Back in the so-called dark days of Irish football (i.e. the pre-Charlton era), Ireland played so many friendlies in Poland that the fans used to say one of the FAI top brass had a mistress over there and that he would devise any pretext whatsoever to get over there. Whatever the truth of that, we never played Poland too often in competitive matches. One of the few occasions was the qualifiers for Euro 92; Ireland and the Poles were placed in a four-team group with England and Turkey. It was arguably the period where Jack’s team were at their peak, and that made the results all the more frustrating. Profligate finishing cost us home points against both the Poles and the Sassenachs, and even more so at Wembley in March 1991, where, after going one-down to an early Steve Staunton own-goal, Ireland thoroughly outplayed the English, equalising through a perfectly weighted Niall Quinn pass into the net and Ray Houghton failing by inches to reprise his goal in Stuttgart three years earlier. Houghton was clear through on David Seaman’s goal but his shot sailed just wide of the post. We had to be content with a heroic 1-1 draw.
Ireland were unbeaten in the group but their only wins came against Turkey, home and away — a sparkling 5-0 thumping at Lansdowne and a rousing performance in the intimidating atmosphere of Istanbul to win 3-1 on the final day of the qualifiers. It was a pyrrhic victory as, one month previously in Poznan, where Ireland play two of their European Championship matches this month, Ireland squandered a 3-1 lead to concede two late goals against the Poles. And shocking goals they were too, Jan Furtok left free to tap in a parried shot from six yards and Jan Urban sneaking in amid a forest of green shirts to head home the equaliser four minutes from time. It was a match in which Ireland played very much against type — normally goal-shy, they chalked up three away goals (this was possibly the only time ever when Ireland scored more goals away from home in a qualifying group than back in Dublin) but their usual tightness at the back deserted them as the Poles clawed their way back into the game. Packie Bonner, who had just hit a patch of poor form that would ultimately lose him his first-team place at Celtic, had an absolute shocker, at fault for at least two of the three goals.
Big Jack tried to draw the strangest conclusions from the result, saying that at least it left Poland with a mathematical chance of qualification, thereby giving them an incentive to defeat England the following month, a result which would send Ireland through if they beat Turkey. Eamon Dunphy, by now a very public enemy of the big man, scorned the Ireland manager with renewed vigour and Ireland went to Turkey more in hope than expectation. For some reason, the two matches didn’t start exactly at the same time — at full time in Izmir an unlikely storming performance from the bulky John Byrne, who scored two, gave Ireland a fine 3-1 win, while, with half an hour left to play in Poznan, England trailed to a 34-minute Roman Szewczyk goal and it looked like Ireland might have that reprieve and be heading to Sweden for their third consecutive tournament.
That all crumbled in the 77th minute when Gary Lineker was left free in the box and had time to control the ball on his chest and volley it into the roof of the net. By now Poland’s incentive to attack had evaporated and England — the team that would become legendarily hopeless under Graham Taylor — were off to Sweden — by virtue of their 2-0 win against the Poles at Wembley, the only result by which they bettered the Irish. Ireland were better than the other three teams in the group by some stretch but too many lapses in concentration at vital moments of the campaign cost them. For a team that did superbly over the course of eight years, this was probably the most damning exposure of their lack of killer instinct. The Miejski Stadium in the western Polish city has changed a lot since then and is considerably less gloomy-looking than it was on that October night. One hopes Trap’s men will not be so generous at the back this time.
(by Oliver Farry)