It was the qualifying campaign for the 1982 World Cup, and Ireland had been drawn in what you could call a â€˜toughâ€™ group with the Netherlands, France, Belgium, and Cyprus. The worldâ€™s media (and even certain sections of the Irish media) gave the footballing minnows no chance of qualification, and to a certain degree, they were right. Ireland would not qualify, but it had very little to do with the perceived lack of quality.
This was Eoin Handâ€™s first qualification campaign, and when you look back now at the players he had at his disposal, it reads like a whoâ€™s who of footballing pundits and managers. Hand had the likes of Mark Lawrenson, Steve Heighway, Chris Hughton, Liam Brady, Kevin Moran, and Frank Stapleton to call upon throughout the campaign, and not once did they let him down.
But, interestingly, Hand didnâ€™t begin his tenure until after the first match of the campaign when the Irish team beat Cyprus 3-2 away from home. Johnny Giles had been the previous manager, but heÂ inexplicably resignedÂ after the win, leaving his assistant Alan Kelly as the interim manager.
Kellyâ€™s reign was short-lived, as Preston North End wouldnâ€™t allow him to combine his position there with managing Ireland. So, in stepped Eoin Hand, who would eventually come within a whisker of leading his team to the World Cup.
The next match was against the Netherlands at home, and the Irish won 2-1, giving them maximum points in the group. However, a home draw against the Belgians and a loss to the French in Paris would see them stutter. It wasnâ€™t too big a deal, though, as each of their group opponents also suffered losses during the campaign.
But only 1 point scored in two away matches in Belgium and Holland left the team with an uphill task. And it was the loss in Belgium that was the hardest to take. Having already suffered the denial of a perfectly good goal for handball in Paris (a goal that would have made it 1-1), the Irish team suffered at the hands of poor refereeing once again. At 0-0, Liam Brady took a free kick, which a very onside Frank Stapleton volleyed into the net. The goal was disallowed, and, to this day, no one is quite sure why.
That wasnâ€™t the worst of it, though. With only two minutes left, Belgian player Eric Gerets made an embarrassing attempt at a dive just outside the box. A free kick was awarded, and in the following melee in the six-yard box, the Belgians scored. It was a defeat that was hard to take for many of the Irish team and a moment that still rankles avid Irish fans to this day.
The Irish would finish the campaign with a 6-0 demolition of Cyprus and a 3-2 win over France, finishing the group level on points with the French. But it wasnâ€™t enough; the French qualified on goal difference, and the Irish were left to mull over yet another failed qualification campaign. However, in this instance, they had every right to feel aggrieved.
Throughout the campaign, the players went toe-to-toe with some of the best players in the world, such asÂ Michel Platini, and proved that they were up to the task. And even though later squads would qualify, it was this team of legends that many feel were the most gifted Irish team to have graced the turf of Lansdowne Road.
BetStarsÂ have the current Irish squad at 200/1 to lift the cup in Russia, but they have the small matter of a playoff against Denmark to get through before they can book their flight tickets.Â And while the current crop has every right to be proud of themselves, should they qualify, we still know that itâ€™s unlikely that theyâ€™ll make it past the second round. Now, on the other hand, the 1982 squad had the quality to go the distance, if only they had been given a chance.
Lead image source: Flickr