FAI History Chapter 31 - World Cup 1994 qualifying tournament
Jack Charlton sought to flush away the negative legacy of the failed bid to reach the UEFA Championship finals of 1992 in Sweden by embarking upon a busy schedule of matches in preparation for the 1994 World Cup.
The draw had not been kind to Ireland. They were in a seven-team group alongside Spain, Denmark, Northern Ireland, Albania, Lithuania and Latvia with the top two to qualify for the World Cup finals of 1994 in the USA.
The level of competition that could have been anticipated was elevated above all expectations by Denmark's heroics. Denmark had failed to qualify for the finals of the UEFA Championship of 1992 but they were included as a late replacement for Yugoslavia, a country in turmoil because of a disastrous war.
Denmark called their players back from holiday two weeks before kick-off and confounded all predictions by marching proudly to the final to oppose Germany. Not content with that, they proceeded to out-play the Germans and won 2-0 in Gothenburg.
Ireland played three friendly matches before they opened their World Cup qualifying tournament against Albania. They played Wales, Switzerland and the USA in Dublin in the early months of 1992.
The match against Wales created a little history for it was the first international played in the Royal Dublin Showgrounds in Ballsbridge.
The venue had been developed for other sports entirely and was not ideal for a football international. Wales did nothing to alleviate Irish misgivings by winning 1-0 with a goal from Mark Pembridge in the 70th minute.
Ireland played Switzerland at Lansdowne Road in March and Charlton welcomed back Ronnie Whelan after 16 months of absence from the squad because of injuries. Whelan's first contribution of note was unsettling for he deflected a Swiss free past goalkeeper Packie Bonner.
Ireland struck back within two minutes when Celtic's Tommy Coyne scored on his debut. Coyne was born in Glasgow of Irish ancestry. His first international goal was taken in some style and Ireland went on to win with a goal two minutes from time from John Aldridge.
The visit of the USA in April, 1992, saw Coyne included in the team instead of John Aldridge and other newcomers to see action were Eddie McGoldrick and two substitutes, Mike Milligan and Brian Carey, who had been signed by Manchester United from Cork City three years previously.
Ireland dominated the game and won comfortably 4-1. Goals came from Andy Townsend, Denis Irwin, Niall Quinn and Tony Cascarino. And the FAI announced after the game they would take part in a new US Cup tournament for the first time in June, 1992.
The World Cup campaign opened before then, on Tuesday, May 26 when Albania provided the opposition at Lansdowne Road. Albania were so impoverished that they arrived without playing kit and with only nine senior players. They filled out a squad of 16 by calling up players from the U21 squad who had played Ireland U21 on the previous night.
Ireland had to work hard to break down the stubborn resistance they encountered but their 2-0 win was comfortable with John Aldridge and Paul McGrath claiming the goals in the closing half-hour.
The following day Ireland's squad left for Washington and the US Cup. They were to join the USA, Italy and Portugal in a tournament designed to offer American organisers experience of a major football occasion before they hosted the World Cup finals of 1994.
Ireland paid the penalty for approaching the tournament in a too relaxed frame of mind. They scored first against the USA through Mick McCarthy but were then swept aside by an enthusiastic home team in the RFK Stadium in Washington and were beaten soundly 3-1.
Ireland travelled to Boston to play Italy on June 4 at the Foxboro Stadium in the knowledge they had never beaten Italy in 60 years of trying. There was no joy for them on this occasion.
Goalkeeper Packie Bonner was sent off for the only time in his career for what was interpreted as a professional foul on Signori, the Italian centre-forward. Signori had already given Italy a lead and the resultant penalty was converted by Costacurta as Italy won 2-0.
This Irish squad was totally unaccustomed to losing two games in a row and a council of war was called before the final game against Portugal, which was set for the Foxboro Stadium on June 7, 1992.
Ireland were in much more competitive mode and duly won the match convincingly on a 2-0 scoreline. The goals came from Steve Staunton and Tommy Coyne.
The result did much to revive Irish confidence and they carried that memory into the World Cup qualifying match against Latvia at Lansdowne Road on September 9, 1992. Ireland took a while to strike the required level but they eventually won easily, 4-0 with John Aldridge claiming a hat-trick that included a goal from a penalty and another goal from Kevin Sheedy.
The quality of the World Cup challenge was brought into sharp focus for the Irish as they looked ahead to away matches against Denmark and Spain in the following months. The timing of the matches were in sync with Jack Charlton's desire to face their toughest tests in the opening half of the club season, when players were still fresh.
The game against Denmark in Copenhagen on October 14 came at a bad time, however, for Steve Staunton and Paul McGrath were both ruled out by injuries. Alan Kernaghan was nominated as Kevin Moran's partner in central defence and Eddie McGoldrick played on the left of midfield.
The signs were not encouraging as Ireland faced the newly crowned European champions but the essential qualities of Charlton's resourceful squad were soon evident. They offered Denmark such high-powered resistance that goalkeeper Bonner had a relatively comfortable outing in a game that ended scoreless.
Seville was the next port of call and a highly ambitious Irish squad faced Spain on November 18 in a stadium that fairly rocked under the weight of a capacity attendance. Ireland recalled the fit again Paul McGrath and Steve Staunton as they set about improving a dismal record that had seen Ireland lose seven consecutive matches in Spain since their sole success in Madrid in 1946.
The rain fell in torrents throughout as the contest grew in intensity and excitement. The degree of competitiveness was reflected in the demands placed upon the referee who saw reason to book three players inside the first twenty minutes. It was evident to everyone, however, that Ireland were growing in effect and ambition as the game aged.
John Aldridge looked set to claim the opening goal as he burst clear in the second half only to be tripped a couple of yards outside the penalty area. The foul was so significant that the referee showed a red card to the perpetrator, Lopez, but the free yielded no joy as Denis Irwin's strike came back off the wall of defenders.
Then the Irish were convinced they were set to take a welcome victory when Aldridge took a pass from Niall Quinn in his stride in the 72nd minute and fired the ball into the net. The Irish were infuriated when the referee responded to an offside call from the linesman and ruled the goal out, a decision that was questionable even on video replay.
Two draws from the two most difficult assignments in the qualification series was still a satisfactory return and it was an ebullient Irish squad that faced Wales in another friendly on February 17, 1993. This game was played at Tolka Park and goals from Kevin Sheedy and Tommy Coyne in the closing 15 minutes saw Ireland wipe out an early goal for Wales from Mark Hughes.
World Cup action returned to Lansdowne Road on March 31 when Northern Ireland travelled to Dublin. And they were duly out-played as Ireland won 3-0 with goals from Andy Townsend, Niall Quinn and Steve Staunton in the opening half of the game.
The sequence of results in a hugely competitive group meant that every point and every goal carried significance and when Denmark opposed Ireland at Lansdowne Road on April 28, it was clear the result would be critical to the final placings. It was no surprise that the contest was disputed with huge commitment.
Ireland were rocked when Denmark jumped in front after 26 minutes when Kim Vilfort snapped up a weak clearance from Paul McGrath and chipped the ball over goalkeeper Packie Bonner's head. Ireland were mightily relieved when Niall Quinn finally produced an equaliser with 16 minutes left with a near post header that beat the outstanding Peter Schmeichel in Denmark's goal.
The result was not the one Ireland had hoped for but was very acceptable under the circumstances. And Ireland looked ahead to three consecutive away matches against Albania, Latvia and Lithuania in expectation of accumulating maximum points to strengthen their claims for qualification.
Ireland took the precaution of taking their own food and provisions to Tirana when they visited Albania after hearing reports from Northern Ireland of the impoverished nature of that country. And stay-at-home Irish fans were obliged for the first time to pay to watch the game on TV as the national broadcaster, RTE, failed to secure rights to show the game.
The match was played on May 26, 1993 and Ireland found Albania troublesome opposition, as they had been in Dublin. And their cause was not helped when Albania snatched a lead goal after only seven minutes when Kushta out-paced the defenders before beating goalkeeper Packie Bonner.
Ireland were level five minutes later when Steve Staunton spotted a gap in the Albania wall of defenders and scored from a free kick. A stubborn and defensive Albania defied Ireland until the 77th minute when substitute Tony Cascarino turned in a header from Staunton's corner for a goal that stood despite Albania claims that their goalkeeper had been impeded.
It is an historical fact that Ireland have never been at their best near the end of the club season for very obvious reasons. The Irish players had played seven internationals in the space of twelve months after returning from their visit to the USA in 1992 and after a long club season they were showing signs of weariness.
Two matches in June 1993 against Latvia and Lithuania meant their summer holidays would be foreshortened and after the difficulties experienced in Albania, it was with some caution that Ireland faced Latvia on June 9 in Riga. A goal from John Aldridge after 14 minutes eased Irish worries and Paul McGrath ensured a win with a second before half-time.
Lithuania proved much more tenacious opponents a week later in Vilnius in the first international between the two countries. It developed into a hard, physical battle and Ireland prevailed when Steve Staunton produced the only goal, a shot from a free kick in the 40th minute that was deflected past the goalkeeper.
This highly satisfactory series of results meant that Ireland now topped the qualification table and a two point advantage suggested that two points from their final matches at home to Spain and away to Northern Ireland would clinch qualification. They faced Spain at Lansdowne Road on October 13, 1993, keen to defeat the top seeds and book their place for the USA finals early.
Ireland's prospects seemed to have been improved when the match kicked-off on a wet, miserable afternoon for surely they were more familiar with and better suited to coping with the conditions. Not so as Spain responded to the difficulties they faced in qualifying for the World Cup finals by producing a vigorous and skilful challenge that enabled them inflict upon Ireland a first competitive defeat in eight years in Dublin.
A goal after twelve minutes was hugely encouraging for Spain as Jose Caminero punished a slack Irish defence. Worse followed as Jose Salinas turned inside an attempted tackle from Alan Kernaghan four minutes later and squeezed a shot past goalkeeper Packie Bonner from a narrow angle.
To suggest Ireland were shell-shocked is an understatement and their efforts to retrieve the situation were firmly countered by a confident Spain. Kernaghan hit the crossbar with a header but Salinas took advantage of another defensive mistake to claim a third for Spain to put the result beyond doubt.
John Sheridan claimed a goal for Ireland as time ran out and at that moment it seemed nothing more significant than a consolation goal. Later events would underline just how important that late goal was for Ireland as the qualification process was finalised.
This result meant that the two qualification places were still open as the final series of games took place on November 17, 1993. Ireland made the short journey to Belfast's Windsor Park knowing that a match in Seville between Spain and Denmark was also of critical importance.
Ireland needed to win for a first time in Windsor Park if they were to be certain of qualifying and the inevitable tension of such a contest was hardly eased by the unsettled background of the political situation that still prevailed in Ulster. Indeed so concerned were the civic authorities that there was talk of transferring the game to England for the safety of all concerned.
A major security operation was mounted for the match and supporters of the Republic's team were excluded as a further precaution. The atmosphere of raw sectarianism in the stadium was flagrantly hostile and it was in this totally foreign environment that one of the most emotional and dramatic contests of the World Cup unfolded.
Kick-off in Seville and in Belfast were timed to coincide and a tough and demanding match in Windsor Park was well advanced and still scoreless when word came through that Spain had taken a lead against Denmark.
Soon afterwards Northern Ireland punched a hole in the Republic's ambitions as Jimmy Quinn scored a spectacular goal with a shot from outside the penalty area. There were just 16 minutes left and Ireland faced elimination from the tournament.
Happily for Ireland there emerged a surprise hero in the person of Alan McLoughlin. He had been introduced as substitute minutes before Northern Ireland's goal for his first competitive appearance in two years.
He conjured up an historic goal three minutes after Quinn's strike when he snapped up a poor clearance and scored powerfully from 25 yards.
The silence in Windsor Park was eerie but South of the border Ireland's fans celebrated joyously as, once again, qualification was brought into sharp focus. Spain held on in Seville to win 1-0 and clinch top spot in the group.
Ireland's draw left them level on points with Denmark and level also on plus 13 goal difference behind winners Spain. Ireland enjoyed an advantage in the number of goals scored, however, for they had 19 to Denmark's 15 and so it was they who were qualified in second place for the World Cup finals in the USA.
When Ireland returned in the early hours of the morning from Belfast, there were 10,000 delighted fans at Dublin Airport to share in their celebration.