Part 2: A nation holds its breath
Having qualified for their first ever major tournament in the 1988 European Championships, Jack Charlton and his Republic of Ireland side then had their sights set on a debut World Cup finals appearance for the 1990 tournament in Italy. The Irish had made waves at the 1988 Euros in West Germany, beating England in their major competition debut before drawing with eventual runners-up the Soviet Union and unluckily losing to a gifted Dutch side that went on to win the tournament.
Theoretically, qualifying for the 1990 World Cup would be easier than the Euros of two years previously, as there were 13 places on offer rather than just seven. Also, while Ireland had to win their group to reach the 1988 Euros, second place would be good enough to book their passage to Italia ‘90. Their qualifying group contained Spain, the clear favourites, plus a Hungary team in decline, a Northern Ireland side who had fallen back since their peak earlier in the 80s and probable whipping boys in Malta. All of a sudden, the Republic weren’t just hopeful of reaching the World Cup finals – not doing so would be construed as a real disappointment following their exploits in West Germany.
There was an expectation that Ireland would be buoyant after their positive displays at the Euros, but their bid to qualify for Italia ‘90 did not get off to an encouraging start. They somewhat unfairly began with two away games, drawing 0-0 against their neighbours from the North (where they were thankful for a superb performance from stand-in goalkeeper Gerry Peyton) before an injury-plagued Irish side went down 2-0 to Spain in Seville. By the time Ireland’s next qualifier away to Hungary came around, the Spaniards had effectively won the group, leaving a three-way scrap for the second qualifying spot. In yet another fixtures quirk that simply wouldn’t fly nowadays, Charlton’s men were away for the third game in succession and Spain had played three qualifiers since their win over the Irish. A goalless draw in Budapest kept Ireland in contention, while the Hungarians made life exceptionally hard for themselves by drawing twice with Malta.
The upshot of having three consecutive away games for starters was that Ireland then had three home fixtures in a row across a six-week period at the end of the 1988/89 club season. It was in the first of those that their campaign really took off, a surprise 1-0 win over Spain courtesy of an early own goal from Michel putting Charlton’s side firmly in the box seat to finish second in Group 6. Further wins in Dublin over Malta and Hungary left them on the verge of qualification and they knew that if they could beat Northern Ireland at Lansdowne Road in October 1989, they would effectively be qualified given their two-point advantage over Hungary (two points for a win was the format then) and a much superior goal difference.
The all-Irish battle was comprehensively won by the Republic, a 3-0 victory all but clinching their ticket to Italy. Even a draw in Malta would make absolutely sure of qualification and, as it turned out, they would have qualified regardless after Hungary were walloped in Spain on the same night. Nonetheless, a John Aldridge brace in Valletta meant that, after winning none of their first three qualifiers, Ireland then won all their next five to ensure a first-ever World Cup finals appearance.
The film ‘Groundhog Day’ was still four years away from cinematic release, but the premise of the Bill Murray flick played itself out in the draw that Ireland got for the 1990 World Cup. Just as they did for the 1988 Euros, they would meet England and Netherlands in their group, with Egypt making up the foursome. Also, just as in West Germany, Charlton’s first match of the tournament pitted him against his native land, while Ireland would again end the group by meeting the Dutch.
A knock-on effect of being drawn in the same group as England was that Ireland would play all their group games on the islands of Sardinia or Sicily, with the tournament organisers deliberately scheduling England’s matches away from the mainland for fear of hooliganism – the deaths of 39 Juventus fans at the 1985 European Cup final in Brussels following loutish behaviour from travelling Liverpool hordes was still very raw in Italy. However, the less than ideal venues did not deter thousands of Irish supporters from again taking out credit union loans and repossessing valuables to fund a trip to southern Italy, just as they had invaded West Germany two summers previously.
If the excitement for 1988 within Ireland was high, 1990 reached stratospheric levels. The Irish squad was involved in the recording of a pre-tournament song entitled ‘Put ‘Em Under Pressure’, a stark description of Charlton’s rough and ready tactics. Borrowing a well-known guitar riff from a tune by famed Irish band Horslips amid the inclusion of a euphoric chorus of ‘ole ole ole’, the song whipped up a frenzy in Ireland and remains the definitive Irish football anthem to this day. Maybe the song’s premonition of “We’ll really shake them up when we win the World Cup” was wildly optimistic, but none of the other 23 participating countries at the tournament seemed as stoked for a party as those from the Emerald Isle.
Just as qualification for the World Cup was theoretically easier than the Euros, Ireland also stood a statistically better chance of getting out of the group stage in the global competition, as 16 of the 24 teams would advance rather than four out of eight in the Euros. With third place likely to be good enough to see them through, the Irish knew that one win would give them a strong chance of progression, while a win and a draw would almost certainly get them into the knockout rounds.
Ireland’s World Cup adventure began in Cagliari’s Stadio Sant’Elia on 11 June 1990 against England, almost two years to the day that the teams met in Stuttgart when Charlton’s Irish recorded a shock win courtesy of Ray Houghton’s sixth-minute header. There was also an early goal in this meeting, but it was scored by Gary Lineker. England, it seemed, had learned their lesson from the Euro ‘88 debacle. However, in the 73rd minute, Everton striker Kevin Sheedy pounced with a typical poacher’s finish to draw Ireland level and the spoils were shared in Sardinia.
While not recreating the scenes of two years’ previously, the draw was very well received in Ireland and, unsurprisingly, went down like a lead balloon on the other side of the Irish Sea. With that positive result in the bag, hopes were understandably high that they could beat Egypt in Palermo six days later and effectively secure a last-16 berth. The Egyptians had held the Netherlands to a 1-1 draw in their opener, so they were not to be taken lightly. In the meantime, the European champions drew again with England, so Group F was proving to be remarkably tightly contested. An Irish win over Egypt would put them in pole position not just to qualify, but to win the group.
The 1990 tournament in Italy left the unfortunate legacy of being one of the most negative and disappointing in World Cup history, with dour tactics and dull matches aplenty, and the Ireland-Egypt clash was probably the epitome of that. The North Africans were very limited, but Charlton did not desist from his long ball strategy. It was a needlessly crude approach which turned this match into an utterly horrible spectacle. To nobody’s surprise, it finished 0-0 and now Ireland would need a result against the Dutch to be sure of getting out of the group.
Back home, the general Irish populace was in party mode but that didn’t extend to the country’s most outspoken TV pundit. Eamon Dunphy, a man never shy of calling a spade a spade, tore into Charlton and the team in his analysis of the Egypt game. Indeed, he was so apoplectic over the spectacle that he flung a pen across the desk in disgust during his on-screen rant. When Irish journalists in Italy relayed this to Charlton and pressed him on the crudity of his tactics, the manager angrily defended his methods and spoke out against Dunphy.
It was certainly not the ideal way to prepare for a potential do-or-die meeting with the European champions just four days later. Ireland had lost to the most fortuitous of headed goals against the Netherlands at a similar juncture in the 1988 Euros, a result that knocked them out and spared the Dutch from elimination. In this group of draws, another such result would take both teams through, especially with England going on to beat Egypt in the other game that night. Just as against the English, Ireland fell behind to an early goal, Ruud Gullit putting the Dutch in the driving seat. With 20 minutes remaining, a long ball was floated into Netherlands’ penalty area and goalkeeper Hans van Breukelen came out to make what would probably be a routine catch. However, he failed to take it into his grasp and the loose ball was seized upon by the opportunistic Niall Quinn, the gangly striker sweeping it to the net to level the score at 1-1. That was the final outcome and the teams finished with identical records that were sufficient to get them into the last 16.
Knockout tournament football was the latest unchartered territory for Ireland and their reward was a meeting with Romania, who had finished ahead of Argentina in their group and drawn with the world champions in their final group game. Once again, the Irish would begin as underdogs, but that certainly wasn’t a status that fazed them. The Stadio Luigi Ferraris in Genoa, a rectangular venue with four compact stands, was packed to the rafters with Irish supporters on 25 June. They were as vocal as ever despite their team giving them little to shout about aesthetically. This was another of the 1990 finals’ dour spectacles, with neither team creating much in the way of chances as a turgid, tense affair sleepwalked into extra time and then penalties.
Romania would go first in the shoot-out, their star man Gheorghe Hagi burying his spot-kick. Sheedy held his nerve with Ireland’s first kick and both teams converted their next three penalties to leave it at 4-4. If Dinamo Bucharest midfielder Daniel Timofte scored, Ireland would need to do likewise or they were going home. However, the Romanian’s weak penalty was easily palmed away by Irish goalkeeper Packie Bonner, who leapt to the air in celebrating his save.
That miss gave David O’Leary of Arsenal the chance to seal victory for Ireland. As he approached the penalty spot, RTE commentator George Hamilton told viewers that “a nation holds its breath”. O’Leary succeeded with his kick, Hamilton cried “yes, we’re there” and the Irish players and management sprinted towards the scorer to celebrate the country’s greatest ever day in football. Back home, major cities such as Dublin and Cork were eerily deserted, with almost the entire population glued to the game and testing the capacity limits of pubs throughout the country. When O’Leary’s penalty whizzed past Romanian keeper Silviu Lung and into the net, a nation erupted. The streets which had been silent became thronged with celebrating masses. Normal society ceased to exist in Ireland that night; the country’s three and a half million natives were too busy rejoicing. Hamilton’s immortal words of “a nation holds its breath…yes, we’re there” would become Ireland’s equivalent of the much-celebrated Kenneth Wolstenholme syntax of “they think it’s all over…it is now” from the 1966 World Cup final.
Brazil, Netherlands and Spain were among the footballing superpowers who had made their exit from the tournament by the time Ireland faced into a quarter-final against the host nation at an incredibly atmospheric Stadio Olimpico in Rome on 30 June 1990, prior to which Charlton arranged an audience with His Holiness Pope John Paul II in Vatican City for the entire Irish squad and management. The scale of the task was daunting for the Irish, who had made it to the last eight without winning a single match (penalty shoot-outs are technically regarded as draws), whereas the Italians had yet to concede in their four games, not wholly surprising when they had world-class defenders like Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini in their side.
Italy were unsurprisingly on top in the first half against the Irish but it took 38 minutes for the breakthrough to come. It was an uncharacteristic error from Bonner which led to the goal, the keeper deflecting the ball into the path of the ever-alert Toto Schillaci, the Juventus striker who was thriving in this tournament, and he swept it to the net to raise an almighty cheer around the Stadio Olimpico. Ireland were getting precious little change out of the miserly Italian defence and, after three unforgettable weeks, their World Cup dream finally died. While most of the home crowd in Rome left the ground feeling that there were bigger fish to be fried, the Irish squad did a lap of honour around the stadium’s athletics track. The walk was a poignant one, with a feeling of real disappointment laced with substantial pride.
Only a few short years beforehand, the Republic of Ireland was an afterthought in the consciousness of international football, a full stop merely existing in the context of a global sentence. In three and a half years under Charlton’s management, they had reached two major tournaments and acquitted themselves formidably in both of them. A nation which had been so downtrodden and deflated during the 1980s had been summoned from its slumber, a tidal wave of euphoria and pride energising the Irish populace, half a million of whom thronged the streets of Dublin to welcome the team back upon their return from Italy. Yes, Ireland had a golden generation of players, some of whom had won league titles in England, but the success of 1990 still seemed scarcely believable. Charlton’s tactical approach might not have won him many admirers, but nobody in Ireland could care how Neanderthal his style was…apart from Eamon Dunphy, who became vilified in some quarters for daring to express a critical opinion at a time when negativity did not seem to exist on the island. Charlton and his team had not just achieved historic success on the pitch; they had breathed new life into an entire country.