FAI History Chapter 27 – Finals UEFA Championship 1988
Ireland's participation in the final tournament of the 1988 UEFA Championship was all the more remarkable because it was contested only by eight teams - the top seven qualifiers and the hosts, Germany.
To earn a place amongst such a tiny elite was a major achievement in itself.
Ireland's experiences in that spectacular summer festival of football will forever remain a magical memory for the thousands who travelled to Germany in support of the squad and the rapt fans at home.
The efforts of Jack Charlton's likely lads so captivated the Irish that life came to a virtual standstill when they played their matches. Ireland, the country, took on a mardi gras appearance with the streets of every village, town and city decorated in the national colours.
Hotels and public houses scrambled to instal large TV screens for the live telecasts of the matches. Entertainment programmes were devised around the matches and the carnival spirit infected young and old as the public dressed up in fans' gear to enjoy the many promotions.
Ireland had never enjoyed a country-wide sports carnival like this in its history, never experienced such an upsurge in patriotic pride and never celebrated the achievements of the national team as joyously or as enthusiastically.
The build-up to the final tournament was memorable as Ireland engaged in friendly matches against four opponents, won three of the matches convincingly and drew the other. Romania were beaten 2-0, Yugoslavia 2-0 and Poland 3-1 in Dublin. Ireland drew a scoreless game with Norway in Oslo.
The demand for match tickets for the opening match of the final tournament against England in Stuttgart on June 12, 1988, was insatiable.
Supporters used every mode of transport to get to Germany and they infused a magnificent celebration of top-class football with their own unique party spirit over a memorable seven days of competition.
Ireland, the team, took inspiration from the atmosphere created by the colourful fans and played some of the most dynamic football ever seen from a team in green. They bravely battled to within eight minutes of qualifying for the semi-finals after three marvellous matches against top-class opposition.
This was all the more praiseworthy because Ireland were robbed of two of their finest players. Liam Brady was injured in a club match for West Ham while Mark Lawrenson damaged his knee playing for Liverpool and both had to miss the tournament. The injuries effectively brought two distinguished international careers to an end.
In spite of that, Ireland started in spectacular style, beating England 1-0 in Stuttgart with a goal headed past goalkeeper Peter Shilton by Ray Houghton.
The game was in its fifth minute when Houghton headed one of the most famous goals in Ireland's history and a thrilling substance was given to Ireland's Championship challenge.
Ireland had to withstand prolonged periods of English pressure and goalkeeper Packie Bonner was obliged to perform wonders in goal but, when the final whistle confirmed Ireland's win, an estimated 15,000 fans in the stadium went wild. And their celebrations were vibrantly echoed by the cheering thousands at home.
The team that represented Ireland in that historic first match at a major finals tournament was:
Packie Bonner (Celtic); Chris Morris (Celtic), Mick McCarthy (Celtic), Kevin Moran (Manchester Utd), Chris Hughton ('Spurs); Ray Houghton (Liverpool), Paul McGrath (Manchester Utd), Ronnie Whelan (Liverpool), Tony Galvin (Sheffield Wednesday); Frank Stapleton (Derby County, Captain), John Aldridge (Liverpool). Subs; Niall Quinn (Arsenal) for Stapleton 63, Kevin Sheedy (Everton) for Galvin 76 mins.
Now it was on to a match against the Soviet Union in Hanover on June 15 and Ireland's hopes were dealt a blow when McGrath was forced to opt out because of on-going knee problems.
Jack Charlton remained true to form by acting unpredictably in selecting a replacement, for he picked Kevin Sheedy, a natural left-winger, in central midfield alongside Whelan.
Charlton's penchant for playing his men out of position appeared eccentric to the more conservative. His deployment of players in this way invariably worked successfully, not least because he was dealing with generously gifted players of experience and skill.
The performance against the Soviet Union was near perfection. Ireland struck a peak that night and produced football that was hugely skilful and dynamic.
Tony Galvin set the standard on the left wing and Ireland worked smoothly, cohesively and powerfully to dominate a Soviet team that contained nine Dynamo Kiev players fabled for their team-work.
Ronnie Whelan illustrated Ireland's superiority when he volleyed the opening goal of the game past Dasayev after 39 minutes. But they failed to convert several other scoring chances and were caught when Oleg Protasov snatched an equalising goal in the 74th minute.
Now Netherlands stood between Ireland and a place in the semi-finals of the tournament. When they lined up in Gelsenkirchen on June 18, Ireland did so confident in the knowledge that a draw would be sufficient to send them on.
For once, Ireland's army of approximately 15,000 was overshadowed by an estimated 40,000 Dutch fans clothed from head to foot in orange. The match was played in glorious sunshine and the stadium rocked to the boisterous atmosphere generated by the two sets of supporters.
A relationship was established on that afternoon between the Irish and Dutch that helped cement life-long friendships. Subsequent matches between the two have always echoed the spirit of camaraderie that made it such an enjoyable experience and part of the reason was the quality of the match produced by two talented teams.
The Dutch were powered by legendary figures like Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit, the Koeman brothers and Frank Rijkaard. And Ireland were again back to strength with Paul McGrath returning in place of Sheedy, who had done such a good job against the Soviet Union.
The Netherlands enjoyed a majority of possession but were defied by a resolute Irish defence. And it was Ireland who were presented with the first genuine scoring chance after 14 minutes.
McGrath was afforded a clear header at goal from eight yards following Ray Houghton's corner kick. Sadly, McGrath's header came back off an upright and subsequent events showed this was symptomatic of Ireland's experiences on this day.
The match was scoreless with eight minutes left to play when Ireland's world collapsed as the Dutch grabbed an extraordinary goal.
Ronald Koeman's attempted shot was mis-hit and the ball spun off his boot to where substitute Wim Kieft, with his back to goal, deflected it with his head towards the posts.
The ball was angled wide of goalkeeper Bonner and of the posts but when it bounced it spun wickedly off the turf and turned behind the goalkeeper and inches inside the upright.
Such cruel misfortune was hard to bear for Ireland were out after performing heroically over the three matches. The measure of their performances was highlighted when two of their opponents, Netherlands and the Soviet Union, duly qualified for the final.
Netherlands went on to lift the UEFA Championship thanks to a magnificent goal from Van Basten.
Ireland deserved generous praise for the strength of their challenge, for the courage and skill they showed against the top teams in Europe and for the good-natured, enthusiastic support offered by their army of fans.
The squad and management team returned to Dublin to a hero's welcome as they rode in an open-top bus through streets that were crowded with cheering fans celebrating a memorable week of sporting excellence.