Part 4: One last Oranje crush
As the 1994 World Cup drew to a close, Jack Charlton was one of the longest-serving managers in international football. Eight years had elapsed since he took charge of the Republic of Ireland, during which time the nation’s football history and the broader football landscape had evolved exponentially. In 1986, Ireland was a nation on its knees, with mass emigration and a football team that were considered also-rans on the European stage, never mind in global terms. The disturbing spectre of hooliganism and an insular mentality did not make the sport an attractive one in which to develop an interest. Fast forward to autumn 1994 and Ireland was about to enter an era of unprecedented economic prosperity dubbed the Celtic Tiger. Charlton’s achievement in getting his team to three out of four major tournaments reinvigorated a downtrodden populace, while the fall of Communism and the injection of new-found wealth into the European game opened up doors that made football an absorbing spectacle again.
The carrot of qualifying for Euro 1996 in England convinced Charlton to give one last tournament campaign a crack, the incentive of taking his Irish team to his homeland too inviting to decline. Furthermore, the proliferation of new members prompted UEFA to double the number of finals participants to 16, vastly improving Ireland’s chances of qualifying, which were already advantageous given that they were a top seed in the qualification draw because of their performances on the world stage under Charlton. In all but two groups, second place would be good enough for automatic qualification, the two runners-up with the worst records playing off for the 16th and final place in England.
Ireland also managed to avoid any notable heavy hitters in their qualifying group, although they needed to beware a young Portugal team that conquered the world at youth level and boasted fledgling talents like Luis Figo, Joao Pinto and Rui Costa. Austria and Northern Ireland also spelled potential danger, while Latvia and Liechtenstein were perceived as also-rans. While qualification for previous tournaments had been a fairytale, there was now an expectation on the Irish to advance to the finals, all the more so with the tournament’s expansion.
Charlton’s men had looked leggy at the 1994 World Cup but the fixture schedule for the Euro ‘96 qualifiers afforded them the chance to ease their way into the campaign. Latvia and Liechtenstein were swept aside before a trip to Belfast, where they withstood a sulphurous atmosphere one year previously to book their place at the World Cup in the USA. This time around, Windsor Park was far less cauldronous and the men from the North were battered 4-0, with three goals arriving inside 38 minutes. The Ulstermen would exact a measure of revenge the following March, though, with a 1-1 draw in Dublin after the Republic relinquished a lead.
They came face to face with Portugal at Lansdowne Road midway through the campaign, with both teams looking good to qualify. One goal was enough to win it for the Irish and it came courtesy of an own goal from Portuguese goalkeeper Vitor Baia on the stroke of half-time. Ireland had jumped ahead of their opponents to take command of the group and qualification, while not assured, seemed well within their grasp.
A fateful nine-day period in June 1995 came to define this qualifying campaign for Charlton’s Irish, though. First up was a high-altitude trip to Liechtenstein, where they would play on a cabbage patch of a pitch in the town of Eschen. The Alpine minnows had failed to gain a single point thus far in the qualifiers and the only debate beforehand surrounded the margin by which Ireland would win. However, sport likes to throw in curveballs every now and again and there was a quite astounding one here. This was one of those days where Ireland quite simply could not find a route to goal no matter how persistently they tried (just the 40 attempts were registered). Shots off the woodwork, clearances off the line, a heroic goalkeeper. It was if the footballing gods had decided to make Liechtenstein their baby for the day. Charlton even told his players at half-time that “There’s nothing I can do for you. You’ll have to work this one out for yourselves.” Somehow, the game finished 0-0 and Ireland had had their pants pulled down in spectacular fashion. Less than year after beating eventual World Cup runners-up Italy, they had been held scoreless by a team of amateurs. How costly would those dropped points prove to be in the final reckoning?
It certainly didn’t bode well for a home clash against Liechtenstein’s neighbours Austria a week later. There was a rather bizarre episode in the lead-up to what had become a vital encounter when, the evening before the match, Charlton decided to take his team to Harry Ramsdens, a fast food restaurant in Dublin in which he had shares. He invited the players to take on the infamous ‘Harry Ramsdens Challenge’ of tucking into a giant haddock and chips, which was the antithesis of everything that sports nutritionists would recommend on the eve of a crucial European Championships qualifier. Gary Kelly, one of the most charismatic footballers in Irish history, claimed the dubious honour of ‘winning’ the fast food challenge. Even more bizarrely, the squad went straight from Harry Ramsdens to Lansdowne Road for a training session that, to nobody’s surprise, was disastrous.
Despite the catastrophe in Liechtenstein and the ill-advised Harry Ramsdens sojourn, the expectation was that Ireland would still be too strong for Austria, especially on home soil. There were no goals in a tight first half but the deadlock was broken by Ray Houghton in the 65th minute and redemption for Eschen seemed on course. Then came a nine-minute period which could politely be described as kamikaze. Two goals from Toni Polster either side of one from Andreas Ogris turned the game on its head and put Ireland’s qualification hopes in real doubt. That win put Austria into contention – and the teams still had to meet in Vienna.
Latvia did Ireland a favour with a shock win over the Austrians three weeks before the Vienna clash, but would the central Europeans’ response to their major upset differ from Ireland’s? The answer was emphatically supplied by Peter Stoger, who helped himself to a hat-trick at the Ernst Happel Stadion, Paul McGrath’s goal barely registering in the context of the match. Qualification was out of Ireland’s hands by the time they faced Latvia in Dublin. They may have swept the Baltic nation aside in Riga a year previously, but recent results meant that this was a fixture fraught with danger. An hour passed with no goals as tension grew around Lansdowne Road before two goals in four minutes from John Aldridge eased the nerves. When the visitors pulled one back with 12 minutes remaining, the home crowd became very edgy, but Ireland got the victory they desperately needed and Austria drew with Portugal, giving Charlton’s men a one-point advantage in second place going into the final matchday.
The Austrians were in Belfast against a Northern Ireland side with only the faintest hope of qualifying, while the Republic travelled to Portugal, who barring a total collapse had already qualified for their first tournament in 10 years. Torrential rain battered the Estadio da Luz and, having withstood Portuguese pressure for an hour, Rui Costa’s goal opened the floodgates. Further strikes from Helder and Jorge Cadete sparked ecstasy amongst the vociferous home fans in Lisbon, the players dogpiling on each other to celebrate their achievement. The final half-hour of this match was symbolic – a young, vibrant, energetic Portugal side with a huge future up against an ageing, tired and one-dimensional Ireland team whose star was very much on the wane. The unforgiving rainfall perfectly summarised the mood of the visiting supporters.
Amidst the gloom, though, some unexpected good news filtered through to the rain-soaked travelling Irish. At Windsor Park, Austria had fallen to a 5-3 defeat against Northern Ireland, who ultimately finished third and, had the winning margin been one goal greater, would have climbed to second in the group. That was a major reprieve for the Republic, who clung to second place and while it wasn’t enough to stop them from having the worst record of the group runners-up, it at least maintained a chance of reaching a fourth major tournament in eight years.
Familiar foes awaited in the play-off, with Netherlands again getting the opportunity to end Irish involvement in a major competition, having eliminated Charlton’s men from Euro 1988 and the 1994 World Cup. This was the first time that play-offs were used in qualification for the European Championships and UEFA made the rather strange call of having a one-off game at a neutral venue instead of the two-legged home-and-away format with which we have become familiar today.
Technically, Anfield was a neutral venue, but such was its proximity to Ireland that it would feel almost like a home game, especially with Irish fans routinely crossing the sea to Liverpool for Premier League matches. As you might expect, it was a chilly night on Merseyside on Wednesday 13 December 1995. A youthful Dutch team backboned by the Ajax side which were the reigning Champions League holders were clear favourites, with Ireland’s experienced heads needing to go to the well once more. Even before kick-off, it was a match with an end of an era feel about it.
Netherlands had several bright young stars in their team and none shone brighter than teenage striker Patrick Kluivert. The kid who scored Ajax’s winner in the Champions League final that year was quickly proving to be a player for the big occasion and he put the Oranje ahead just before the half-hour. Ireland huffed and puffed but never truly looked like beating Edwin van der Sar in the Dutch goal. With six minutes remaining, Kluivert doubled his tally to kill off the game as a contest. Guus Hiddink and his squad could toast becoming the 16th and final team to qualify for Euro ‘96.
After the final whistle, the Irish hordes in the Kop gave a melancholic yet stirring rendition of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, the dejected players lapping up their applause with appreciation. For veterans such as Houghton, Aldridge, McGrath and Andy Townsend, this really would be farewell. There would be no more chapters for them to write in Irish football history. Shortly after the game, the news that many expected came to fruition. Charlton tendered his resignation as Republic of Ireland manager, declaring that “In my heart of hearts, I knew I’d wrung as much as I could out of the squad I’d got, that some of my older players had given me all they had to give.” Just over a week later, he was on a plane back to England, taking a pre-dawn flight out of Dublin Airport and leaving behind almost a decade of a journey which transformed the sporting history of a nation.
Charlton’s football was far from glorious. His tactics were as crude on the eye as those of Otto Rehhagel when he guided Greece to their sensational Euro 2004 triumph. He could be abrasive and stubborn when his methods or team selections were questioned. However, you could also tell that he was genuinely humbled by the affection from the Irish people after those unforgettable summers of 1988, 1990 and 1994. Ten years is a long, long time in charge of the same team, especially in international football, but the strides made by Ireland under Charlton made it feel like he did so much more than a decade’s work during his tenure.
He made the Republic of Ireland a widely-respected team in the international game; at one point in 1994, they hit an all-time highest FIFA world ranking of sixth. He gradually implemented new faces into the team while remaining loyal to those who had served the nation admirably in the mid-1980s. He took over Ireland at a time when the nation was wallowing in self-pity and did more than almost anyone else to transform the mood of the Irish populace. He left Ireland, and Irish football, in a far better place than it occupied when he took charge in 1986. Jack Charlton’s managerial methods were old school, but they took the Republic of Ireland football team to brave new heights.