FAI History Chapter 17 – World Cup 1978
The appointment of John Giles as manager of Ireland in 1973 offered hope of a new professional era in the history of international football in Ireland.
Liam Tuohy's all-too-brief period in charge from 1971 saw a welcome improvement in Ireland's results and the establishment of a more sustained period of development.
Giles was player/manager of the team and his influence on events was more immediate because of that. His period of stewardship from 1973 to 1980 coincided with the emergence of a new generation of talented players and promised much in consequence.
Giles failed in his bid to lead Ireland through the qualifying rounds of the 1976 European Championship but with an unbeaten run of five matches behind them, it was with high expectations that Ireland opened their challenge for the 1978 World Cup against France in Parc des Princes, Paris, on November 17, 1976.
History will show that France were in the process of building a team that would ultimately win a European Championship in scintillating style, but that was a distant aspiration when Giles led his men into a stadium that throbbed with atmosphere on this night. The contest that followed provided a capacity attendance with marvellous entertainment.
Ireland met French style and flair with sound organisation and composed defence until three minutes into the second half when Michel Platini cut through for the opening goal. Then followed an incident that was, regrettably, too regularly visited upon this generation of Irish players under the management of John Giles and, his successor, Eoin Hand.
Liam Brady linked beautifully with his club colleague, Frank Stapleton, by supplying an accurate cross that was headed into the French net in decisive fashion by the powerful Stapleton. Ireland's celebrations were cut frustratingly short by the decision of the Yugoslavia referee to disallow the goal for an alleged offside.
The decision was open to question and delivered a harsh kick in the teeth to the Irish. Their hopes of saving a point disappeared in that instant and in the dying seconds Dominique Bathenay added a second goal to a scoreline that scarcely did justice to a brave Ireland.
It was four months before France travelled to Dublin for the return fixture and in the interim Ireland fell to Spain at Lansdowne Road on February 9, 1977, in a friendly. Gerry Peyton was introduced in goal for the second half and Tony Macken into midfield for their first appearances as Ireland lost to an only goal from Satrastegui.
Lansdowne Road held an excited capacity audience of 48,000 when France opposed Ireland on March 30, 1977 in a game which had to be won if Ireland were to extend their World Cup challenge. What followed was magnificent.
The youthful Liam Brady struck a beautiful goal for Ireland before the game was ten minutes old and the Irish took inspiration from this to provide the enthusiastic local followers with plenty to cheer.
France, led by the peerless Michel Platini, were always a threat but there was no denying Ireland as Giles and Givens hit the woodwork and Giles had the ball in the net again only to be whistled back by the referee.
Ireland were back in World Cup contention with two matches against Bulgaria to come. And Ireland prepared for their first visit to Sofia on June 1, 1977 by drawing in a scoreless game with Poland at Dalymount Park in a friendly fixture notable for the arrival of Preston defender, Mark Lawrenson.
The contest in Sofia was a frustrating one for Ireland who were again victims of a debateable refereeing decision. Bulgaria took the lead after 13 minutes but Ireland responded vigorously and should have had a penalty when Givens was blatantly pushed in the penalty area.
The match was played in persistent rain but Ireland grew in confidence and effect as Givens claimed an equaliser two minutes into the second half. They looked to have secured a winning goal when Giles fired home a shot after a sweeping move involving Steve Heighway and Gerry Daly.
Irish passions were inflamed as the referee responded to a linesman's flag and disallowed the goal and to aggravate matters further, Bulgaria scored against the run of play with 14 minutes left.
The contest by now had become a battle and a confrontation in midfield led to a mass row that ended with two players from each side being sent off - Mick Martin and Noel Campbell for Ireland. Bulgaria took the points on a 2-1 scoreline as Ireland were left to reflect bitterly on their experiences.
The return in Dublin on October 12, 1977, saw Bulgaria field a team that did not contain six of the players who had started in Sofia and they mounted a defiant defensive action to deny Ireland. Giles had, possibly, his greatest performance in an Irish shirt.
He ruled midfield and struck the ball off left and right with such accuracy that one felt he could have dropped it into a bucket from 50 yards. But on the day a goal eluded Ireland and the match was scoreless.
It was France who went to Argentina for the World Cup final tournament of 1978 and Ireland began again to prepare for the preliminary rounds of a European Championship. They were drawn in an interesting group with England, Denmark, Bulgaria and Northern Ireland.
The prospect of playing Northern Ireland for a first time in competition recalled the circumstances of the birth of the Football Association of Ireland and the sensitive relationship that existed afterwards with the Irish Football Association in Belfast.
The question of a united Ireland team in competition is one that has always occupied the minds of historians and, inevitably, will continue to do so. An intriguing flirtation with what could be achieved was provided on July 3rd, 1973, when an all-Ireland selection drawn from North and South played Brazil at Lansdowne Road.
Brazil won an entertaining match 4-3 and the promotion was such a success that the President of the FAI, Frank Davis, soon afterwards led a delegation to Belfast to discuss matters of mutual interest. The possibility of any change in the status quo did not, according to reports, arise.