WE recently did a piece on the 24th anniversary of Ray Houghton’s famous strike against Italy at the 1994 World Cup, and we’ve decided we rather like nostalgia, so we’re delving into the annals of Irish football history again to relive more of the glory days.
At Italia '90, Jack Charlton’s boys were faced with something of a mammoth task from the off. Not only were we drawn in a group with eternal rivals England, Holland, who were European Champions at the time, were also nestled in the group for added cosiness.
Ireland lived with the heat, though. A goalless draw with Egypt was sandwiched between two fine performances against the English and the Dutch, where we came from behind in both matches to secure a couple of late points.
Holland boasted a ridiculous level of star-power. Marco van Basten had been voted the best player in Europe two years in a row, and the year before that, his compatriot Ruud Gullit had won it (not to mention fellow Dutchman Frank Rijkaard had come third in the ‘89 and ‘88 votes) - you get the point, they were stacked.
Meanwhile England, who would go on to narrowly lose to the semi-final on penalties to eventual winners West Germany, had a lethal Gary Lineker up front, supported by a young (and it must be said, magical) Paul Gascoigne, John Barnes, Chris Waddle and Bryan Robson behind him. Fabulously talented.
… But neither of them could beat the Irish.
The same can be said of the Romanians that summer.
Three Ireland draws were quickly followed by a fourth. Romania defending as staunchly as Mick McCarthy and Kevin Moran were doing at the other end.
But the tie’s lack of goals was made up for by the sheer amount of tension in the ground, particularly as extra-time wore on.
Charlton’s boys hadn’t been able to relax once during the entire tournament. Not a single clear-cut lead or defensive hammering was had, it was all close, it was all tense, it was all so typically Irish.
The 30 degree Italian heat wasn’t helping either and as the referee blew for full-time and a penalty shootout, all 22 players looked utterly spent. But there was still a job to do.
Eight men stepped up and eight men dispatched their penalties, but with every Romanian strike, you felt as if Ireland goalkeeper Pat Bonner was inching ever closer to a save.
After Kevin Sheedy, Ray Houghton, Andy Townsend and Tony Cascarino converted their spot kicks (just barely in Cascarino’s case), Romania’s Daniel Timofte made the long walk toward the penalty area.
Bonner stood defiantly on his goal line, rubbing his hands in a manner which suggested he knew what was coming. Timofte laced one low and hard, but Bonner was quick getting down to his right-hand side and the big-man from Donegal swpied the shot away, sending the Irish fans into raptures.
Their delight shook its way around Stadio Luigi Ferraris, but it was quickly replaced with that blasted Irish tension again. Tension though, tinged with palpable excitement. Ireland were one kick away from the quarter-finals in their very first World Cup.
David O’Leary strode forward to assume responsibility of the nation’s biggest moment in the sport to date, as Jack Charton stood, seemingly unphased, on the touchline.
The nation held its breath. O’Leary … *pause* ... Whollap. YES MY LAD!
The grass around the Arsenal man turned even greener as he became lost in a pile of emerald shirts and overcoats. What a moment.
The less said about the quarter-final the better. But don’t worry, we get our revenge on those pesky Italians in four year’s time.