FAI History Chapter 32 - World Cup 1994 final tournament
The prospect of playing in the World Cup finals for the second time was enhanced by the knowledge that the tournament, in 1994, would take place in the USA where so many Irish emigrants were settled.
Jack Charlton and his squad knew their games would be played in stadiums that were guaranteed to be packed by enthusiastic and committed Irish supporters.
The draw ordained they would meet quality opposition in Italy, Mexico and Norway and a captivating competition beckoned.
The entire experience was uplifting from the moment Ireland earned a sensational 1-0 win over Italy in their opening match at the Giants Stadium, New Jersey.
Misgivings, however, were fostered by the knowledge that the matches in New Jersey, Orlando and Washington would be played in extreme summer conditions.
A busy preparatory programme was arranged as Jack Charlton worked on fine-tuning the squad he would take to America.
Ireland opened by playing Russia at Lansdowne Road on March 23rd, 1994. The match was uneventful and ended scoreless but it marked the introduction of three promising youngsters in the 19 years old Gary Kelly, Phil Babb and Jason McAteer.
Ireland confronted opposition of a more talented nature when they travelled to the provincial town of Tilburg to play Netherlands on April 20. Again Charlton started with Gary Kelly and Phil Babb and introduced McAteer for the second half.
Charlton set up his team with five players in midfield and a lone striker in Tommy Coyne. It meant the Dutch had a lot of possession but a stubborn Ireland stood firm and Ireland shocked the home team in the second half with the only goal of the game from Tommy Coyne.
Ireland were at home for a first ever meeting with Bolivia on May 24 and kept their good run going with a 1-0 win before 33,000 fans. The goal came from John Sheridan four minutes from the end and minutes after Bolivia had almost produced a goal of their own.
A worrying feature of the team selection was the absence of Paul McGrath, who was troubled by a shoulder injury. Kevin Moran partnered an emerging international force in Phil Babb in central defence and Packie Bonner made his 72nd appearance in goal to bring him level with Liam Brady as the most capped Irish players.
A trip to Hanover to play Germany on May 29 suggested a still more searching test. This was Germany's last match before the World Cup finals and they were protecting an unbeaten record at home that stretched back six years.
As well it was 34 years since they had lost to Ireland.
The German manager, Berti Vogts, had still in his squad many of the players who had helped Germany win the World Cup in 1990. Rudi Voeller had been absent from the group for a year but he was also included as a substitute against Ireland and made his appearance in the second half.
Charlton chose to rest Bonner in goal and picked Alan Kelly in his place and Paul McGrath made a welcome return. He opted to play Jason McAteer on the right of midfield in place of Ray Houghton and again operated with five players in midfield.
Ireland struggled to contain Germany in the opening half-hour but they struck a substantial blow after 31 minutes when McAteer penetrated on the right before spinning across the centre that was headed in by Tony Cascarino.
Gary Kelly, a half-time replacement for Denis Irwin, drove in a shot that was deflected by a German defender for Ireland's second goal in the 68th minute and Ireland had completed a notable victory.
Expectations were soaring now and it was a confident bunch who faced the Czech Republic at Lansdowne Road on Sunday, June 5, the day before Ireland travelled to Florida to begin their period of acclimatisation. Charlton reverted to a 4-4-2 formation with his team selection with John Aldridge returning to partner Cascarino up front.
This combination did not produce the fireworks expected as a skilful Czech Republic deservedly won the game 3-1. They were helped by a first half goal from a penalty and although Andy Townsend claimed an equaliser with a lucky deflection, the Czechs wrapped up an impressive win with two second half goals.
There were no surprises in Charlton's squad selection of 22 players to travel to America and he included the young trio of Gary Kelly, Phil Babb and Jason McAteer. Their involvement was probably helped by the absence because of injury of David O'Leary and Niall Quinn.
The two weeks Ireland spent preparing in Florida were not without disappointment. Kevin Moran picked up a hamstring injury that meant he played no part in the tournament and when Tony Cascarino suffered a calf-muscle injury, Ireland were justifiably worried.
Charlton always preferred a big target man at centre-forward but with Quinn at home recovering from injury and Cascarino now doubtful, he was left with two recognised strikers in John Aldridge and Tommy Coyne.
As expected Charlton opted for five in midfield for the first match against Italy and rewarded Coyne for his impressive work in training by choosing him to start.
The sun shone from clear blue skies on Saturday, June 18, and the emergence of Ireland on to the pitch at the Giants Stadium, New Jersey, was clearly a cause for celebration.
Irish fans had obviously cornered a vast majority of the available tickets and the players' were met by remarkable scenes as the National colours filled the vast bowl and the fans roared their welcome.
Italy's manager, Arrigo Sacchi, sent out all of his most decorated warriors - Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, Roberto Donadoni, Roberto Baggio, Dino Baggio, Pepe Signori included.
The contest that ensued was memorable for the drama and excitement that kept the 75,000 spectators on tenterhooks in the stifling heat.
Italy initially concentrated their attack on the right flank of Ireland's defence but found Denis Irwin in imperious form. And when, after 11 tense minutes, Irwin advanced to angle a ball across the face of Italy's defence they stumbled.
Baresi, under pressure from Coyne, effected a weak header and Ray Houghton snapped up possession, drifted across the edge of the penalty area and lifted a left-footed shot over the head of goalkeeper Pagliuca, who had been drawn off his goal-line.
Ireland defended heroically for the remainder of the match with Paul McGrath in inspiring form and John Sheridan hugely influential in midfield. Ireland's confident performance almost produced a sensational second goal when Sheridan struck the crossbar but Houghton's goal was a winner.
It was with some misgivings that Ireland contemplated their next match against Mexico six days later for the effort against Italy on a very hot day had obviously taken a toll. As well the match would be played in Orlando, Florida, at mid-day when temperatures of 110 degrees would be experienced.
The heat and humidity were, indeed, overpowering when Friday, June 14, arrived and a number of Ireland's players were moved to wear baseball caps as protection from the sun while the pre-match ceremonies unfolded. And they opened brightly with Tommy Coyne and Andy Townsend delivering threatening strikes at goal in separate incidents.
A very skilful Mexico grew in effect as the heat and humidity inevitably took a toll of Ireland's energy. They opened up the Irish defence with slick passing and quick movement after 43 minutes when Luis Garcia scored with a precise shot from 25 yards that flew beyond Packie Bonner's reach.
Mexico looked to have made victory secure when Garcia again finished a clinical move with a second goal in the 65th minute. Charlton attempted to lift Ireland by sending in Jason McAteer and John Aldridge and Ireland rallied.
McAteer worked room for the cross which Aldridge headed home for a goal which was too late to save the game but would prove critical to Ireland's advancement to the Round of 16.
The other results in the group meant that if Ireland drew with Norway in their third match they would, indeed, advance. But Denis Irwin and Terry Phelan were both out under suspension after two yellow cards and Charlton was subject to disciplinary measures after clashing with a fourth official on the sideline in Orlando.
Charlton was obliged to watch the match against Norway from the grandstand in the Giants Stadium on Tuesday, June 28th, but his absence from the sideline was not damaging.
Ireland comfortably held Norway to a scoreless draw in an uneventful match and so prepared to face Netherlands, again in Orlando, with the winners going forward to play Brazil in Dallas in the quarter-finals.
Ireland were again troubled by the heat and humidity when they played the Dutch on July 4 in the Citrus Bowl and now they faced a very different Netherlands to the team they had beaten in Tilburg just a couple of months previously. Their cause was not helped by the concession of a simple goal after just ten minutes.
Marc Overmars pounced when Terry Phelan attempted to head a ball back to goalkeeper Packie Bonner and quickly intercepted. He reached the end line before crossing for Dennis Bergkamp to head home.
When Wim Jonk's shot from 25 yards slipped through the hands of goalkeeper Bonner for a most uncharacteristic error to leave them two goals in front before half-time, Ireland knew their fate.
Ireland had fallen short in USA '94 of the heights they had reached in Italia '90 and while there were still thousands prepared to come out and welcome the squad home, there was not the same level of excitement or, indeed, satisfaction. Success brings ever higher expectations.