FAI History Chapter 26 - The European Championship 1988
FAI History Chapter 26 - The European Championship 1988
Jack Charlton blew across the face of Irish football with the explosive impact of a tsunami.
He presided over the affairs of the Republic of Ireland's national team with the certainty of a supreme court judge.
The fortunes of the team were transformed on his watch. In Irish terms he split the footballing atom for he led Ireland for the first time to the finals of a major championship.
He reigned for ten eventful years and fostered a culture of winning that was so strong, and inflated ambition so high, that failure to survive subsequent European Championship and World Cup qualifying tournaments provoked public crises.
The beginning on March 26, 1986, was inauspicious. Ireland lost 0-1 to Wales in a friendly at Lansdowne Road after a fragmented, unconvincing performance. Subsequent events showed, however, the match was to have a profound influence on Ireland's evolution under Charlton.
One of Charlton's first assignments as manager of Ireland was to see Oxford United in action in the League Cup final at Wembley. He had been advised they had a striker, John Aldridge, who was eligible for Ireland and had showed exciting potential.
Charlton recruited Aldridge immediately after the match and also secured the commitment of his team-mate, Ray Houghton, who was another eligible through his Irish forebears. Both wore the green shirt for the first time against Wales.
A month later, on April 23, 1986, Uruguay visited Lansdowne Road. They were preparing for the World Cup finals in Mexico and were held to a 1-1 draw by an experimental Irish team lacking the unavailable David O'Leary, Kevin Moran and Paul McGrath.
Next up for Ireland was a triangular tournament involving Iceland and Czechoslovakia in Reykjavik. Ireland won the tournament and secured their first wins under Charlton by beating Iceland 2-1 and Czechoslovakia 1-0.
The tournament had another, more enduring, consequence. Charlton revealed his squad for the tournament with a rider attached - that he wished to experiment. He did not include the experienced Arsenal defender, David O'Leary.
Complications for Charlton arose when the Liverpool trio, Mark Lawrenson, Jim Beglin and Ronnie Whelan withdrew. He returned to Arsenal but O'Leary informed him he had booked a family holiday and was not available. Two years would pass before Charlton would knock on his door again.
The goals in two difficult matches were scored by Paul McGrath, Gerry Daly and Frank Stapleton. And in the course of the opening match against Iceland, Charlton introduced Niall Quinn for his first cap.
The ‘feel-good' factor after a first-ever international tournament success was tempered when the draw for the European Championship in Germany in 1988 was made. Ireland were faced with playing Belgium, Bulgaria, Scotland and Luxembourg in a highly competitive group with only one to qualify.
History offered Ireland little encouragement. They had beaten Bulgaria only once in four matches, had beaten Belgium only once in six meetings since 1949 and had lost twice to Scotland 4-1 in Hampden and 3-0 in Dublin in the 1962 World Cup.
Belgium reached the semi-finals of the World Cup in Mexico and three months later Ireland opened their European Championship challenge by travelling to the Heysel Stadium, Brussels on September 10, 1986.
This represented a first forensic examination of Charlton's re-built team and they passed with flying colours. Belgium led 2-1 after Frank Stapleton had scored for Ireland. In the dying moments of a hugely competitive encounter, Liam Brady stepped up to convert a penalty and secure a precious point.
Ireland's spirited performance had far-reaching consequences, not least sparking a new sense of ambition that swept through Ireland's fan-base. More than 50,000 of them brought colour and atmosphere to Lansdowne Road for the game against Scotland five weeks later, on October 15, 1986.
The contest was something of an anti-climax. Ireland showed three changes from Belgium with Mick McCarthy in for Mark Lawrenson, Jim Beglin for Chris Hughton and Kevin Sheedy for Tony Galvin.
Sheedy missed the best scoring chance of a game that ended scoreless. Scotland goalkeeper Jim Leighton could only parry a shot from Ray Houghton but Sheedy's effort from the rebound did not carry enough power to beat Alan Hansen on the goal-line.
Ireland's players were still familiarising themselves with Charlton's preferred tactical plan and their inability to score confirmed they still had work to do. This was emphasised when they travelled to Poland for a friendly on November 12, 1986, and lost 0-1.
Now Ireland had to travel to Glasgow to face Scotland on February 18, 1987, and again their championship prospects were very much on the line. The portents were not encouraging for Ireland had three full-backs unavailable because of injury - David Langan, Jim Beglin and Chris Hughton.
Charlton was obliged to improvise with his team selection. He played Paul McGrath at right-back and Ronnie Whelan at left-back to complement centre-backs Mick McCarthy and Kevin Moran. The defensive screen was locked by Mark Lawrenson in central midfield.
Charlton's unusual deployment of his resources was a resounding success.
Scotland were held scoreless and Ireland won a critical match when they scored after just six minutes. The outstanding Lawrenson broke forward onto a quickly-taken free from Aldridge to race through the centre of Scotland's defence and beat Jim Leighton.
The beneficial effects of this unexpected win cannot be over-stated. A talented Irish squad were given reason to believe they could cope with any challenge, their belief in Charlton's methods was cemented and the trust between manager and players emboldened.
Six weeks later they travelled to Sofia to play Bulgaria on April 1, 1987 in the Vasil Levski Stadium, a venue that held no warm memories for the Irish. Rather were their memories shaped by repeated disappointment, if not dis-illusionment. An international manager, not of Ireland, was once moved to observe: "You are not allowed to win here !"
Ireland, as ever, were denied a full complement because of injury. This time it was Mark Lawrenson's turn to drop out but Ireland travelled with confidence high. And on a wet and windy day they coped with growing conviction with Bulgaria's challenge until the 40th minute when Sadkov put Bulgaria ahead.
Ireland drove forward in search of an equaliser from the start of the second half and Frank Stapleton volleyed a goal within six minutes. Now Ireland sensed an upset win and they pushed on only to be caught by a sucker punch with nine minutes left. Kevin Moran was penalised and Tanev converted the penalty.
Ireland could take satisfaction from their confident performance but the loss of points now meant their situation was critical. Nothing less than full points from the home games against Belgium and Bulgaria would keep them in the contest for the qualifying spot.
Belgium were first in line on April 29, 1987. More than 44,000 supporters rolled up to Lansdowne Road but, once again, the level of entertainment fell short of what was expected. Liam Brady lost the best chance of the game after just seven minutes and the game petered out to a scoreless draw.
Ireland's programme of matches produced the perfect antidote to the inevitable sense of disappointment with Brazil arriving in Dublin for the first time on May 23, 1987. Ireland had lost to Brazil in Uberlandia 0-7 in 1982 in a hastily arranged tour and three of that team were available to Charlton - Liam Brady, John Anderson and Kevin O'Callaghan.
Brady, now back in the English League with West Ham after a magnificent career in Italy, was particularly moved by the challenge presented by the distinguished visitors and he celebrated with a goal after 23 minutes. It was his last goal for Ireland in a record 72nd appearance and was enough to win the game.
The break from the intensely competitive schedule was welcome and Ireland could now, with justification, look forward to two matches against Luxembourg with belief in their ability to take full points. The first match in Luxembourg was disputed before 4,000 spectators but Ireland rose above the lack of atmosphere to hit two goals through Tony Galvin and Ronnie Whelan.
The return match, on September 9, was not as routine. A shot from Krings after 29 minutes that beat goalkeeper Gerry Peyton - playing his first international in 18 months - caused the problem. Happily Frank Stapleton equalised within two minutes but Ireland had to wait for Paul McGrath to produce an exceptional goal from 20 yards sixteen minutes from time to win the game.
The points were welcome but still Ireland's position in the championship table was precarious. Bulgaria were in control of the group and had matches in Dublin and at home to Scotland to finish their programme. A point from either game would see them top the group.
Ireland's fluctuating fortunes had left their fans resigned to missing the conclusion of yet another championship. Top spot now looked out of reach and, in consequence, only 26,000 attended Lansdowne Road on October 14, 1987 to see Bulgaria chase the point they needed to qualify for the finals in Germany.
As ever, with Bulgaria, Ireland were drawn into an abrasive, physical, contest that finally reached a peak in the 85th minute when Liam Brady was sent off. He was booked after being provoked into retaliation against Sadkov in an incident which spoiled his and Ireland's a splendid performance. Ireland's 2-0 win was to prove priceless.
Paul McGrath scored Ireland's first goal in the 52nd minute and when Kevin Moran powerfully headed a second Irish goal eight minutes from time, their victory was assured. They had dealt bravely and skilfully with Bulgaria's powerful challenge.
Israel travelled to Dublin the following month before the UEFA qualifying programme was concluded and Ireland's fate was settled. Their visit marked the introduction of another player new to international football in David Kelly and he celebrated by scoring three goals. With further goals from John Byrne and Niall Quinn, Ireland's fans had much to enjoy.
Jack Charlton must have been encouraged by Ireland's improving form but even as they dismissed Israel, Ireland were looking ahead to the meeting of Bulgaria and Scotland in Sofia on the following day. Bulgaria were fully expected to settle the issue of which team would qualify from Group 7.
Their record in Sofia was virtually without flaw and, to compound matters from an Irish point of view, Scotland had nothing save pride to play for. But what was deemed improbable became an unexpected reality when Bulgaria, secure in the knowledge that a draw would suffice, were seduced by a feeling of over-confidence.
They behaved as if they needed only to go through the motions and were then caught disastrously by a sucker punch as Gary Mackay snatched a late winning goal for Scotland.
The effect was to leave Ireland as winners of the section and qualifiers for the first time for the finals of the UEFA Championship. History was made and Jack Charlton secured for himself a place that ensured he will forever be an iconic figure in Irish sport.