The Charlton Years Part 1: How Big Jack’s old school methods took Ireland to brave new heights

1986 was a difficult time in Ireland. A deep recession led to mass emigration as some of the country’s most prominent politicians were embroiled in scandals. Tensions with the UK were high due to several violent incidents in Britain and Northern Ireland. In sporting terms, the nation’s rugby team was performing well but football was lagging behind, with the Republic forced to watch on as their neighbours from north of the border qualified for two World Cup during the 80s.

In that year, the Republic of Ireland were seeking a new manager after the resignation of Eoin Hand, who had come close to the historic breakthrough of qualifying the country for their first major tournament and had some fine players at his disposal, not least Juventus supremo Liam Brady, regarded by many as Ireland’s greatest ever footballer. However, a litany of baffling organisational mishaps from the FAI, the country’s football association, frequently affected team preparations and drove the affable Hand to the edge.

The FAI sprang a surprise when naming his successor, employing English World Cup winner Jack Charlton to take the reins. Many in Ireland questioned his appointment, particularly because of his nationality, and his immediate task did not look an especially promising one. His first tournament campaign over the Irish was the qualifiers for the 1988 European Championships and they were in a group alongside Belgium, Scotland and Bulgaria, all of whom had played at the most recent World Cup in Mexico. Indeed, the Belgians were semi-finalists at that tournament. Also, with the Euros an eight-team event back then, only the winners from the seven qualifying groups would reach the finals, which were due to be held in West Germany. Despite a good panel of players and some recent qualifying near-misses, Ireland didn’t feature in the conversation of potential group winners.

Charlton’s first competitive match in charge of Ireland could hardly have been tougher, with a trip to Brussels to face Belgium. Trailing 2-1 going into stoppage time, the Irish appeared set for a gallant defeat, one from which they could take positives but one which would have left them with an uphill task to top the group even at such an early stage. Having been denied by the Belgians in agonising fashion during the qualifiers for the 1982 World Cup, the time had come for Ireland to administer sweet revenge. As the clock struck 90, Brady found the net to rescue a point for the visitors and the King Baudouin Stadium was left stunned. Also, a draw between Scotland and Bulgaria the same evening left all the group contenders on one point from their opening encounters.

A double header with Scotland produced a draw in Dublin and a fine victory in Hampden Park thanks to an early Mark Lawrenson goal. Charlton’s first setback as Ireland boss came in Sofia in April 1987, a contentious 2-1 defeat damaging their qualification prospects, before another draw with Belgium. The one trump card Ireland had to hand was that they had yet to play Luxembourg, the whipping boys of the group. They got the expected two victories over the minnows but made very heavy weather of the meeting in Dublin, where it took a late winner from the outstanding Paul McGrath to avoid Ireland’s qualification hopes from grinding to a screeching halt.

Charlton’s side closed out their campaign with a 2-0 home win over Bulgaria, while two defeats for Belgium ended their hopes of qualification. The key fixture in the group pitted Bulgaria against Scotland in Sofia. The Bulgarians were a point behind group leaders Ireland going into the fixture, but with the Scots out of the qualification picture and Bulgaria needing just a draw to qualify because of their superior goal difference, it seemed a matter of dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s.

The teams were deadlocked at 0-0 going into the final five minutes in Sofia and the match appeared to be petering out to its inevitable conclusion. A first European Championship appearance was tantalisingly within reach for Bulgaria, but then came the bombshell. Gary Mackay, the Hearts midfielder who would win just four caps for his country and was by no means a household name, struck a late winner for the Scots. The goal was academic from their point of view but it had massive repercussions at the top of Group 7. Bulgaria had contrived to blow what seemed a less than taxing opportunity to win the group and instead it was Ireland who, after some truly gut-wrenching near misses, could now look forward to their first ever major tournament appearance. More than 30 years on, Mackay remains a hero on the other side of the Irish Sea. Charlton had needed only one attempt at taking Ireland into unchartered territory. The European Championship finals beckoned.

Just as they had been handed a thankless qualifying group, though, the Irish also got a raw deal in the draw for the finals. Somewhat inevitably, England beckoned, as did a Netherlands side on the rise after some lean years during the 80s and a formidable-looking Soviet Union team inspired by European Footballer of the Year Igor Belanov. The fixtures decreed that England would be the opposition for the Republic of Ireland’s first match at a major tournament. Given the history between the two nations and, of course, Charlton’s long association with English football, it was a headline writer’s dream.

Ireland were no mugs, with players of the calibre of McGrath, Ronnie Whelan, Ray Houghton, John Aldridge, Kevin Moran and Packie Bonner. However, their style of play tended to be far from aesthetically pleasing. Charlton preached a mantra of ‘put them under pressure’ and was a sworn advocate of clearing your lines first and foremost, with Bonner routinely delivering kickouts as far downfield as he could manage. Frankly, it was the antithesis of Pep Guardiola’s tiki-taka philosophy and almost made Sam Allardyce’s tactics seem coruscating by comparison.

It wasn’t just the Irish players who were in for a novel experience in June 1988, either. Thousands of football fans from the island descended upon West Germany with one goal in mind – enjoy the experience for everything it was worth. Credit union loans were taken out in their droves, household items were pawned and sales of camper vans in the country skyrocketed. Dutch and Danish fans already had a reputation for leading the party atmosphere at football tournament, but even they would come to be upstaged by the boisterously optimistic Irish support.

Stuttgart’s Neckarstadion was the setting for Ireland’s European Championships bow on 12 June 1988. The consensus among neutral observers was that Bobby Robson’s England would have too much for the tournament debutants, while some were speculating as to how comprehensive their margin of victory would be. Charlton, though, would not just let the men from his homeland walk all over his team. As Paul Merson would say, this game was a free swing for Ireland. Provided they didn’t get battered, this would be a good day for them.

It took just six minutes for the deadlock to be broken in Stuttgart – and it was Peter Shilton and not Bonner who was ruefully retrieving the ball from the back of his net. Moran’s long free kick from deep dragged Mark Wright out of position, the defender obstructing Gary Stevens as the ball dropped to Tony Galvin, whose less than stellar cross was sliced into the air horribly by Kenny Sansom. Aldridge was quickest to react with his head and then it was the noggin of Houghton that sent the ball looping over Shilton and into the English net. The green hordes in the stands erupted and Charlton wore a look of disbelief on the touchline.

So shocked were England by the concession of what had been a sloppy goal that they played the first half in a daze. Ireland went in at half-time with their 1-0 lead intact and had been good value for it. The story would be different after the interval, but Gary Lineker chose this day to have one of his worst performances in an England shirt. The Barcelona marksman hit the crossbar and had a glorious chance stopped by Bonner, who was in for 45 of the busiest minutes he’d ever spend on a football pitch. Time and again, the Celtic goalkeeper thwarted the white tidal wave. The minutes ticked by with glacial progress for Ireland but disappeared worryingly quickly for the English.

In the end, Robson’s men ran out of ideas and one of the biggest shocks in European Championships history had been pulled off. Ireland, in their first ever game at this level, had beaten their not so dear neighbours. The supporters who had backed them through years of anti-climax were now being rewarded for their incessant belief and passion in this team. No matter what happened from here, they would go home happy.

Not that Charlton or the Irish squad would rest on their laurels, though. Just three days later, they came up against a Soviet Union side that had beaten the Dutch in their first game. By the time the teams kicked off in Hannover, Marco van Basten’s hat-trick had sent England packing and Ireland had a two in three chance of reaching the semi-finals. The Soviets evidently had greater skill, but they could not live with the ferocious pressing and feverish intensity of their green-clad opponents. Seven minutes before half-time, a typically agricultural Irish play undid the Soviets. Long before Rory Delap became synonymous with the activity, Mick McCarthy hurled a long throw into the mixer and Whelan met it with a sumptuous volley that gave the excellent Rinat Dasayev no chance. Halfway through their group fixtures, Ireland were on course for maximum points.

While they had been under the cosh against England, the Irish were not subjected to a Soviet second half onslaught. Indeed, a second goal in the game looked more likely to come from Charlton’s men, but they couldn’t take their chances while on top and were given a harsh lesson in elite level ruthlessness by their more streetwise opponents. With 15 minutes to go, Oleg Protasov plundered an equaliser that the Soviets probably didn’t deserve. Still, a draw was a good result for Ireland and it left them knowing that if they could avoid defeat against Netherlands, they would advance to the last four and probably consign the Dutch to group stage elimination.

The Parkstadion in Gelsenkirchen was awash with colour on 18 June, with green and orange masses creating a kaleidoscopic image and both sets of supporters in very fine voice. While Ireland could enjoy the occasion, though, Netherlands were under massive pressure. Failure to win this game would have led to coach Rinus Michels being eviscerated back home. However, Charlton would need to find a way to thwart the outstanding van Basten, who had gone from needing to be persuaded not to fly home after the defeat to the Soviets to sticking three goals past England.

In the first half, Ireland played with their usual ‘up and at them’ gusto while the Dutch seemed hamstrung by the pressure of potential failure. The closest either team came to scoring in the first 45 minutes was when McGrath’s header came back off the post and Gerald Vandenburgh needed to be alert to clear the ball off the line. Netherlands seemed bereft of ideas, Bonner’s lack of urgency in taking goal kicks riling the Dutch, but they benefitted from a massive stroke of fortune late in the game. Ireland were nine minutes away from preserving their unbeaten status when McGrath, superb all day, misdirected a header straight to Ronald Koeman. The Dutch midfielder volleyed the ball into the ground and, upon bouncing up, Wim Kieft got his head to it. The ball took a surreal trajectory and looked to be going wide, only for it to change direction in the nick of time to end up inside the Irish net.

It was the cruellest of ways for Ireland to lose and, with the Soviets beating England as expected, it meant that the plucky underdogs had been denied a passage to the semi-finals. The phrase ‘luck of the Irish’ seemed sadistically mythical that day and the efforts of Charlton’s team did not deserve that bitter ending. Once the initial disappointment was processed, though, they could reflect with pride on how they had acquitted themselves in their first appearance on the big stage. While the English squad returned home to slings and arrows after losing all three of their matches, the Irish players and management were greeted by thousands of grateful supporters thronging the streets of Dublin as an open-top bus very gradually made its way through the city. Charlton himself remarked “I’d love to see what the reaction would be like if we’d actually won the thing!”. Houghton’s historic winner became immortalised in song, with the tune of “Who put the ball in the English net? Houghton, Houghton!” still a favourite of Irish supporters three decades later.

It had been a special experience for Irish football, but their golden era under Charlton’s simplistic yet effective management was only just beginning.

Looking forward to Part 2? It will be on here next Saturday!