FAI History Chapter 28 – Italia 90 qualifying tournament

FAI History Chapter 28 – Italia 90 qualifying tournament

Ireland's dramatic first qualification for the World Cup finals ... 
11th May 2011


Ireland's vibrant challenge in the UEFA Championship of 1988 meant the game reached a new level of popularity in the country. Football was suddenly fashionable, the management and players were ‘personalities'.

The qualifying competition for the World Cup of 1990 in Italy was awaited with impatience especially when the draw placed Ireland in a group with Spain, Hungary, Northern Ireland and Malta.

The top two teams after a round robin series of matches, home and away, would qualify for the final tournament.

It was evident that Ireland faced a difficult challenge for Spain had proved something of a nemesis in previous championships and two matches against Northern Ireland were inevitably going to prove very challenging.

The continuing troubles in the North caused both the FAI and IFA to decide sensibly to play their contest in Belfast at the start of the qualifying tournament.

Ireland had to plan without goalkeeper Packie Bonner and centre-forward Frank Stapleton because of injury and they were replaced by Gerry Peyton and Tony Cascarino.

Northern Ireland were going through a lean period but with Billy Bingham in charge and players like Martin O'Neill, Mal Donaghy and Nigel Worthington in the team, they clearly represented a threat.

The match was played on Wednesday, September 14, 1988 and ended, somewhat predictably, in a scoreless draw. Both goalkeepers had been tested and while Ireland were the more balanced and impressive team, there was little to choose between them on the run of play.

Ireland prepared for a match away to Spain two months later by playing Tunisia in a friendly at Lansdowne Road on October 19. The match was promoted as a benefit for the retiring FAI secretary, Peadar O'Driscoll, who had filled that office since 1969.

He was replaced by Dr. Tony O'Neill who served the FAI superbly as administrator and legislator in a career that was, sadly, cut short by his premature death.

Dr. O'Neill was behind the entry of UCD into the League of Ireland, introduced football scholarships for promising young players and was advancing swiftly as an officer with UEFA until his premature death.

Dr. O'Neill was secretary to the FAI for just three years but he presided over a tumultuous period of expansion as the success of the senior international team led to spectacular growth in the numbers playing and following the game.

The match against Tunisia marked the debut of Stephen Staunton at senior international level. Staunton, born in Drogheda and a full-back with a top-class Liverpool team, went on to amass a record total of 102 international caps for Ireland and then he managed the International squad in 2006/'07.

Pat Scully, then with Arsenal, also made his debut against Tunisia and a free-scoring performance by Ireland, as they scored a 4-0 win, will be remembered as the match in which John Aldridge scored his first goal for Ireland.

Aldridge, a prolific scoring centre-forward with Newport County, Oxford United and Liverpool, had played 19 international matches without a goal, largely because of the system favoured by Jack Charlton. Once he made the breakthrough, he scored regularly and finished with 19 goals in 69 matches for Ireland.

The assignment in Seville on November 16, 1988, represented a huge challenge for Ireland. It was further complicated by a large number of absentees for Chris Hughton, Paul McGrath, Ronnie Whelan, Kevin Sheedy and Frank Stapleton were ruled out by injuries.

The loss of McGrath from central midfield caused the manager to move Kevin Moran into that holding role he viewed as critically important and to fill the gap alongside Mick McCarthy he recalled David O'Leary for his first match under Charlton. The Arsenal defender had paid a heavy price for opting out of the tournament in Iceland that marked Charlton's first assignment two years previously.

Ireland were not a match for Spain and Packie Bonner had to perform wonders to keep them at bay for 52 minutes. Then Manola scored at the second attempt after Bonner had parried his first effort and Butragueno had a second thirteen minutes later. The loss of points meant there was no room for error if Ireland were to get their challenge back on track.

The match against Spain also showed that Charlton's squad was lacking depth and when France visited for a friendly in February 1989 the squad was further extended to accommodate Andy Townsend in midfield.

Townsend was a cockney-born player with Norwich City who had Irish ancestry and he offered a substantial contribution to the growing strength of the squad.

Frank Stapleton was back after injury for his first game since the UEFA Championship. He was now playing with Le Havre but despite the parade of quality players on show and the expectant atmosphere generated by a large attendance at Dalymount Park, the match proved a disappointment and endless scoreless.

Ireland set out a month later to play Hungary in the championship in Budapest on March 8th, 1989, with just one point from two matches. Their situation was precarious for another defeat would surely bury any hopes they had of snaring one of the two qualifying positions.

Ireland were encouraged by the return of their injured players and they showed much improved form as they picked up a precious point from talented opposition.

Kevin Moran was back in his preferred position at centre-back and Ireland might well have won the match but for good goalkeeping by Hungary's Disztl.

Two points from three matches was not enough to excite, but close observers could see Ireland growing in strength as the players grew into Charlton's methods and new players arrived. Spain's visit to Lansdowne Road on April 26, 1989, offered the squad the opportunity to confirm that.

Chris Hughton switched flanks to replace the injured Chris Morris and Steve Staunton came in to fill the left-back position. Frank Stapleton replaced John Aldridge at centre-forward from the team that had played in the Nep Stadium and Ireland played with real purpose and confidence.

Paul McGrath and Ronnie Whelan battled to control midfield and with the packed stadium willing Ireland on they exerted great pressure on Spain.

The early drive paid off as Michel stretched to cut off a ball heading for Stapleton, and had the misfortune to turn it into his own net within fifteen minutes of kick-off.

The result meant that Ireland were now back in the fight for World Cup qualification and the fans looked forward eagerly to end of season qualifying games against Malta and Hungary in Dublin.

Malta were despatched 2-0 on May 28 and while the performance was not exceptional the importance of the win was underlined when Ireland beat Hungary 2-0 on June 4, 1989.

Ireland were now in a strong position but also knew they needed to win both of their remaining qualifying matches if they were to qualify for Italy and the 1990 finals.

They were scheduled to play in Dublin against Northern Ireland and Hungary and a friendly against West Germany at Lansdowne Road on September 6 was the perfect preparation.

The composition of the squad was undergoing major change at this time with three Irish superstars approaching the end of their careers - Liam Brady, Frank Stapleton and David O'Leary. They had been used as back-up players in the qualifying tournament to this point but Charlton named all three in the team to play Germany.

Ireland drew the match 1-1 after Frank Stapleton had equalled Don Givens' record total of 19 international goals by scoring after just ten minutes.

The result and Stapleton's achievement were rendered largely unimportant after Charlton had substituted Brady as early as the 35th minute and also withdrew Stapleton after 74 minutes.

Brady, despite his distinction in the game, had been a magnificent servant to Ireland and would have deserved a more sympathetic finale. Throughout his brilliant career, he had never failed to report for duty for friendly as well as competitive matches, an attitude that contrasted hugely with the selective approach of some lesser international players in later years.

There were reports of a row in the Irish dressing-room as Brady expressed his dis-satisfaction with the manager's decision but he was to play only one more time for Ireland, when he lined out in his own testimonial match against Finland.

O'Leary was the only one of this special trio to experience action when the World Cup campaign was resumed with a match against Northern Ireland at Lansdowne Road on October 11, 1989. And he only played from the 77th minute when he came in as replacement for Steve Staunton.

Ireland were outplayed early in the game as Northern Ireland, with nothing to lose, drew inspiration from the atmosphere in a crowded and tense stadium. They created and lost match-winning opportunities in this period.

Ireland seemed nervous, in contrast, but when Ronnie Whelan struck on a punched clearance from George Dunlop to steer a shot to the back of the net after 42 minutes of play Ireland were suddenly emboldened.

They played well in the second half and further goals from Tony Cascarino and Ray Houghton emphasised Ireland's superiority.

Now only Malta stood between Ireland and a place in the finals and as Ireland travelled to play in the Ta'Qali Stadium, Valletta, on November 15, 1989, they did not need reminding of an unhappy previous visit in 1983 when Ireland needed an injury time goal from Frank Stapleton to win.

There was no such worries on this occasion, however, as John Aldridge headed home Ireland's opening goal - only his second in 28 appearances - and then claimed a second in the 67th minute when he converted a penalty after Andy Townsend had been tripped.

Ireland, finally and triumphantly, had qualified for the biggest tournament of all for the first time. The heartache and disappointment that had consistently attended Ireland's qualifying tournaments over 55 years of competition were forgotten in the joy of success as Italy suddenly became the focus of all things Irish.