The Republic of Ireland had always been midgets of European football. Although not part of the British Empire, its status was often compared to that of the British footballing nations, Northern Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales all had participated in World Cups and were considered strong contenders. This was all the more noteworthy when many Irish 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 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, it seemed somewhat strange that England so greatly seemed to underestimate Ireland. In when you added to this that Ireland was coached by one of the greatest players England had ever produced, Jackie Charlton, 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 games were considered high security risk. All English matches in 1988 were also considered as such.
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. It thus seemed so much noteworthy that they would face their historical rival, England.
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.
Stuttgart, 12th June 1988
Referee: Siegfried Kirschen (East Germany)
Ireland: Pat Bonner; Chris Morris, Chris Hughton, Mick McCarthy, Kevin Moran, Ronnie Wheelan, Paul McGrath, Ray Houghton, John Aldrige, Frank Stapleton (c) (Niall Quinn, 62), Tony Galvin (Kevin Sheedy,77). Coach: Jack Charlton
England: Peter Shilton; Gary Stevens, Kenny Sansom, Neil Webb (Glenn Hoddle, 60), Mark Wright, Tony Adams, Brian Robson (c), Chris Waddle, Peter Beardsley (Mark Hateley, 82), Gary Lineker, John Barnes. Coach: Bobby Robson
1-0 Houghton (6)