By Jay Mwamba
Twelve years ago, a former English World Cup winner took Ireland to its first finals after nearly 60 years of failure marked at times by close calls, hard luck stories, or plain poor form.
Jack Charlton’s trailblazers made the most of a memorable debut at Italia ’90, producing a giddy run that culminated with an absorbing quarterfinal clash with eventual losing finalists, Italy, at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome.
That remarkable side, captained by current boss Mick McCarthy and whose lone active survivor is Niall Quinn, set the standard that subsequent Irish teams have since aspired to emulate.
Ireland returned to the World Cup finals in 1994, and after missing France ’98 under McCarthy’s tutelage, will make it three appearances in four tournaments when they kick off against Cameroon on June 1.
It’s an impressive record considering the early disappointment dating back to 1934 when the Republic, or the Irish Free State as it was then known, began its long affair with football’s greatest event.
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Ireland’s first crack at reaching the finals was in 1934. It was short-lived, but not without consequence as pint-sized forward Paddy Moore accounted for all of Ireland’s goals in a 4-4 tie with Belgium at Dalymount Park. It was an Irish record and the first time anyone had netted four goals in a World Cup match.
Moore’s sharp boots aside, Ireland finished bottom of a group that also included Holland.
The Republic agonizingly missed out on the 1938 finals, developing a pattern of close calls that, even after the qualifying successes of 1990 and ’94, would return to haunt the men in green as late as 1998.
Drawn against Norway in a two-legged affair, Ireland slipped 3-2 in Oslo and returned home confident of turning the tables at Dalymount Park.
Their confidence seemed well placed when first Jackie Carey scored only for the referee to wave the effort off, and then Jimmy Dunne struck to give them a 1-0 lead. But the visitors roared back to go ahead 3-1.
Despite a late rally during which Kevin O’Flanagan and Harry Duggan leveled the scores, Norway advanced to the finals in France 6-5 on aggregate.
World War II put World Cup football on the back burner through the 1940s. When the tournament resumed, Ireland failed to qualify for the 1950 championship in Brazil following defeats by Sweden, then spurned a FIFA invitation to participate because of insufficient time to prepare a team.
Two losses to France put paid to the Emerald Isle’s 1954 campaign despite twice beating Luxembourg, but 1958 was another close call with Denmark and England the opposition.
Denmark were easily humbled and considered fair game in the return leg when Ireland crashed 5-1 to England at Wembley Stadium. Still, a victory over the English in Dublin was all that was required to force a playoff.
Everything was going according to plan when Alf Ringstead shot Ireland ahead at Dalymount. Not for the last time, Irish hearts were ultimately shattered when England equalized with the last kick of the game to advance to Sweden ’58.
Following a totally futile Chile ’62 bid, Ireland missed the 1966 tournament in England by a whisker after losing 1-0 to Spain in a playoff in Paris. They’d beaten the Spaniards 1-0 in Dublin and were forced into a playoff after losing 4-1 in Seville because goal aggregate scores were not taken into account in those days.
Given a choice of Paris or London as the venue for the decisive match, the Football Association of Ireland opted for the former after being promised all the gate receipts. That, however, worked to Spain’s advantage as 30,000 Spaniards turned up to cheer their country to a 1-0 win on Ufarte’s strike.
The 1970 hopefuls failed to win a single match, and there was more disappointment in 1974 when the USSR earned the rights to play Chile in an intercontinental playoff ahead of Ireland.
But by the late ’70s, a new generation of talented Irish players was emerging from leagues in England and Scotland.
Future stars such as Liam Brady, Frank Stapleton, David O’Leary and Steve Heighway were part of strong Irish team that made a push for the 1978 finals from a group also comprising France and Bulgaria.
They split two games with France, and were denied a possible victory over Bulgaria in Sofia when Heighway’s certain goal was disallowed with the scores tied 1-1. Bulgaria eventually won 2-1 and later eked out a 0-0 draw at Lansdowne Road.
There would be more heartache in 1982 when goal difference would deny the Eoin Hand-coached Republic a place at Spain ’82 in a tough group also featuring the Michel Platini-inspired France, Holland, Cyprus and Belgium.
Ireland lost just twice in eight matches and chalked up an Irish record6-0 victory over Cyprus at Lansdowne Road.
Come 1986 and it was obvious that the Republic had established an odd pattern: a near miss one campaign and a poor effort the next. True to form, after the close call of 1982, 1986 turned out to be a haphazard affair.
A 1-0 home win over the USSR was the only bright spot before successive road defeats (against Norway and Denmark) and a Dublin draw with the Norwegians quickly put Ireland out of contention.
Then along came Jack Charlton. A member of England’s 1966 World Cup winning side, the big Englishman brought along a Midas touch of sorts.
Two years after his appointment as manager in 1986, Charlton took Ireland to Euro ’88, immediately raising hopes for the 1990 World Cup.
The Republic began its qualifying race for Italia ’90 on the road, tying in Northern Ireland and Hungary and succumbing to Spain. But they won their remaining matches to finally book their maiden appearance in the finals, where the real fun began.
En route to a suspense-filled quarterfinal run, Ireland battled
England to a dramatic 1-1 tie in an electric storm in Cagliari when Kevin Sheedy canceled out Gary Lineker’s strike.
They were frustrated into a goalless draw by Egypt in their second game, and then had to fight back with Niall Quinn’s first international goal to draw 1-1 with Holland.
Two hours of soccer failed to produce any goals against the skillful Romanians in the second round. When the dust had settled after a nerve-wracking penalty shootout, goalie Packie Bonner and David O’Leary had Irish folklore: the former for saving a critical penalty with the scores level at 4-4, and the latter for clinching the winner in a 5-4 victory.
Though edged 1-0 by Italy in an absorbing quarterfinal, Italia ’90 would finally confirm Ireland’s arrival as a football power.
Four years later, Ireland came close to producing an encore performance at USA ’94, reaching the second round where a 2-0 Dutch win sent Charlton’s men packing in Orlando, Fla.
There were still the exciting memories of a 1-0 decision over Italy on Ray Houghton’s superb goal at Giants Stadium, and a pulsating 0-0 draw with Norway sandwiched between a 2-1 loss to Mexico.
To reach USA ’94, Ireland had had to go to the wire with Spain in a group completed by Albania, Lithuania, Latvia, Denmark and Northern Ireland.
A 3-1 blow against Spain in Dublin in their penultimate match left the Republic needing at least a draw in Belfast to pull through. Alan McLoughlin ensured that after Jimmy Quinn had shot the North ahead.
Italia ’90 skipper Mick McCarthy picked up Charlton’s mantle as coach in 1996 and was immediately saddled with the challenge of keeping Ireland’s new World Cup tradition intact.
It was not to be so as an overhaul of Charlton’s aging team, frequent injuries to the inspirational Roy Keane and that old bane, ill luck, thwarted McCarthy in his attempt to return to the finals.
Ireland lost out to Belgium in the playoffs, drawing 1-1 in Dublin and dropping a 2-1 decision in Brussels.
That, in any case, turned out to be a learning experience for the young coach. With captain Keane more readily available, McCarthy navigated the Republic through a virtual minefield in the 2002 qualifiers to restore Ireland’s World Cup pride.
Ireland were undefeated in a group including Portugal and Holland. They tied the Portuguese twice, led Holland 2-0 away before settling for a 2-2 tie, and more famously killed off the star-studded Dutch 1-0 in Dublin to effectively book passage on the Orient Express.