FAI History Chapter 21 - Eoin Hand’s misfortune
It was Eoin Hand's misfortune that when he had charge of one of the most gifted group of players ever to form an Irish squad, the luck of the draw should pitch them into competition with the elite of European football.
Ireland were drawn in the World Cup of 1982 in the same group as the Netherlands, beaten finalists in 1978, a Belgian team who had just been beaten in the final of the UEFA Championship of 1980 and a French team composed of players who would win the UEFA Championship of 1984 in some style.
It was indicative of Ireland's quality that they should have engaged such exalted opposition with considerable success. After playing five matches they had won three matches, drawn one, lost one with a goals aggregate of 12/4.
Ireland were on seven points and were justified in still harbouring ambitions of qualifying, even with matches away to Netherlands and Belgium and a home match against France to come.
Hand continued to extend the squad when Ireland played Wales in a friendly on February 24, 1981. He introduced two newcomers in goalkeeper Seamus McDonagh of Everton and his clubmate, Eamonn O'Keeffe.
Also involved was Jimmy Holmes, making a return to the Irish team after missing almost two years because of a horrific leg injury sustained when Ireland played Bulgaria in Sofia. Sadly, it was to be the unlucky Holmes' last international as the effects of the injury foreshortened his career.
Ireland looked to have the measure of Wales in a match that was played in Tolka Park when Tony Grealish shot them in front. But Ireland lacked the drive that distinguished their attitude in competitive matches and slumped to a disappointing 1-3 defeat.
That was quickly forgotten as the build-up for a critical game against Belgium in Brussels loomed large on the calendar on March 25, 1981. Belgium had taken a point off Ireland in Dublin, now Ireland could level the account if they could check their confident opponents in the Heysel Stadium.
The game was a classic of its kind even if it was played in a continuous downpour. Ireland's prospects were not helped by the late withdrawal because of injury of Mark Lawrenson and David O'Leary but they made light of their absence.
The contest was disputed with enormous intensity with Ireland playing superbly, inspired by the performances of their major players like Liam Brady, Frank Stapleton, Gerry Daly, Tony Grealish, Kevin Moran, Mick Martin.
Ireland coped so well with top-class opposition that Belgium and their respected centre-forward Jan Ceulemans rarely threatened McDonagh in goal. And just when it looked as if Ireland might well claim the win their battling performance promised, they were struck by another bizarre refereeing decision.
The half-time whistle was fast approaching when the well-polished partnership of Brady and Stapleton produced a moment of magic. Brady played a free kick with pinpoint accuracy and Stapleton, reading his intentions perfectly, raced on to the ball to fire home a superb goal.
Yet again Ireland's celebrations were rudely cut short as a Portugese referee, Nazare, disallowed the goal for some infringement only he was aware of. Video evidence suggested that yet again Ireland had legitimate grounds for grievance.
Now Ireland were engaged in a bitter battle to save a point as a titanic struggle moved relentlessly through the wind, the rain and the mud to its dramatic conclusion. And Belgium snatched the decisive goal in totally questionable circumstances as they won a debateable free for an alleged foul on Eric Gerets outside the penalty area in the 87th minute.
Vandereycken played the free into a crowded goalmouth where goalkeeper McDonagh was clearly impeded as he sought to punch the ball clear. The ball rebounded off the crossbar and with McDonagh helpless on the ground, Ceulemans headed the winning goal.
It was a pivotal moment. For Ireland to return from Brussels without reward after such a huge effort was a cruel injustice that was amplified by the injustice of Stapleton's disallowed goal and Belgium's late winner. Yet so competitive was this qualifying group that defeat did not mean the end of Ireland's hopes.
Ireland now faced an away match against Netherlands and a home tie against France in the belief that victory in both matches might be enough to see them make the final tournament in Spain.
Ireland prepared for their final assault in the Autumn by engaging in their usual round of end-of-season friendly matches. They were set to play Czechoslovakia at home and travel away to play West Germany "B" and Poland.
Hand continued to build up his squad and Ronnie Whelan was introduced as substitute in the course of the match against Czechoslovakia on April 29, 1981 at Lansdowne Road. Ireland won 3-1 with Kevin Moran converting two headers and Frank Stapleton adding a third.
The matches away from home were not as fruitful. West Germany's "B" selection won convincingly 3-0 in Bremen on May 21 and Poland won 3-0 in Bydgoszcz three days later. The match in Poland marked the debut of Packie Bonner and while the date coincided with his 21st birthday, the result dampened his thoughts of celebration.
The new season brought with it a new resolve to engage the World Cup qualification process with renewed energy but the build-up for the match against Netherlands in Rotterdam on September was not without set-back. Ireland were denied Gerry Daly's customary energetic contribution as he was suspended for having accumulated two yellow cards in previous matches.
The picture darkened still when Netherlands took advantage of an error in Ireland's defence to score after just eleven minutes. But Ireland rebounded with spirit and they were level before half-time as Steve Heighway created an opening for Michael Robinson.
Netherlands edged in front again when David Langan conceded a penalty for a tackle on Johnny Rep and Arnold Muhren converted but still Ireland were not done. They ensured a drawn game when Frank Stapleton headed in a cross from Lawrenson.
The results meant of this series meant that Belgium were now assured of qualification but with two to qualify Ireland were still in with a chance. They needed to beat France in their final match and hope that Netherlands or Cyprus would deny the French in their last two matches.
The fans played their part with a maximum attendance of 50,000 at Lansdowne for the visit of France on October 14, 1981. And they were not to be disappointed as Ireland produced an up-beat performance to edge a superb 3-2 win over a talented France.
Ireland's high-powered opening forced an ‘own goal' from French defender Mahut within minutes but Bruno Bellone smashed home a great equaliser within another three minutes.
Ireland enjoyed a glorious spell in the third quarter when Stapleton and Robinson both scored but the great Michel Platini cut the deficit to ensure a tense finish to a great game.
France were not to let their opportunity slip after this for they beat Cyprus and then Netherlands to finish level with Ireland on ten points in second place behind Belgium. A 7-0 thrashing of Cyprus ensured that France qualified instead of Ireland with a better goal difference.
They went on to reach the semi-finals of the competition in Spain.