The football fan’s worldview is irrevocably shaped by his or her first exposure to the game; the screen burn of those formative months or years lingers on their inward eye throughout their whole life as a supporter. For many fans, the formative years take place between the ages of eight and ten. For me it was no different. Football had always been around me when I was very young and I have some startlingly early memories of it — I retain a few oneiric flickers of the 1978 World Cup: the ticker tape and that impossibly dark winter sky, this despite being still a few months shy of my third birthday. And in case you might think my memory is playing tricks on me I can also remember our family moving house three days before the final, an experience I was not too pleased with but which is still clear in the mind (though its proximity to the World Cup final was something I only learned about many years later).
I remember the 1982 World Cup too — Northern Ireland beating Spain and Maradona getting sent off against Brazil. The following year there were cup final wins for Sligo Rovers and Manchester United. All of this was absorbed but I was little more than a curious bystander, pretty much like many of the people I know as an adult — just about interested enough to make small talk about football but no further than that.
In summer 1984 that all changed. I can’t really remember why but it was possibly the discovery of penalty shoot-outs that tipped it. There were quite a few thrilling ones that year, first of all Tottenham beating Anderlecht to win the UEFA Cup, then Liverpool’s famous defeat of Roma in the Italians’ own stadium and the epic Spain v Denmark clash in the semi-finals of the European Championships. From now on football would be one of those yardsticks of life — my memories of every year between then and my late teens are primarily informed by what was happening on the field at the time. I took to the new-found sport with a zeal that had its precedents hundreds of thousands of times over in the history of the game. While the Irish national team was far from my main pre-occupation at the time it was still something to get excited about and that all started for me in September 1984.
My only previous encounter with the boys in green was a European Championship qualifier a year earlier when Ireland, in yet another torridly difficult group, threw away a two-goal lead at Dalymount to lose 3-2 to a Ruud Gullit-inspired Netherlands. All that detail I learned later but I remember bits of the match, mainly because my mother told me that in Holland the locals spoke, not Hollandish but Dutch, a linguistic eccentricity that would stump me for many years. Other than that my knowledge of Ireland as a footballing nation was fairly non-existent. I came to Ireland v the USSR at Lansdowne Road on the 12th of September 1984 pretty much as Cortez might have approached the Pacific, staring out from that peak in Darien. It was a stirring performance against a strong Soviet side, who, even if they hadn’t qualified for the European Championships, had quite frighteningly filleted England 2-0 at Wembley four months earlier.
Late on in the match Michael Robinson, a winger who looked perpetually dogged and sweaty and who is now Spain’s number one sports broadcaster, turned his man on the right hand side and cut it back for Mick Walsh, another Irish cosmopolitan — at the time a crowd favourite at Porto — to slice the ball past Rinat Dasaev into the Soviet net — not the last time the mighty Tatar would be beaten by an Irish player. I still remember the leap of delight I made as the goal went in, mainly because it’s the same one I perform every time Ireland score. I didn’t think too much of it at the time but I was probably primed for great expectations of this Irish team. How wrong I was.
It all began to come undone a month later when Ireland travelled to Norway. The Scandinavians were still part-timers back then (something the British and Irish media used to never tire of pointing out). People with better knowledge than my nine-year-old self would have known of Norway’s legendary 2-1 win over England three years before but that was all pre-history for me (in those days you relied on back issues of Shoot! and Match picked up at sales of work to piece together past narratives). I was expecting a win. It had to be a win. What we got instead was an abject disaster. Ireland started brightly but, spurred on by the mercurial PSV Eindhoven captain Hallvar Thoresen, Norway were soon cutting them to pieces.
Three minutes before half-time Pål Jacobsen played a long one-two with Arne Larsen Økland, stole past a ball-watching Mark Lawrenson and sneaked the ball in under Jim McDonagh’s body to put Norway 1-0 up. I remember the goal well, the ball seemingly taking an eternity to nestle in the net. It was my first exposure to a now familiar sense of dread — the Irish goal under siege. It’s an ominous sense I get with none of the club sides I support, one that is part-horror, part-fatalistic resignation. The goal deflated Ireland, with their efforts in the second half barely troubling the Norwegians, who could have won by more. “Luxembourg 1954, Denmark ’57 and Cyprus in the last World Cup are the only away matches in this tournament Ireland have ever won,” says Jimmy Magee in his commentary. I’m not sure if I consciously absorbed that plain fact as I sat glumly on the couch but it soon became apparent to me that Ireland’s track record was not one of world-beaters.
Whatever about 1957, there was going to be no victory in Denmark in November 1984, not against what was probably Europe’s finest side at the time (had they not stumbled on penalties against Spain that summer they may well have beaten France to take the European Championship). Ireland never had a hope, holding out for 26 minutes until Tony Grealish made the very unwise move of playing a perfect pass to Preben Elkjaer, who easily outstripped Mick McCarthy to put Denmark ahead. The rest of the match was all Denmark — Elkjaer adding a second just after half-time before putting Søren Lerby through for the third. It was hot knife-through-butter stuff. After 55 minutes it was 3-0 and I feared the worst. Somehow Ireland managed to keep the scoreline like that till the end. It was a thorough drubbing, of the sort that Ireland wouldn’t really experience for another 11 years when Portugal tore them apart in Lisbon (I won’t count the return game against the Danes in Dublin a year later, which was largely academic from Ireland’s point of view).
Ireland didn’t have another World Cup match till the following May (played during the regular season run-in — unthinkable today) and that gave them the opportunity for a few friendlies. First up was the visit of world champions Italy to Dalymount Park, where an avaricious FAI allowed 40,000 people to crowd dangerously into the crumbling Phibsboro stadium. Kick-off was delayed half an hour and it was a miracle there were no serious injuries. When Heysel happened three months later, there was really no sense of shock — football stadiums were seriously dangerous places back in those days, with or without hooligans. Ireland lost 2-1, a creditable result, with Gary Waddock scoring a fine consolation goal. There was also a scoreless draw away to Israel and a visit to Wembley, where England beat us 2-1, with Gary Lineker scoring his first goal for his country, a result which remains their last win over Ireland.
The match in May was against Norway, a 0-0 draw at Lansdowne Road. For some reason it was not televised so I had to follow it on crackly medium-wave radio. By all accounts it was a dire match and also curious for being the only outing for an O’Neill’s strip that would never be seen again. Apparently it was green with an orange band across the chest. I recall it only from black-and-white press photos of the match and I don’t know why it was cast aside straight away. A plain green and white number was worn for the visit of Switzerland a month later, when Ireland began to make up lost ground with a comfortable 3-0 win at a sunny Lansdowne Road, a game in which a young striker from Millwall named Tony Cascarino made his debut. The Swiss had started the group brightly with two wins and a draw but a 4-0 drubbing in Moscow the previous month had unhinged them and they were very much in disarray at Lansdowne. The goals came from Frank Stapleton, Tony Grealish, with a looping header he hardly knew about, and Kevin Sheedy. The mini-heatwave continued till the following weekend when Ireland met Spain at Flower Lodge, only the second time a full international was played in Cork. The match was part of the Cork 800 celebrations and was a keenly fought scoreless draw.
In a tightly contested group, with a lot of teams taking points off each other, Ireland went into the summer second on five points, one point behind Denmark and ahead of the Swiss on goal difference. Denmark looked likely to win it but Ireland might have been forgiven for thinking second place was within their reach. The problem was they still had to play the Soviets — in Moscow — and the Danes in Dublin, as well as an away trip to Switzerland. Another problem was the USSR’s three remaining matches were all at home. Denmark, on the other hand, had to travel for three of their remaining four, giving us some faint hope they might slip up.
After a frustrating 0-0 draw in Berne, Ireland went to Moscow in October, where the Soviets were nigh invincible. Having pummelled Switzerland in May, they beat Denmark 1-0 in September. In front of 100,000 fans at the Lenin Stadium, Ireland held out remarkably well without ever looking like scoring. The inevitable came on the hour when Spartak Moscow’s Fyodor Cherenkov rattled a far-post volley past McDonagh. In the dying seconds, Oleh Protasov, who, three years later, would break our hearts with a late equaliser in Hanover, finished it off with a header from close range. Interestingly, both matches against the USSR are available in full on YouTube. They make for contrasting viewing, the first a rousing performance with Ireland running rings around a disoriented Soviet side; the second a magisterial passing display by Valeriy Lobanovskiy’s men that Ireland had nothing to counteract.
Ireland were out, with — as the cliché would have it — only pride to play for in the final match in Dublin against Denmark. There wasn’t much pride to be taken in that performance though. Needing a win to be sure of qualifying ahead of Switzerland, the Danes ran riot, even more impressively than twelve months earlier in Copenhagen. Elkjaer cancelled out Stapleton’s opener within seconds and a brilliant individual goal by Michael Laudrup put Denmark 2-1 up just after the break. A stupendous chip for the third by right-back John Sivebaek — now a big league agent — would earn him a move to Ron Atkinson’s Manchester United and Elkjaer finished it off fourteen minutes from the end. Denmark were going to their first ever World Cup; Ireland, after two near misses in the previous two tournaments were left licking their wounds, in fourth place, one point ahead of Norway.
The Denmark match was also, curiously, the subject of a Desmond Morris-narrated documentary, a TV adaptation of his 1981 book The Soccer Tribe. It was broadcast on ITV just before the World Cup finals the following June and Morris was wheeled on to chat shows and news bulletins for his opinions on things ranging from hooliganism to penalty shoot-outs. The film itself was an overly fussy analysis of body language and so called tribal codes, which sounded risible to my ten-year-old ears but an interview with Frank Stapleton struck a chord. He said that winning 1-0 was an unsatisfactory result because ‘you want to win with a bit of style’. The arrival of a certain Geordie as Ireland manager a few months later would prompt Stapleton to reconsider those words. Given he continued to be vital part of Jack Charlton’s set-up for the next five years — unlike others from that campaign, such as Grealish, Robinson and, for a long time, David O’Leary — Stapleton surely did reconsider them.
The Mexico 86 campaign was deflating in the extreme for an Irish football fan and spelled the end for Eoin Hand’s five years in charge. There were cruel jibes in the media — one joke was ‘how did the Irish soccer team commit suicide?’ ‘They died by their Eoin Hand’ — but Hand had done a fine job with a team the draw was never kind to. Goal difference and awful refereeing decisions cost us a place at Spain 82, behind Belgium and France but ahead of the Netherlands. Our path to France 84 was blocked by Spain and the Dutch, and we finished third despite a record 8-0 win over Malta. Group 6 of Mexico 86 qualifying was equally onerous, being pitted against two of Europe’s form teams. The Danes and the Soviets would both light up the finals in the opening round before faltering at the knock-out stages. Both would make it to Euro 88 with the Dynamo Kiev-bolstered USSR reaching the final, which might have gone differently had Igor Belanov not had a penalty saved by Hans van Breukelen when they trailed the Dutch 1-0. The two sides also played a match in Copenhagen in June 1985 that many people agree is one of the greatest World Cup qualifiers ever. That both teams so nonchalantly swatted away the challenge of an Ireland containing players we can only dream of having in the side today underlines how strong they were.
The Charlton era began in Spring 1986 with uninspiring displays at home to Wales and Uruguay. The triangular tournament win in Iceland in June was a novelty but nobody was taking too seriously wins over the hosts and Czechoslovakia. It was in September that year, when we came from behind twice to draw 2-2 with World Cup semi-finalists Belgium in Brussels in our first Euro 88 qualifier, that fans began to suddenly imagine that change was on the way. That was the sort of match we usually lost in agonising circumstances. We all know what happened next, even if it took a miraculous Scottish win in Bulgaria to actually send us to Germany. Still, the fatalism of the Irish football fan, forged in the dark days of the late seventies and early eighties, has never gone away and will accompany us all the way through the Euros. It’ll be a familiar sense of dread I feel when the likes of Iniesta, Jelavic and Balotelli are bearing down on the Irish goal.
(by Oliver Farry)