FAI History Chapter 23 - 1984 UEFA Championship
Ireland's challenge for a place in the 1984 UEFA Championship finals in France was checked by defeat in Holland in their first match and the loss of a point to Spain in a thrilling match in Dublin. But all was not lost for it was certain further points would be lost by all in such a tight and top-quality group.A recurring difficulty for manager Eoin Hand was the withdrawal of injured players, a problem that was not, of course, exclusive to Ireland. But with a relatively small pool of international class players available, any absentees hit Ireland hard.A trip to Malta promised a bright start to 1983 for Ireland and an opportunity to put some goals on the credit side of the balance sheet. But these ambitions were rapidly adjusted when the appalling state of the pitch at a relatively new Ta'Qali stadium in Valetta became apparent.The stadium had been ruled out for earlier games in the championship and Ireland's officials showed the assembled international press corps examples of the rubbish that the players had lifted off the pitch the day before the game when they trained on it.There were stones, some big enough to fill a fist, various examples of rubble, nails and even pieces of glass. The Malta officials promised it would be cleaned up in time for the match. Referee Walter Mathias, Austria, eventually declared it acceptable.Ireland were not enamoured of the conditions and the performance mirrored the players' misgivings. Liam Brady picked up an expensive yellow card for it was his second of the tournament and would rule him out of the next match away to Spain.Ireland stumbled to a win when Frank Stapleton put a hopeful heel to a ball as it bounced around the penalty area and deflected it over the line, 60 seconds before the full-time whistle.Ireland now faced Spain in Zaragoza on April 27, 1983, knowing that hopes of qualification hung by a thread for their goals tally would not benefit them in the event of a tie on points.And Spain ensured they maximised their own prospects by cancelling the domestic league programme for two weeks before the match at the request of manager Miguel Munoz.Brady was lost to Ireland because of accumulated yellow cards and Kevin Moran was forced to withdraw because of injury. Manager Hand set up his game plan by opting to frustrate the predictable early Spanish bombardment and gradually expand Ireland's game after the interval.The plan worked satisfactorily for 45 minutes but then a moment's indecision between goalkeeper Seamus McDonagh and David O'Leary allowed Santillana swoop to head the opening goal. Spain, oozing confidence, now played with great authority and took a second goal from Rincon.The result meant that Ireland's hopes had been reduced to ashes and public reaction was hostile. A handful of people waited at Dublin Airport to abuse the manager verbally and it was the start of a sustained campaign by a minority of self-proclaimed football supporters to oust Eoin Hand.Ireland, paradoxically, appeared to play better football now that the competitive edge of their matches had been blunted by the certainty that they would not qualify for the finals in 1984.At the start of the 1983/'84 season they played with greater freedom and fluency when they faced Iceland in Reykjavik on September 21, 1983. They won 3-0 with goals from Gary Waddock, Michael Robinson and Mickey Walsh (FC Porto).Three weeks later, on October 12, Ireland faced Netherlands in a match that was played at Dalymount Park and while they lost 2-3, the football was hugely entertaining. The Dutch included the big trio of Ronald Koeman, Ruud Gullit and Marco Van Basten as well as Willie Vander Kerkhof, Vanenburg and Van Tiggelen.Ireland, who included Kevin Sheedy for the first time, played superbly for 45 minutes and goals from Gary Waddock and a penalty from Liam Brady had them firmly in control against a Dutch team that had Gullit playing as sweeper.Second half told a different story. Gullit stepped into midfield to break the control that Ireland had exerted there and they worked effectively down their right wing to punch holes in Ireland's defence. Gullit, Van Basten and Gullit again scored their goals in a game of many highlights.Ireland completed their programme with a home game against Malta and they turned on the style to score a record 8-0 success. Kieran O'Regan was a promising newcomer at right-back and the goals flowed with Mark Lawrenson and Liam Brady scoring two each, Frank Stapleton converted a penalty and further goals came through Kevin O'Callaghan, Kevin Sheedy and Gerry Daly.The shine of their achievement in setting up a record win was dulled by the inability to build on the narrow failure to qualify for the World Cup of 1982.The individual reputations of the Irish squad members were never higher and the failure of the players to turn their collective strength into tangible reward in the form of qualification for the finals of a major championship led to a certain disenchantment amongst the public.It mattered little that Ireland had been victims of a succession of extraordinary and bizarre decisions from referees. The harsh truth was they had come up short with a squad of players that looked comparable to the best.Individually and collectively this was the most highly rated of Ireland's squads and circumstances, injuries to key players and a lack of form had conspired to undermine their prospects of making the breakthrough.This was all the more frustrating because Ireland had players excelling at the top level in their respective leagues. They played pivotal roles in their respective club squads and there were times with Ireland when they combined so effectively as to suggest this Irish team could match the very best. But injuries, suspensions and unpredictable referees conspired to frustrate them.Manager Hand paid a heavy penalty. In the absence of an explanation as to why this did not develop into a golden age for Irish football, the finger of accusation pointed at the manager - justified or not - and his obvious inexperience of management at this level.
5th May 2011