As Ireland headed to Belfast by plane there was an air of fear from most fans. Nobody felt it a foregone conclusion. A win would do it but a draw might be fine if things went okay between Spain and Denmark.
November 17th was a days of days for international football. Really surprised Netflix haven’t jumped on it yet. France, England, Portugal and erm, Wales fell at the final hurdle in a huge day of drama. Going into the snakepit of Windsor Park we had a fight on our hands. My main fear was how Kernaghan would respond. He had got a right schooling from Julio Salinas and I worried he might carry that over against the country that he’d represented as a schoolboy. In the end, he did well but it was a frustrating game. Houghton, who really should have scored more in this era, missed a couple of decent chances and Jimmy Quinn scored a beauty for them. Their lead was short-lived as the now late great Alan McLoughlin popped up and arrowed a beautiful half volley past Wright.
Post-match and Seville was still in the melting pot. Spain one-nil up about to k.o the European Champions. Schmeichel up for a corner. But no, that was it. They were out. We were in!
The RTE panel happily celebrated afterwards, but there was definitely less of a triumphant air that night. In all likelihood Charlton might well have walked away that night had things not gone right. Giles and Kinnear in the studio suggested that new blood would be needed for the tournament next summer.
Enter Gary, Phil and Jason ( insert love hearts here)
1994 The Last Stand
Get the Neil Diamond record out. Get the Irish Permanent savings account. Get a Callcard. Get a new Opel Astra! Ireland back on the World Cup trail. Before all the hotel room match ticket selling could kick off in earnest we had two away friendlies to get us ready (and turn the hype machine up to 11) Wins over Germany and Holland (and Bolivia!) were fine and why would you ever refuse them? But surely we couldn’t go and beat a major football powerhouse in the real thing. Right?
Well, the doubters were silenced that fateful day in New Jersey. Perhaps the second last great Irish performance under Charlton(Portugal a year later?). We got Italy on a day where they weren’t right. Jack’s plan to overload and overrun in midfield worked a treat. It was a great day. One we had to enjoy at home due to a barman’s strike!
It was as good as it got in America really. The Orlando sunshine melted away our hassle and hurry tactics, though Ireland ran much harder any Colombian or Greek that summer. World Cups are full of opinion and many might disagree with me but another ten minutes against Mexico and we might have got a draw. As it was Aldridge got another vital consolation goal.
The draw vs Norway meant another Dutch fixture. We obviously hadn’t got too far into their heads with the friendly victory. Again it was a struggle in the heat but we weren’t all that bad. Packie made another boo-boo but Overmars outrunning Phelan was a worrying feature.
Homeways it was so. And an audience with President Mary Robinson followed by a chat with Pat Kenny in Phoenix Park. The open-top bus of 1990 was better, let’s be honest.
Could we go to one more tournament with Big jack? The group offered possibilities and we started well enough with away wins over Latvia , Liechtenstein and Northern Ireland. And then came nineteen ninety-five.
1995 Combat 18 and all that
There was a sense of wary optimism heading into the new year. The younger players were showing signs that they settling in while players such as David Kelly, who had been on the fringes for so long, began to get more playing time.
He is probably best remembered for his goal against England in the abandoned game at Lansdowne. But thanks to numerous sticker albums and subsequent facebook clips, I remember his hat trick against Israel in 1987.
The England game really broke Jack’s heart. It was clear to see in the aftermath how ashamed he was of his countrymen. But in the time we did see some action, Ireland had looked good against Venables’ side. Arguably more tournament-ready than England themselves.
Time moves on quickly in football. That will never change. One week Liverpool are laying down a marker for a league title (in October) the next they are an ageing side with big problems in midfield.
Likewise in the Euro 96 qualifiers, Ireland went into the draw as top seeds. The opposition of Portugal, Austria and Northern Ireland again, didn’t seem at all unbeatable. But while we were evolving slowly beyond the passback rule Portugal were building steadily. Costa and Figo were coming of age as Couto looked a tough presence at centre-half.
Again the Lansdowne wind came into play in March. Charlton bemoaned it but perhaps the North were just a bit more determined after the earlier hammering. The win under floodlights against Portugal seemed to get us back on track and I was never convinced with Vitor Baia in nets, but nonetheless. Then summer and the principality of Liechtenstein.
I watched this in my gran’s on the North Circular Road. She was soon to move to the countryside and this seemed a tribute exercise in agricultural football. Fine for us who were never too particular about how our goals looked so long as they went in. But they didn’t. Not that day. Not even one of the 29 attempts.
Could we get the momentum back? Four days later in Dublin, Austria arrived. We should have been fine. We looked stronger overall and took the lead. But then the stomach cramps set in. The fish suppers still undigested from the day before. Toni Effin Polster. Ireland fans never had much of a sense of entitlement and it was only very recently that the majority would begin to turn on this squad. Austria were poxy, and it hurt.
Then they went and did us again. Another three one, with a beautiful McGrath header rendered meaningless.
In the muck and rain of Oporto we arrived with injuries and little optimism. The Portuguese took an hour to break us but break us they did.
Second place meant we would have to beat Holland in a play off. We didn’t and that was it for Jack. The last few months a tough watch for the public who generally adored him while recognising that we had lost our way a bit.
In the end, there were no tears. Just a serenade from the Kop and a now traditional post-match RTE interview where a team’s manager has his future employment questioned.
Reviewing football in this way can be quite reductive. And what more can you bring to this era that hasn’t already been said? The cruel grip of nostalgia constantly dragging one back to a time they will never have again. Did I peak as a human before I was ten years old? Possibly. But what a run it was. And yet, it wasn’t really all that great on the face of it.
But you must remember this wasn’t just about football. It never is on the international scene. It brings out a part in us many try to hide most of the time. A rampant chest-thumping, almost embarrassing pride that shows itself every time the egg chasers start chanting Ireland’s call. That is now though, that was then, when we were young, unspoiled and hearts like unopened scrap books, eager to paste in memories. What a time it was.
Ole Ole indeed
NB: Links to Major championship highlights are usually taken down so I avoided posting them here. But there’s gold in them there ‘Reeling in the years clips’ as well as the aforementioned Road to America video on youtube, The Van feature film is underrated, The Boys in Green RTE programme here and of course the recent FINDING JACK CHARLTON