Sunday, June 16, 2013
A couple of years ago I did a series of posts on this blog about the Greatest World Cup matches of all time. Truth is that I have been working on the greatest European Championship matches of all time, and just this week I was looking at a match that had its 25-year anniversary this week, namely Ireland-England in 1988. The Republic of Ireland had until 1988 been midgets of European football. This was in spite of the fact that almost all its players were professionals in the strong English and Scottish leagues, where some clubs had distinctive Irish symbols. Glasgow Celtic for instance, where three Irish players in the 1988 squad came from: the goalkeeper Pat Bonner, and the experienced defenders Mick McCarthy and Chris Morris. Three players were stars in one of England's best clubs, Liverpool, namely Ronnie Wheelan, John Aldridge and Ray Houghton, while another three played in a club that was known for its Irish players, Manchester United: Kevin Moran, Paul McGrath and Liam O'Brien. The team captain was the Derby County veteran Frank Stapleton. Given that these players played top level football in England and Scotland, it seemed somewhat strange, not to say arrogant, that England seemed to underestimate Ireland. When you added to this that Ireland was coached by one of the greatest players England had ever produced, Jackie Charlton, and a great manager, England should expect a difficult match. England indeed had one of the best generations it had produced for a long time. In 1986 they had made it to the World Cup quarterfinals, only to be eliminated by the ingenuity and brilliance of Diego Maradona. Up front England had a powerful duo with the top-scorer of the 1986 World Cup, FC Barcelona's Gary Lineker together with Liverpool's Peter Beardsley, and right behind them the magnificent John Barnes, also from Liverpool. The veteran Peter Shilton from Derby County guarded the goal, while the veteran from Manchester United, Bryan Robson, was the team captain. The side also included the legendary Glenn Hoddle from AS Monaco, one of the most gifted players of that generation. English football in the 1980s had nevertheless been tarnished by hooliganism. After the tragedy at Heysel in 1985, English clubs had been banned from playing in Europe. Still, the national team continued to attract hordes of beasts, and England's games were considered high security risk. Ireland had qualified the tournament just ahead of Bulgaria, and it was the first time ever that the Republic of Ireland participated in a major tournament. England had not had much difficulty qualifying ahead of Yugoslavia, Northern Ireland and Turkey, and it was, as always, a team full of expectations of glory that went into the tournament. England was a bit weakened going into the match as their experienced central defender Terry Butcher suffered an injury and had to be replaced by the young Mark Wright from Derby County. After only six minutes the English central defense, unable to get the ball away, conceded Ireland's first goal: Kevin Moran kicked a high ball towards the right side of the English penalty area. Tony Galvin put in a cross that an English central defender just managed to shoot up in the air. John Aldridge headed the ball coming down to Ray Houghton who completely unmarked headed the ball into goal for a very unexpected Irish lead. England seemed in shock, and produced nothing in the first half, as Ireland waited for the English to attack. In the second half England started putting more pressure, but the biggest chance came to the Irish when Ronnie Wheelan had an excellent volley shot that hit the English crossbar. With England putting more pressure Pat Bonner stepped into the match when his hard-fighting defense was beaten: twice he saved shots from Gary Lineker who had gotten through, and he also had an outstanding save on a shot by Bryan Robson. But as most fans watching, it seemed like the Irish more and more believed that this would be their game, and in the end it was a deserved and hard-fought victory for the side's debut in a major tournament. Ireland then tied the USSR and was close to making it to the semi-finals. England on the other hand lost its following two matches and exited the tournament with three defeats.