For those reading this series for the first time, here are Parts 1 and 2.

Part 3: Not Men But Giants

The 1990 World Cup is not one that is remembered fondly by the football world at large, with the tournament dogged by negative tactics and sullen gamesmanship. Nobody told Ireland, though, with the Boys in Green reaching the quarter-finals at their first appearance in the tournament despite technically failing to win any of their five matches – the penalty shoot-out triumph over Romania is considered a draw in statistical annals. As other nations raged at the dour spectacle that was Italia ‘90, the Irish were staging a nationwide, month-long party as Jack Charlton and his team broke uncharted territory.

The question nobody seemed to be asking in July was what came next for Ireland. The obvious focal point was qualification for the 1992 European Championships in Sweden, but with only eight teams qualifying and just the group winners progressing to the finals, it was going to be harder for the Irish to reach that tournament than it was to get to the World Cup in Italy. Yet again, Charlton was pitted against England, his native country, while the other Group 7 participants were Poland and Turkey. The English, fresh from finishing fourth at Italia ‘90, were favourites to qualify, but Ireland were likely to pose their sternest challenge.

The Euro ‘92 qualifying campaign got off to a straightforward start, with Turkey swept aside 5-0 at Lansdowne Road on a day when John Aldridge netted a hat-trick. Then came a 1-1 draw in Dublin against England, Tony Cascarino’s late equaliser securing a precious point, before the reverse fixture at Wembley yielded the same result, Niall Quinn silencing the home crowd. Next up was a doubleheader against Poland, who were also in the qualification picture as Turkey sunk without trace.

It was the two games against the Poles which proved fateful for Ireland. They were held to a goalless draw in Dublin before a very costly 3-3 in what was then an oppressive Poznan. What made that result all the more galling was that Ireland held a 3-1 lead going into the final 15 minutes, the concession of two late goals keeping Poland’s hopes alive and possibly ruining Ireland’s. The big plus for Charlton’s men was that their concluding game was against Turkey, but they also needed Poland to beat England to usurp Graham Taylor’s men on the final matchday.

Ireland did the needful by winning 3-1 at Istanbul’s intimidating Inonu Stadium and Poland were leading England going into the last 15 minutes in Poznan. However, Gary Lineker pounced late on to give the English the point they needed to claim top spot. Ultimately, the closing minutes of the 3-3 draw in Poland was what cost Ireland a third consecutive tournament qualification. It was a hard one to take for a team that had matured beyond taking solace in moral victories and gallant efforts at qualifying for the big competitions.

Charlton was in charge for six years by the time the finals in Sweden came around, leading to speculation that he might call it a day. However, he only had eyes for getting Ireland to the 1994 World Cup in the USA. They would need to play twice as many matches in the qualifiers for that competition as they did for Euro ‘92, with the Irish in a seven-team group alongside the always powerful Spain, European champions Denmark, neighbours Northern Ireland and the Eastern European minnows of Latvia, Lithuania and Albania. Despite the tough competition that awaited, the top two in the group would qualify, thus giving Ireland a very realistic chance of making the finals.

After routine home wins over Albania and Latvia, Ireland’s first real test came in Copenhagen, where they claimed a 0-0 draw against a Danish side already playing catch-up in the group. Ireland also earned a 0-0 away to Spain, the points gained from the away fixtures against their likeliest rivals putting them in a strong position as 1992 drew to a close. After a comfortable home win over Northern Ireland, they suffered their first setback against the Danes at Lansdowne Road, with Quinn equalising late on to salvage a point. A trio of away wins in Albania, Latvia and Lithuania, who were also dispatched in Dublin, kept Charlton’s men firmly in the hunt to qualify.

They would end the group with two tough fixtures, though. Having done so well to draw in Spain, Ireland were blown away by La Roja at Lansdowne Road, going 0-3 down inside the first half-hour. In a group where goal difference could prove vital, a heavy defeat could have been fatal, but John Sheridan registered what turned out to be a decisive 72nd-minute consolation. The Republic then had to travel to Belfast and get a better result than Denmark could manage in Spain, the Danes holding a one-point advantage. Northern Ireland manager Billy Bingham added fuel to the fire with incendiary comments in the run-up to his last game in charge of the team and he motivated the Ulster faithful to turn Windsor Park into a cauldron of hatred.

The atmosphere on that November night was not pleasant, to say the least. With Ireland’s qualification balancing on a knife edge, every goal scored on 17 November could be fateful. Spain struck against Denmark just past the hour, but then disaster struck in Belfast as Jimmy Quinn put Northern Ireland in front. The visitors had only 16 minutes to find an equaliser; in the end, they would require just four. The hardy souls who crossed the border from the Republic were sent into ecstasy when Alan McLoughlin pounced in the 78th minute to draw them level and put them back into the second qualifying spot. It remained horribly tense right to the final whistle, but with Denmark succumbing 1-0 and Charlton’s men hanging on to draw 1-1, it meant that Ireland and the Danes both finished on 18 points and with a +13 goal difference. As the Irish had 19 goals to Denmark’s 15, it meant that they qualified for USA ‘94. Finally, they could celebrate after a tough night; how vital that Sheridan goal against Spain proved now.

The group stage draw for the finals, the last with 24 teams, pitted Ireland in Group E alongside Mexico, Norway and an Italy side which looked like real contenders for a fourth world title. It was the Azzurri who would provide the opposition for Ireland’s first game at the tournament, meaning that Charlton’s men picked up where they left off in World Cup terms, having been downed by the Italians in 1990. With the US being a popular destination for Irish holidaymakers, and plenty of emigrants making the move across the Atlantic during the economically grim 1980s, they would certainly not be found wanting for support at the tournament. A new logistical challenge presented itself, though, as never before had Irish football fans travelled en masse outside of Europe and, indeed, across a country as vast as America with only a handful of days between matches.

In the four years that had elapsed since their last major tournament appearance, the team had changed somewhat. Gone were stalwarts like Mick McCarthy, Frank Stapleton, Kevin Sheedy and David O’Leary. The likes of Packie Bonner, Paul McGrath, Steve Staunton and Ray Houghton had evolved into talismanic figures, while young talents such as Roy Keane, Denis Irwin, Phil Babb and Jason McAteer had forged their way onto the transatlantic flight for the finals.

There seemed a certain inevitability that the match between Ireland and Italy would be played in New York, given the enormity of expats from both nations in the Big Apple. The suitably-named Giants Stadium was heaving with partisan supporters on 18 June, with few neutrals giving Ireland so much as a prayer. This was an Italy team boasting several players who had so impressively won the Champions League with AC Milan a month previously, including Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Costacurta, Franco Baresi and Roberto Donadoni. They also had a superb striker by the name of Roberto Baggio, one of the world’s top players at the time. Charlton, a pragmatic coach by nature, would certainly be manning the barricades against the Azzurri.

There would be an early twist, though. In the 11th minute, Maldini made an uncharacteristic error in failing to clear his lines with a weak header. The ball dropped in the direction of Houghton, who beautifully struck it on the volley and chipped it over Italian goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca, who raised his arm for posterity more than anything. It was so sweetly struck that he was getting nowhere near it. The green hordes at the Giants Stadium erupted and Houghton, the man whose early goal had sunk England at Euro ‘88, saluted another iconic strike with a flamboyant somersault.

Unsurprisingly, the rest of the match became a test of Italy’s ability to infiltrate a defence as packed and committed as the Irish back four. While Maldini was being justifiably professed as the best defender in the world in the build-up to the tournament, the Milan supremo was outdone on this day by the gifted warrior McGrath. The Aston Villa man was cultured in possession and always willing to put his body on the line. It was he who stood tallest in the Giants Stadium as Ireland secured a victory that rivalled, if not topped, that over England six years earlier. With three points on the board and a high probability of three teams getting out of the group, Charlton’s men were almost assured of a last 16 place already.

They would have a six-day turnaround before their next game against Mexico, who lost to Norway in their opener. On the surface, it seemed a very winnable bout for the Irish, but there was a rather significant extenuating circumstance at play. The match was being staged at Orlando’s Citrus Bowl, where the mercury hit 41C on a cruelly hot day, with a midday kick-off to benefit European TV audiences not helping matters. Such searing heat immediately put Mexico at an advantage and if TV viewers wanted a vivid idea of how extremely hot it was, they only had to witness Staunton, not exactly a shrinking violet, barely able to stand on the pitch. That was during the national anthems, with the red-haired defender sporting a sweat-stained cloth on his head as he gave his finest rendition of Amhran na bhFiann. A ball hadn’t even been kicked in anger and this experienced campaigner already looked fit to melt into a puddle just as Olaf almost did in Frozen when the jocular snowman occupied close proximity to a fireplace.

Ireland had been coping with the vivacious Mexicans until, with just three minutes to see out until half-time, Luis Garcia pounced to give the Central Americans a lead that many had felt was coming. The same man doubled his tally 20 minutes into the second half and, in a group that was proving as tightly contested as the five-draw pool from Italia ‘90, a heavy defeat would likely leave Ireland in danger of missing out on a last 16 berth.

A couple of minutes after Garcia’s second goal, all hell broke loose on the touchline. Charlton had been intending to bring veteran striker John Aldridge into the fray and Tommy Coyne obligingly made his way over to be replaced by the moustachioed hitman. Inexplicably, an individual in a yellow cap was preventing Aldridge from entering the pitch, causing the striker to lose his rag and roar “F*** off you dickhead”. Once Aldridge was finally let onto the pitch, a furious Charlton approached the yellow-capped troublemaker and administered his two cents. As RTE commentator George Hamilton pointed out, Mr Yellow Cap was not a FIFA official and frankly had no business getting involved with such a vital substitution.

This all occurred after Charlton was already seething over the brevity of breaks in play to allow his fatigued players to take vital fluids on board. It had become every bit as heated on the touchline as it was in Orlando that day. In the end, Aldridge’s introduction would prove worthy of all the unnecessary hassle as he struck a late consolation for the Irish in a 2-1 defeat. Just like Sheridan’s goal against Spain in qualifying, it was a moment which would prove far more significant in the days to come than it seemed at the time.

Going into the final matchday, all four teams in Group E had a win and a loss to their name. If Ireland could defeat Norway at Giants Stadium, they would be assured of progression, but defeat would almost certainly knock them out. It ended in a goalless draw that was almost as drab and offensive on the eye as the 0-0 against Egypt in 1990, but the point was enough to take Ireland through. The Norwegians would come to rue their lack of firepower; with all four teams finishing on four points and an even goal difference, Norway finished bottom due to their inferior scoring record. Had Aldridge not scored against Mexico, Ireland would have been going home after the group stage.

Ireland technically finished second in the group ahead of Italy, with whom they had an identical record, because of their win over the Azzurri. In terms of the composition of second round fixtures, they may have been better off settling for third spot. Italy would go on to play an admittedly good Nigeria side, whereas Ireland had to face the Netherlands once again at a major tournament. Also, while Italy’s game took place in the temperate climes of Boston, the Irish and Dutch were landed with another midday visit to blistering hot Orlando. It might have made for perfect weather for a day trip to Disney World, but it was not what professional footballers needed with a place in the World Cup quarter-finals at stake.

The Netherlands side that Ireland faced in Florida bore little resemblance to the team they encountered in 1988 and 1990, with a young generation of Oranje stars having come through, several of them from an outstanding Ajax crop. One of those was Dennis Bergkamp, who put the Dutch ahead on 11 minutes after a rare howler from Bonner, the Donegal native palming the ball into his own net after failing to hold the youngster’s strike. When Wim Jonk doubled the lead just before half-time, Ireland looked a spent force. They had nothing more to give in the second half and a tournament which appeared so promising after that famous win over Italy faded out to anti-climax.

The American adventure proved that Ireland had not been a one-hit wonder at the turn of the decade, although there was not the same sense of euphoria and enjoyment that had accompanied the two previous tournaments. Charlton’s tactics were beginning to feel outdated in an era when the game progressed at an unprecedented pace. After eight years at the helm, would Big Jack decide that his time was up or would he go once more to the well with a team that he had moulded to make history?