Towards the end of the 1980s, Ireland qualified for the European Championship and World Cup finals for the first time under the leadership of the late Jack Charlton, and on both occasions, were drawn in the same group as Bobby Robson’s England.
The first of the two tournaments was the 1988 European Championship finals held in West Germany. England and Ireland were joined in their group by the much fancied Holland, who were undergoing a renaissance at the heart of which were Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten, and the ever dangerous Soviet Union. It wasn’t an easy group, but England were expected to progress given their form in qualifying, and were one of the pre-tournament favourites.
Bobby Robson’s men topped their qualifying group though didn’t secure their place in the finals until the final game when they won 4-1 in Yugoslavia, a game I remember fondly. The match kicked off at 3.45 pm our time, and so my friend Richie and I ran from school to his house – he lived closer to school than me – in order to watch the game. Our post-lesson sprint was worth it as England went 4-0 up inside the first 25-minutes thanks to goals from Peter Beardsley, John Barnes, Bryan Robson, and Tony Adams.
For Ireland, simply qualifying for the finals was an achievement in itself given that it was something that they’d never achieved before, and this during the era in which just eight nations qualified. Jack Charlton built a solid squad of players, many of whom weren’t exactly household names, scouring the English leagues for players with Irish heritage, with players like Mick McCarthy, Ray Houghton and John Aldridge slotting in alongside the likes of Paul McGrath, Frank Stapleton and Packie Bonner.
The neighbouring nations were paired together in their group’s opening fixture, and although this was all about the football, it inevitably raised other matters given we were at the height of the Troubles at the time.
Ireland went into the tournament as 50-1 outsiders, and the fixture with England as underdogs, something that Charlton and his players seemed to relish. Both sides were facing Holland and the Soviet Union in their following fixtures, and so it was a game that they both needed to win, or at least avoid defeat.
If Ireland had any pre-match nerves they were soon settled when Liverpool’s Ray Houghton put them in front after just six minutes. England on the other hand were lacklustre and looked all over the place, and despite enjoying the majority of the possession, never looked like breaking down a resolute Irish side. It didn’t help England’s cause that their big players failed to perform, most notably Gary Lineker who had seemingly left his shooting boots in Barcelona.
The Irish were ecstatic, and rightfully so, with Jack Charlton booming, “somebody once told me fortune favours the brave and God, our lads were brave this afternoon”, while centre-half Kevin Moran pondered on how the celebrations would be going back home saying, “I’d love to be down in Kerry tonight”.
The same evening, the Soviet Union beat Holland by the same scoreline, meaning that Ireland were joint top of the group, and England had some serious work to do if they were to qualify for the semi-finals. Next up for England were Holland, while Ireland faced the Soviet Union.
Sadly for England, the Dutch clicked into gear in that next game, running out 3-1 winners, inspired by Marco van Basten who bagged a hat-trick. The result eliminated England ahead of the clash between Ireland and the Soviet Union, which finished in a 1-1 draw. This meant that England could potentially help Ireland through to the semi-finals by beating the Soviets.
The final round of fixtures saw England pulled apart by the Soviet Union in a 3-1 defeat, a result which meant that they would finish bottom of the group and saw the Soviets qualify for the semi-finals as group winners. At the same time, Ireland knew that a point would be enough to see them through, and it looked like they were going to pull it off. They went close to taking the lead ten minutes from time when Paul McGrath struck the post with a header, but just two minutes later, Wim Kieft broke Irish hearts when he scored what turned out to be the winner. Holland joined the Soviets, hosts West Germany, and Italy in the semi-finals.
England headed home in disgrace after a very poor tournament, thus beginning a horrific 2-year campaign of abuse from sections of the tabloid press towards manager Bobby Robson.
Ireland on the other hand were treated to a heroes reception on their return, with Jack Charlton and his players feted wherever they turned.
Holland went on to meet the Soviet Union again in the final, beating them 2-0 thanks to a Ruud Gullit header, and a spectacular volley from Marco van Basten, a goal that ranks amongst the best in the competition’s history. Yet Ireland were just eight minutes away from putting them out.
The 1988 European Championship was the start of the building of Jack Charlton as an Irish legend for obvious reasons. He built a team that not only didn’t look out of place on the international stage; his team demonstrated that it could compete with Europe’s best. And he repeated the trick two years later, leading his team to the 1990 World Cup finals in Italy where they advanced to the quarter-finals – incredibly without winning a game – before losing 1-0 to the hosts.
And it was also the start of the building of the Bobby Robson legend, although it certainly didn’t seem like it at the time. The abuse that Robson began to receive in the press led to a closing of the ranks and the development of a strong bond between the management team and the players, and a siege mentality. This led to a strong qualifying campaign, and a very good tournament, ironically where England, Ireland and Holland were all drawn in the same group once again, as England and Ireland faced each other in the first group game. England saw the emergence of the likes of Stuart Pearce, David Platt, and of course Paul Gascoigne, while Gary Lineker rediscovered his goalscoring touch, and went on to reach the semi-finals. The rest of course, is history.
Euro 88 was a memorable tournament for both England and Ireland, for very different, but in the end, similar reasons.
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