Ireland's accomplishments in the World Cup finals of 1990 in Italy raised expectations to an unprecedented level ahead of the UEFA Championship of 1992. Interest in the game was never as high and when England were drawn in the same qualifying group, the games could not come soon enough.
The finals were set for Sweden and to qualify Ireland had to finish ahead of England, Poland and Turkey in one of the tournaments more challenging groups. But the advances made by the team in Germany in 1988 and in Italia 90 suggested it would evolve into a head-to-head with England.
Jack Charlton was systematically changing the personnel in the team at this point and there were some major developments in his team selections.
Gone were Liam Brady and Frank Stapleton but the third member of the distinguished Arsenal team that reached three FA Cup finals in a row at the end of the 1980s, David O'Leary, now found himself in demand after being out of favour for almost four years.
Ireland played Morocco in a friendly at Lansdowne Road as a build-up for the UEFA Championship opening tie against Turkey. Charlton preferred O'Leary to Kevin Moran as Mick McCarthy's partner. And making his debut in that September 12th match was Denis Irwin, whose star was on the rise after being signed by Manchester United.
The match was a low-key affair with Ireland, clearly suffering a hang-over after the excitement of Italia 90, stumbling to a 1-0 win. The goal came when David Kelly, who was surprisingly preferred to John Aldridge as Niall Quinn's partner, scored in the 74th minute.
Aldridge was restored in place of Kelly when Ireland opened their UEFA Championship campaign on October 17, 1990 against Turkey. Irwin had clearly shown his rich potential at right-back and was retained to the exclusion of Chris Morris while Kevin Moran started on the bench with O'Leary again alongside Mick McCarthy.
Ireland out-played Turkey and won 5-0. The game gave O'Leary his only international goal and Niall Quinn also scored but it was John Aldridge, with a hat-trick including one from a penalty, who was the goal-scoring star of the game.
The win set the stage perfectly for the visit of England to Lansdowne Road on November 14, 1990. It was their first game in Dublin since 1978 but the memories of matches in Stuttgart in 1988 and Sardinia in the World Cup summer of Italia 90 were still vividly alive as the teams marched onto the pitch to try conclusions once again.
Ireland showed changes from that game in Sardinia with O'Leary at centre-back in place of Moran and Quinn up front replacing Cascarino. But Charlton preferred Chris Morris to Denis Irwin at right-back, probably because of the Celtic player's impressive performances against England in the two Championship matches.
England had undergone even more sweeping changes from the World Cup. Gone was manager Bobby Robson to be replaced by Graham Taylor and only four players survived from the team that started against Ireland in Sardinia - Des Walker and Stuart Pearce in defence, Gary Lineker and Peter Beardsley up front.
The match drew a capacity 45,000 spectators to Lansdowne but failed to produce the fireworks that had been expected. Indeed the home fans were struck silent as England jumped in front when David Platt turned in a cross from Lee Dixon in the 67th minute.
Charlton made changes in search of a winning combination. Withdrawn was Ronnie Whelan, who had started a competitive match for the first time in twelve months after his injury problems prior to the World Cup, and he was replaced by Alan McLoughlin. Quinn made way for Cascarino up front.
The changes produced the goal that Ireland needed as time was running out. McLoughlin sent Steve Staunton charging forward on the left and his cross was headed in by Cascarino. The goal came eleven minutes before the final whistle.
Ireland faced Wales in a friendly in Wrexham on February 6, 1991, in preparation for the return match against England a month later. The game was robbed of all significance by the frozen nature of a pitch that was covered in snow with the temperature showing minus 15 degrees at kick-off time.
Ireland won the game 3-0 in conditions that were far from ideal to claim their first win in Wales. Niall Quinn claimed two of the goals and John Byrne the third, just four minutes before the end.
Playing conditions were totally different when Ireland faced England at Wembley on March 27 in search of critically important UEFA Championship points. And again both teams showed changes from their match in Dublin four months previously.
Denis Irwin was restored to right back, Kevin Moran took over from the injured Mick McCarthy at centre-back and was appointed captain, Kevin Sheedy came into midfield in place of the injured Ronnie Whelan.
England had a change of goalkeeper with David Seaman replacing Chris Woods while the veterans Bryan Robson and John Barnes were included in midfield. The interest in the game meant the attendance peaked at 83,000, quite the largest attendance at Wembley in some time.
An exciting contest ensued with England starting brightly and taking inspiration from a goal after just nine minutes. The goal was lucky, Lee Dixon's shot from outside the penalty area looked ambitious but the ball deflected off Steve Staunton and goalkeeper Packie Bonner was left helpless.
Ireland stepped up their game in face of this disappointment and gradually imposed their will on the play. Paul McGrath had a shot taken off the goal line and Kevin Moran flattened a shot against an upright as Ireland played with growing authority.
They had played themselves into a dominant position when they equalised in the 27th minute with a superb goal. McGrath worked his way into the clear on the right and when he fired the ball across the penalty area Niall Quinn got in front of his former Arsenal colleague, Tony Adams, to side-foot the ball past Seaman.
McGrath was magnificent in midfield and Ireland contrived to set up a succession of scoring chances as their prospects of taking a win from such an important match looked ever more promising. Somehow, Seaman's goal survived with Ray Houghton wasting the best opportunity of the match when he was sent clear by Cascarino only to strike the ball wide of the advancing Seaman and wide of goal.
Ireland now knew they had to take maximum points from the visit of Poland to Dublin on May 1st if they were to dispute top position in the group with England. And 48,000 fans packed the stadium to offer their support.
A disappointing match ended scoreless and the frustration for the Irish was compounded by a controversial decision that denied John Aldridge a goal. Kevin Sheedy's corner kick was turned away from goal by the goalkeeper under Kevin Moran's challenge and Niall Quinn struck the rebound against a defender's hand.
Aldridge snatched the loose ball and found the net at the second attempt only to see the Dutch referee rule the goal out for an alleged push by Moran on the goalkeeper. It was just the latest in a long list of refereeing decisions that seriously damaged Ireland's qualification hopes.
Three consecutive drawn matches meant that Ireland's prospects were wafer-slim with two further qualification matches to play, away to Poland and Turkey. Ireland prepared by playing friendly matches at home to Chile and away to USA and Hungary.
Chile made their first visit to Ireland in 30 years when they played before 33,000 spectators at Lansdowne Road on May 22, 1991, in a match which saw Roy Keane play his first game for Ireland.
Again Ireland drew the game but they were made suffer as Chile went in front in the 64th minute after playing well. Ireland equalised when David Kelly headed in a corner from John Sheridan ten minutes from time.
Ireland played their first game in America on June 1 at the Foxboro Stadium, Boston - a venue more familiar with American football. The promotion was a spectacular success with 52,000 spectators crowding the stadium and enjoying a bright and enterprising contest.
Ireland went in front when Tony Cascarino burst clear to drive a low shot into the net after 55 minutes. But the USA were level 13 minutes later when Wynalda calmly chipped the ball over the head of goalkeeper Packie Bonner.
Ireland's sequence of drawn matches had now been stretched to four and they eagerly sought a win away to Hungary on September 11 to boost confidence. They travelled to a provincial town of Gyor and full-back Terry Phelan was given his debut as the Irish came from behind to win 2-1 with goals from David Kelly and Kevin Sheedy.
Five weeks later, on October 16 in Poznan championship points were at stake when Ireland again faced Poland. The issue of qualification was still in doubt at this point with England, Ireland and Poland all retaining hopes of winning the group.
Manager Jack Charlton departed from his usual plan by picking a fifth midfield player in Chris Morris and picking a lone striker in Cascarino. The plan worked a treat as Paul McGrath gave Ireland a 1-0 lead at half-time but the Irish again suffered frustration as Andy Townsend and Cascarino also had the ball in the net only to be whistled back.
Poland recovered after an uncertain start to equalise within eight minutes of the re-start but Ireland played with great conviction and goals from Townsend and Cascarino had them 3-1 in front with 20 minutes left. The Poles refused to accept what seemed inevitable and goals after 76 minutes and 86 minutes meant Ireland had drawn yet again.
The issue was now out of Ireland's control. They needed to beat Turkey in their final match in Istanbul and hope that Poland would upset England in Poznan if they were to qualify.
Ireland duly beat Turkey 3-1 with two goals from John Byrne and another from Cascarino, but they were denied as England came from behind to draw with Poland and qualify for the finals.
This was the first time in almost 60 years that Ireland succeeded in going through a qualification campaign without losing and yet failed to make it to the finals. The memory of the excitement and glamour of Italia 90 served only to heighten the sense of loss felt by fans and players alike.