ANY Ireland versus England game will rise above its stature because of what has gone before. The most memorable clash was Ireland’s 1-0 victory over England at Euro ’88, but what of the nations’ other meetings?
Garry Doyle spoke to a variety of protagonists from this fixture from down through the decades.
IN the history of Irish soccer, England has always been there. They gave us the game and then housed our better players.
They were friend and enemy rolled into one — the memories of what happened pre-independence ensuring that theirs was a scalp we prized more than any other even if the rivalry only went one way.
Still, for any Irishman, beating England was a definitive moment. Victory in Stuttgart, and the hand he played in it, changed Packie Bonner’s career. Ray Houghton was another who never looked back after that victory in 1988.
“England is different because, well, because it’s England,” says former Ireland manager, Eoin Hand. “It’s that simple.” Actually, it’s a little more complicated.
The context of what happened during colonial rule ensures that this match-up transcends sport — even on a May evening in 2013, nearly a century after the guns were silenced. “If there is one game I want to play in, it’s England and it is England at Wembley,” says the Irish goalkeeper, David Forde. Here’s why this is the match that means so much to so many.
ENGLAND 0-2 IRELAND, SEPTEMBER 21, 1949
Frank Johnstone is sadly no longer with us. After over 60 years in the writing game, he passed away in 2010, leaving behind a lifetime of achievement and stories.
One of his best ones is from 1949 when he was one of only two reporters who travelled across to Liverpool for a game that still remains one of the greatest in FAI history. “In those days there was no separation between players and press,” said Johnstone.
“There was no suspicion, no ill feeling. We were there to report, they were there to play. And, given that this was 1949, an era of austerity, there was a real respect from them to me for getting the money together to go over and report back on the game. So much so that Johnny Carey, the team captain, let me room with him.”
As Carey carved out a famous victory on the park, Johnstone pieced together the words to inform the people back home. “For many, the first news they would have got on this result would have been the following day when they picked up a paper,” he said.“Sometimes you went through the motions writing a report. But that day was different. That day the words flowed.”
So did the football — Carey excelling as Con Martin and Peter Farrell got the goals that ended England’s unbeaten home record against foreign sides. “At the time, it was a big deal. And now [speaking in 2007] it remains a big deal. It was England, the self-appointed powerhouse of the world game but also the country we didn’t want to beat — one we HAD to defeat.”
IRELAND 1-1 ENGLAND, MAY 19, 1957
The small terraced houses on St Attracta’s Road in Cabra were mostly empty on a grey February afternoon in 2008. Half-a-century earlier, it was altogether different, a week after the plane carrying the Busby Babes home from a European Cup tie crashed on a Munich runway, killing 23, including its young, Irish star, Liam Whelan.
“You can’t properly describe how Dublin was affected after that,” said Jimmy Magee, the veteran broadcaster. “From the airport to the family home, the streets were packed with thousands of people on the pavements as the cortege passed. In Cabra, you could barely move. To say people were devastated doesn’t come close to explaining the emotions properly. The outpouring of public emotion for Liam Whelan’s funeral was like it was for Diana Spencer’s in England.”
On this day, we are at the Whelan family home. His brother, Christy, is only too delighted to remember the impact this hugely talented player had on his city.
“Who knows how good he would have become?” said Christy. “But at 22, he was already very good.”
So much so he had kept Bobby Charlton out of the United side. So much so he had won a couple of championships and scored 26 goals from midfield in his first full year on the team.
“What he did with United was massive,” says Christy. “But playing for Ireland against England meant so much to him.”
How come? Well, there is the fact that the 1957 World Cup tie took place within a mile of the family home, at Dalymount Park. “There was also the fact he had to go away from home, the fact he was so proud to be an Irishman proving himself in England, the fact he wanted people to know Ireland had a proud football history, too.” This pride becomes evident as a small drawer is opened and three neatly folded shirts are taken out.
The first has the familiar Red Devil badge on it, worn by Whelan in the 1957 final. The next two are from that 1957 international, Duncan Edwards’ shirt and Whelan’s. One feels soft and light, the other rough like a potato sack.
That was the difference between the FAI and English FA back then. And the difference between club and international football? The fact Whelan sent home just three shirts from his playing career, two of them from the one match — Ireland v England.
THE SECOND-GENERATION KIDS
ENGLAND 1-1 IRELAND, SEPTEMBER 8, 1976
These days Pat Dolan is known as Shane Long, Kevin Doyle and Brian McDermott’s agent. Before moving to the dark side, he was both a manager, a chief executive and a football pundit rolled into one — easily the most dominant figure in League of Ireland football in the late ’90s and early noughties, possibly the most influential in its history.
But in 1976, he was a schoolboy living in Chelmsford, one of Vincent and Mary-Joe Dolan’s three children. Ireland coming to Wembley was like Santa Claus squeezing down the chimney late on December 24.
“What did that game mean to me? It meant being able to go to school the next day and not be sneered at. It meant going to a game with our dad, getting off school early and trekking across London to stand and watch our country play England, and be surrounded by people just like me, people who lived in England all our lives but who never called it our home.
"We never had any trouble growing up in Essex but we were always ‘the Irish kids’— the ones who cleared off for six weeks every summer, packing the car, loading up the roof rack and travelling for what seemed like an age to get to Holyhead for the ferry crossing. It’s not like now when you can do that trip in a couple of hours. We broke the journey up, staying overnight in a B&B. And home we went, to Galway for a couple of weeks where dad was from and then Donegal, mum’s place.
“When I look back now, I can see the sacrifices my parents made — working overtime all year round so that we could have that holiday experience, that six-week summer to make us know what we were and where we were from.
“Then, as I got older, dad would tell me about his early days in London, the ‘no Irish, no blacks, no dogs’ days. We’d hear the ‘stupid Paddy’ jokes on the TV that every comedian told.We’d be called the little Paddies on the football pitch.
And we — like every London Irish person — were as Irish as anybody else. We accepted a lot more grief then. They were different times. But for those couple of days, we were in heaven. Ireland came to Wembley and drew.
People, sounding just like me and my brother, cheered for Ireland with non-Irish accents and a sense of belonging was felt. Gerry Daly equalised late on and we went home happy, went to school the next day andwere proud.We were Irish. And that day we were England’s equals.”
ENGLAND 2-1 IRELAND, MARCH 26, 1985
Eoin Hand had some great days with Ireland, drawing with the Dutch away, beating them, France and Russia at home. Robbed of qualification for the 1982 World Cup, they were in the hunt for Euro ’84 and Mexico ’86 for a time before falling short.
Yet, despite all these big days, the match against England was the one when his players were most neurotic. “You wouldn’t believe it now, given how friendlies have become so diluted in terms of importance,” said Hand.
“Then, you’d have your fair share of withdrawals for friendlies too. But when it came to England, every injury cleared up. Players would ring you beforehand, just to check that you knew they were 100 per cent. That never happened for any other friendly. It was a match they were desperate to play in.
"One of the big calls I made was giving Packie Bonner an opportunity — because he was up and coming and I wanted to see how he’d do in a friendly first before I threw him in for a competitive match. That meant telling Seamus McDonagh he couldn’t play. You should have seen the look on Seamus’ face. He was devastated. Playing for Ireland meant the world to him. Playing against England meant even more.”
ENGLAND V IRELAND, MAY 29, 2013
David Forde has had his ups and downs. Released by West Ham in his early 20s, he reinvented himself in the League of Ireland and earned another move back to England, where another setback occurred at Cardiff City, prior to Millwall finally showing some belief in him. Now he is Ireland’s number one.
"Whenever I’ve played for Ireland, I’ve stopped to think about where I’ve come from in my career but also about the people who have got me there: the coaches, the parents, the volunteers who keep the game alive back home.
"Now and then, it goes a bit deeper. You think about how the country won independence, what it had to go through in the early years of its history. You don’t think about this all the time — but now and then, you stop and appreciate how far you have come as a player to represent a country that means so much to you. Ireland versus England is one of those times.”