Being placed in the same group Spain, Italy and Croatia, can be a nightmarish prospect for any team but it will be unwise to rule out Giovanni Trapattoni’s Republic of Ireland team from the race just yet. The Irish have a strange knack of negotiating tough groups. Let us take a look at five such famous and spirited performances showed by Ireland against more hallowed opponents.
Belgium 2-2 Republic of Ireland (10th September 1986, Euro Qualifier)
The year was 1986. The first computer virus had made its presence known; UK and France were pondering about construction of the Channel Tunnel and Dire Straits had just released Brothers in Arms, jump starting the compact disc revolution. In February, the same year Jack Charlton, a Leeds and England legend was appointed as new manager of the Rep. of Ireland football team. It was a surprising decision for many with the Irish Times exclaiming “Charlton is shock choice”. Only three newspaper representatives showed up for his first press conference and they left no chance to grill him. It was expected that Bob Paisley will be taking over and Charlton was an underwhelming choice. How that decision would change Irish football!
Despite a victory in a tri-nation tournament in Iceland, little was expected when Ireland travelled to Belgium in their opening Euro ’88 qualifying match. Just four months before, the Red Devils had waltzed to the semi-final of the World Cup after knocking out USSR and Spain. On the night, Belgium took the lead through Nico Claesen in the 14th minute. Just four minutes later, Frank Stapleton’s shot was blocked by the Belgian defence, only to fall to Tony Galvin on the left-wing. Galvin’s pin point cross was spectacularly headed in by a diving Stapleton to make it 1-1.
When Enzo Scifo put the home team 2-1 ahead on 69th minute, it looked like Ireland’s fight was up. In the last minute, a desperate through-pass released Stapleton. Legendary ‘keeper Jean-Marie Pfaff tripped him on the edge of the box, handing Ireland a crucial spot kick. Liam Brady, arguably the greatest Irish player of all times, stepped up to take a penalty kick in the same ground where he had missed a penalty for Arsenal in the Cup Winners’ Cup final in 1980. Brady kept his head, like he had while handing Juventus the Scudetto a few seasons before by converting a last match penalty, and made the score 2-2 with last kick of the match. This win was a testament to Ireland’s fighting spirit. Scotland’s Gary McKay’s famous goal in Sofia ultimately lent a helping hand to Jack Charlton’s team who qualified for their first major tournament in history…
Republic of Ireland 1-0 England (12th June 1988, Euro)
…only to find themselves dropped into a group of death with England, The Netherlands and USSR. Considering the fact that USSR and the Dutch eventually played the final, the performance of shown by Irish in Euro ’88 becomes more noteworthy. England was enjoying one of the rare runs of good form under Sir Bobby Robson. Euro ’88 came sandwiched between two world cups in 1986 and 1990 where England respectively reached the quarter-final and their first semi-final. Ireland, on the other hand, had lost Liam Brady to a suspension while David O’Leary was excluded.
Ireland needed a good start in this match and they got just that when Ray Houghton put his team 1-0 up in the 6th minute. A miss-kick from the English defence saw the ball fall to John Alridge. Alridge headed the ball towards his fellow Liverpool mate Houghton whose looping header gave Peter Shilton no chance. The Irish sat back on that 1-0 lead for rest of the match, preferring to soak up the pressure via a defence which was now gaining a reputation of grinding results out. England laid siege to the goal, led by world cup golden boot winner Gary Linekar but were denied multiple times by an excellent Packie Bonner. The Celtic ‘keeper looked as if he would catch a speeding bullet that day.
Ireland could have scored a second goal in second half if Ronnie Whelan had not struck the cross-piece with a thunderbolt. Brian Robson and Linekar combined well in last few minutes but were undone every time by Bonner as Ireland made a roaring start to their first international tournament. Jack Charlton also tactically out-thought Sir Robson. England expected Ireland to play their usual long ball game but was stunned to see a change of tactics as the Irish played a short passing game.
Had Marco van Basten not scored that goal in Euro ’88 final, Ronnie Whelan’s stunner against USSR stood a chance of being counted as goal of the tournament. His flying volley off a Mick McCarthy throw couldn’t secure another victory for Ireland though. The Irish led 1-0 for 74 minutes against USSR but eventually had to settle for a 1-1 draw. Three days later they squared off against a star studded Dutch side, knowing that a draw would take them the semi-final. Paul McGrath’s header bounced off the post as they were 8 minutes away from a last-4 spot. An unfortunate ricochet led to Netherland’s goal, ensuring the Dutch qualified for the semi-final.
Ireland returned home to a heroes welcome as thousands of fans gathered at the airport to cheer the team.
Republic of Ireland 1-0 Italy (18th June 1994, World Cup)
Despite reaching the quarter-final in their first world cup in Italy, Ireland was severely criticized for their negative style of play. Over-reliance on long balls and ultra-defensive, the Irish scored just two goals in 5 matches.
After missing out in Euro 92, Jack Charlton’s men were back on the big stage in USA ’94, having qualified from a group containing Spain and defending European champions Denmark. Very few would have given Ireland a chance against Italy in their opening match. The Azzuris boasted of one of the best squads in the tournament – a defensive line made up of players from the legendary AC Milan side and world’s most expensive player Roberto Baggio and Serie A top scorer Giuseppe Signori. Ireland themselves weren’t too confident; they had already booked their return tickets, as had their fans.
Ray Houghton, who score Ireland’s opening goal in Euro ’88 once again rose to the occasion. Franco Baresi’s weak clearance fell to Houghton who, seeing Gianluca Pagliuca off his line, took tow touches and lobbed it over the Sampdoria ‘keeper into the net. It was a spectacular strike and his goal on 11th minute meant Ireland could sit back and defend, something they were good at. Italy, masters of carving out results on dint of their defensive organization, found themselves on other side of the table for once. Led by Paul McGrath, the Irish defence stood firm in face of Azzuri onslaught.
Captain Andy Townsend was in inspired form, while Roy Keane expertly thwarted Dimitrio Albertini in midfield.
The incomparable Paul McGrath was at his best; his gritty performance was the symbol of his team’s showing. His performance can be best summed up by the three consecutive blocks he made in second half off Roberto Baggio and Dino Baggio, the third one with his face when he was down on all fours.
Ireland qualified from an extremely tight group, where all teams finished with equal points, the first and only time this has happened in a world cup. Their performance against Netherlands in round of 16 was bit of an anti-climax. Charlton’s team never got going in this match and were roundly beaten. The Dutch won 2-0, the second goal coming after an uncharacteristic error from Bonner. In a lot of ways this loss signified end of an era.
Republic of Ireland 1-0 the Netherlands (1st September 2001, World Cup Qualifier)
After Jack Charlton’s resignation in 1995, Ireland went through a transitional phase. A lot of players left from the team which had qualified for 3 out 5 international tournaments in a 9 year span. Mick McCarthy, one of the most influential players during Big Jack’s reign, took over Ireland. McCarthy’s job was not made easy by the fact that Ireland was drawn into a qualifying group containing The Netherlands and Portugal, two semi-finalists in Euro 2000.
The Boys in Green were handed a tough schedule with away trips to Holland and Portugal in opening two rounds. Mick McCarthy’s side showed promise early on as they raced a 0-2 lead over the Dutch in the opening match before eventually finishing 2-2. The away match in Lisbon also ended with a draw. Ireland had made a strong start to their campaign. They would not lose a single game in qualification campaign and the home win over Luis van Gaal’s Oranje ensured their qualification.
As always, Ireland had to defeat the Dutch the hard way. Boasting Patrick Kluivert and Ruud van Nistlerooy in their frontline, the away team came close to scoring several times in first half.
Things became tougher for the Irish in second half, when Gary Kelly was sent off for a second bookable offence. In the 67th minute, Steve Finan’s cross from right wing fell for Jason McAteer, who scored past Edwin van der Saar. Netherlands could have scored a late, late equalizer but van Nistelrooy’s effort went tatalizingly wide.
This victory in the second last qualification match would eventually prove crucial for the Irish in a closely fought qualification group. A 4-0 thumping of Cyprus ensured that McCarthy’s team finished 4 points ahead of the Dutch in second place behind Portugal, only on goal difference.
Germany 1-1 Republic of Ireland (5th June 2002, World Cup)
Only two players scored past Oliver Kahn in 2002 World Cup. Ronaldo and Robbie Keane. Ireland stayed true to its tradition but found itself in yet another group of death containing Germany, African champions Cameroon and Saudi Arabia. Tensions in the camp ran high as Roy Keane left the squad after clashing with McCarthy; hardly ideal preparation for a world cup. Ireland opened their campaign against the Indomitable Lions and got massacred in first half as Patrick Mboma put Cameroon ahead. Second half was a stark contrast as a strong Irish performance saw them eke out a 1-1 draw.
In Ibaraki, Germany, fresh from a 8-0 mauling of Saudi Arabia, took the lead after Miroslav Klose headed in a Michael Ballack cross. After Klose’s goal one of the most exciting matches in the tournament ensued with both teams looking to score goals.
Soon after Klose’s goal, Matt Holland’s effort from outside the penalty box just went wide. Diti Hamman tested Shay Given on the other end with a low drive.
In the 55th minute, a cross from Steve Finnan was headed by Kevin Kilbane towards an onrushing Damien Duff. Duff looked all set to score but Oliver Kahn pulled off one of the best saves of 2002 world cup to deny him. Minutes later, Ballack released Kirsten Jacker; Shay Given came out but he failed to stop his shot. Fortunately for Ireland, the ball rolled across face of the goal. Miroslav Klose, who had scored a number of header in that world cup, missed a close ranged header from a cross by Bierhoff.
Ireland’s persistence finally paid off in the 92nd minute. Their goal was an almost a stereotype Irish goal of Charlton era. Kinsella’s long ball was flicked towards Robbie Keane by Niall Quinn. Keane darted past a diving Karsten Ramelow to score with an emphatic finish.
Ireland notched up their biggest victory in an international tournament when they defeated Saudi Arabia 3-0 to qualify to round of 16. Another spirited performance took them the penalty shoot-out, but they couldn’t get past Spain.
Republic of Ireland are placed in a tough group but they have enough past performances to give them confidence to make life difficult for the illustrious names in the competition.