Archive | June, 2014
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20 Years On: My memories of Ireland v Italy, Giants Stadium, USA-94.

18 Jun

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Just over a year ago, I wrote about St Raymond’s Day which was founded on 12th June 1988 when Ireland beat England in Stuttgart in our first ever match at a major finals.  That we beat England made it all the more special and notable of course.  This year however,  with it being another World Cup year, brings to mind another footballing milestone, as it is now twenty years since Ray Houghton again amazingly proved to be the matchwinner as Ireland upset all the forecasts by beating the mighty Italians 1-0 in the awesome Giants Stadium, Meadowlands, New Jersey in the opening group game at the 1994 World Cup.  Thankfully and fortunately again, as at Euro 88, I was there to witness another unbelievable experience.

Euro 88 and Italia 90 had given Irish fans a well-deserved place at the top table of world football. For so many years, poor teams, poor organisation and more than once, dodgy refereeing had kept us at home watching the tournaments on television.  Our performances at Euro 88 and Italia 90 made us hungry for more experiences.  A heartbreakingly near miss in qualifying for Euro 92 only hardened our determination to qualify for USA 94.  Similar to Euro 88 however, qualifying would prove to be arduous, tortuous and almost beyond us.

Our final qualification game in Belfast against Northern Ireland couldn’t have presented us with a more daunting or difficult assignment. The qualification table before the last match (2 teams would advance) read as follows (with also-rans Lithuania, Latvia and Albania):

Denmark P11 Pts 18

Spain       P11 Pts 17

Ireland     P11 Pts 17

N.Ireland P11 Pts 13

It was two points for a win back then, so a win for us would guarantee qualification. A draw would leave us sweating on the result between Spain and Denmark in Seville, while a defeat would leave us booking New Ross for the holidays instead of New York.

1993 was still a terrible time in Northern Ireland politically. The final qualification match venue was in doubt as the game loomed as there had been some horrific murders on both sides of the divide in the weeks preceding the game, but eventually it was decided Windsor Park in Belfast would stage the game amid unbelievably tight security.  No tickets were made available to Irish fans, although a few did get their hands on them but kept themselves very low key inside the stadium.

Qualification was drifting away when Jimmy Quinn scored for Northern Ireland midway through the second half. A baying and goading home crowd, whipped into a frenzy by Northern Ireland Manager Billy Bingham sensed blood, but they were silenced after 78 minutes when regular sub Alan McLoughlin rifled home a glorious shot to level the game up.  The game ended 1-1 but we didn’t know whether to laugh or cry as the game in Seville was still in progress.

After interminable injury time in Seville, the final whistle blew, Spain had clung on to beat Denmark 1-0, so in the space of 90 minutes, Denmark had gone from topping to group to elimination, Spain went through as winners and we pipped reigning European Champions Denmark on goal difference. I went through a record number of cans of beer that night and haven’t beaten it since then, the nerves were shot to bits but gave way to utter elation and delight as my first thoughts honed in on planning the trip Stateside, which was duly done over the coming months.

Remaining from our trips to Euro 88 and Italia 90 were Fergus and Rodney Bishop, Derek Keane, Brian Evers and Dave Dunne. We joined forces with a group from CYM Terenure so we had a massive group of lads together on tour as we arrived on 16th June in upstate New York’s magnificent Pearl River Hilton Hotel which would be our base until the day after the Italy game in New Jersey.

 

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The day before the Italy game, we enjoyed a brilliant few hours in New York’s “Little Italy” district as we lunched in an Italian restaurant and had great banter with the Italian-Americans as they tried to guess the winning Italian margin the following day. We took their cockiness with good grace as you could never underestimate the Irish in the Charlton era.  Some of the older Italians we met were right out of “Goodfellas” and being here in New York at World Cup time was just the only place in the world to be as a football fan.  We couldn’t wait for tomorrow.

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So finally June 18 arrived. The day began with a barbecue in Sandra and Ed Brady’s (who kindly booked all our magnificent accommodation) house in upstate New York.  Sandra’s brothers, Dave and Mick Simpson were among our travelling party, so the house was jammed with us all looking forward to the game.  Irish music blared through the speakers and we had a plenty of food and a few beers before we all headed out in rented cars to the Meadowlands Complex in New Jersey and the imposing and spectacular Giants Stadium loomed into view.  It was a warm and humid day in New Jersey and kick off was 16.00 local time, conditions that would be far worse when Ireland travelled to Orlando, nevertheless the 4pm start would still pose questions for the Irish players.

 

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We bounded up the steps towards our seats in plenty of time for kick off and I will never forget the sight that greeted me. There were Irish EVERYWHERE.  We had assumed the support would be even enough given the Italian-American population and their devotion to football and the Azzuri, but it seemed the Irish had, as is their habit, plundered the majority of the tickets.  Giants Stadium was turned into a home venue for Ireland and of the 75,338 people who crammed into the Stadium, 60,000 must have been Irish, from whatever generation.

The teams were announced on the giant scoreboards behind each goal (these were the pre-internet/mobile phone days, so we had to wait to find out the teams).

Italy: Pagliuca; Tassotti, Costacurta, Baresi, Maldini; Donadoni, Albertini, Dino Baggio, Evani; Roberto Baggio, Signori.

Ireland: Bonner; Irwin, McGrath, Babb, Phelan; Houghton, Sheridan, Townsend, Keane, Staunton; Coyne.

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Four of the Italian starting line-up had starred in the 4-0 Champions League Final mauling of Barcelona only a few weeks previously (Tassotti, Maldini, Albertini and Donadoni).  Massaro had come on as a sub and scored and Baresi was suspended for that Final, so the task ahead of Ireland was truly monumental.  Add to that doubts over the fitness of Ireland’s Paul McGrath and the aforementioned heat issue, Little Italy’s Goodfellas had good reason to expect an Italian victory.

Twelve minutes into the game, the massive Green Army was shaking Giants Stadium to its foundations. John Sheridan sent a long ball from the right for Ireland’s lone striker Tommy Coyne to chase and he challenged Costacurta who couldn’t clear properly.  As the ball dropped, Baresi tried a risky header to a fellow Italian just outside the Italian box.  Busy and alert as ever, Ray Houghton nipped in to intercept and as the ball settled, Houghton, almost off balance, tried his luck with his weaker left peg.  The ball rose and dipped perfectly, as Italian keeper Pagliuca, off his line, was unable to jump high enough to paw the ball away.  Like Houghton’s goal in Stuttgart, the ball seemed to take an eternity to hit the net and when the net did bulge, it took us our customary split second to check there was no linesman’s flag or referee’s whistle for a free out.  There was neither from the men in black (or purple in this case) as Dutch referee Mario Van Der Ende ran towards halfway signalling a perfectly good goal.  We celebrated in customary Irish style, grabbing anyone and everyone within grabbing distance, roaring and hollering and losing our head in joy and disbelief.  Ireland had gone and done it again, Ray Houghton had gone and done it again.  In Stuttgart, we soon realised we had another 84 minutes to hang on.  This time, Houghton would make us wait a mere 6 minutes shorter, 12 minutes gone, Ireland 1, Italy 0.

As the first half wore on and the dream Irish start settled down, Italy’s slick passing began to worry us, with Roberto Baggio in particular finding pockets of space to get on the ball and try engineer chances with Signori, but Ireland’s five man midfield was plugging the gaps well, with a young Roy Keane loving every moment against this illustrious and battle-hardened Italian team. Rookie centre half Phil Babb grew into the game effortlessly, but when you had Paul McGrath beside you, that’s how it worked out.

Ah Paul McGrath, or Ooh Ah Paul McGrath, what hasn’t been said/written about Big Paul on that amazing day? McGrath’s performance would turn out to be probably the finest 90 minutes by an Irish player before or since.  What was all the more remarkable is that McGrath had picked up a virus that severely restricted movement in one of his arms and his very appearance was in doubt.  But McGrath was an exception.  One little cameo among countless interventions that day stands out.  A clearing header from an Italian cross, seconds later another crucial header while seconds later again, he made an immaculately timed tackle as a 1-2 from Baggio and Signori looked like getting in behind us.  That tackle brought a roar that almost equalled Houghton’s goal and it was pure McGrath gold.

The second half, while not as tortuous or Alamo-esque as Stuttgart six years previously, was no less tense. Bonner only had one crucial save of note to make, a fine parry from a Signori snap shot.  Otherwise it was Italy passing and probing, but Babb and McGrath in particular snuffing out the danger.  At the far end, Sheridan rattled the Italian crossbar after brilliant work from Keane down the left.  Keane wasn’t far behind McGrath for Man of the Match that day and Keane collected Ireland’s Player of the World Cup for his efforts during the tournament.

Ireland would not be denied however. The Italians ran out of ideas as McGrath broke their hearts time and again. Not even Champions League Final goalscorer Massaro, on as a sub, could make the difference as Ireland’s thirteen heroes dug in (McAteer and Aldridge replaced Houghton and Coyne) and Mr Van Der Ende finally signalled, well, the end.

Baseball cap-clad Charlton threw his arms in the air having received congratulations from Italian Coach Arrigo Sacchi. Mick Byrne planted the obligatory kiss on Big Jack’s cheek as the masses of Irish fans celebrated another remarkable win in an opening day group game.   Ireland 1, Italy 0, we could scarcely believe it and we were here again to savour the moment and embrace all round us.

Paolo Maldini hailed McGrath’s performance in his after match interview and coming from one of the finest defenders of all time, this was something to hear and savour, but Maldini was correct, McGrath had been just amazing on the day.

The victory over Italy twenty years ago on this date was in my opinion a more impressive victory than the England one six years previously. While the English one was more satisfying given it was our first match in a finals and it was against our biggest rival, beating the Italians in the World Cup was of far more significance.  England went on to lose all three games at Euro 88, Italy went onto the World Cup Final after losing to Ireland, only to lose to Brazil on penalties with amazingly, Massaro,  Baresi and Robert Baggio all fluffing their kicks.

Beating Italy at USA 94 also proved to be the high point of that World Cup odyssey. A savagely hot day in Orlando with a ridiculous 12 noon kick off saw Ireland lose 2-1 to Mexico, with a 0-0 bore draw with Norway back in Giants Stadium being enough to again see us advance to the last 16.  Holland however were far too good for us in Orlando on Independence Day as we succumbed to two first half goals from Bergkamp and Jonk.  Charlton’s squad was beginning to age and seventeen months later, Charlton himself was gone as Holland again proved our undoing in a Euro 96 play-off (2-0 again) at Anfield.

But as World Cup fever is upon us since 12th June, today is a good day to again salute Ray Houghton and his big game winning goals and Paul McGrath for his virtuouso performance.

Sláinte!

Footnote:

It would be remiss of me to not remember the six football fans who were brutally murdered by the Ulster Volunteer Force while watching this match in The Heights Bar in Loughinisland, Co Down.    As these were the days before mobile phones and instant social media news, we didn’t know about this atrocity until the next day or two as we remained in America.  The bar was targeted as it was frequented usually but not exclusively by Catholics and it remains an unsolved case.  The dead were Adrian Rogan (34), Malcolm Jenkinson (52), Barney Greene (87), Daniel McCreanor (59), Patrick O’Hare (35) and Eamon Byrne (39), all Catholic civilians.   We remember those people, twenty years on and it serves to remind us to keep football and sport in general where it belongs, very much in perspective.

Phelim Warren, 18th June 2014.

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Keane’s Staying! Now folks, can we focus on the players again?

2 Jun

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Never second guess Roy Keane. You’d think that of all people, the press corp would’ve learned that. Terms like “past the post” and “done deal” were bandied about with confidence over the weekend regarding Celtic’s talks with Roy Keane over Celtic’s managerial vacancy. Despite Celtic’s Chairman Peter Lawwell insisting Keane was merely one of a number of candidates, all the smart (doesn’t seem so smart now) money was on Keane leaving his Assistant Manager’s job with the Irish team and shortly going through estate agents’ brochures to choose a Scottish house to live in.

Well as we know, earlier today Keane decided to remain on in his role as Ireland’s Assistant Manager. Whether he “turned down” Celtic is another matter and quite frankly irrelevant now. By the sounds of the Irish fans at the end of the game with Italy on Saturday, when they chanted his name, the majority I would guess are happy with his decision. I’m sure Martin O’Neill and John Delaney are delighted with his decision and finally, I’d be pretty certain the Irish players are delighted he’s staying.

Ah yes, the Irish players, remember them? There was a key Euro 2016 warm-up game for them in London on Saturday against World Cup-bound Italy. All the pre-match talk was of Keane and Celtic. All the post-match talk was of Keane and Celtic. In between those talks, O’Neill’s Ireland got a more than creditable 0-0 draw with the Italians. OK so it was a fourth game without a win following the opening 3-0 win over Latvia last November, but without doubt, the manner and style of the draw with Italy was in my opinion the most impressive and eye-catching performance in the five matches to date under O’Neill’s tenure.

Italy named their 23 man squad today, so Saturday’s game was more than a friendly for those players on the cut-line of Manager Cesare Prandelli’s thoughts and he named his team with this in mind. The young Italians started very impressively and had Ireland on the rack in the opening 15-20 minutes, with Ireland’s centre midfield pairing of Jeff Hendrick and David Meyler struggling initially with the Italian fluidity and movement. Things changed however, possibly due to the very unfortunate leg fracture to Italy’s Montelivo in an innocent collision of legs with Ireland’s Alex Pearce and also possibly due to the two Irish rookies getting to grips with things overall. Both Hendrick and Meyler showed admirable composure on the ball and bite in the tackle to gradually drive Ireland forward, thus enabling wide men, Aiden McGeady and Anthony Pilkington to threaten the Italian defence on several occasions in the first half.

It was from one such drive from Hendrick that led to a free kick that forced Sirigu to save Pilkington’s resulting effort and Pilkington showed real confidence and talent after Hendrick again and Hoolahan combined initially, with Pilkington most unfortunate to see his shot blocked. Meyler showed he can get forward also with a left footed drive that again forced a save from Sirigu and a really excellent Irish move saw McGeady get around the Italian defender from which Long really should’ve scored with the resulting header instead of allowing the by now very busy Sirigu to get across his goal-line and save.

In the second half, Ireland dominated the early exchanges and played with plenty of poise and confidence with barely a long or hopeful ball in sight. Hoolahan twice set up Long, with Long just failing to find McGeady the first time, while the second time forcing another save from Sirigu. Hoolahan, apart from his creativity again showed what a nonsense it had been that Trapattoni claimed Hoolahan physically lacked what Trapattoni felt was required at this level. Hoolahan will surely be one of the first names on the teamsheet in the opening qualifier in September given how he has performed for O’Neill thus far.

Italy regrouped and had their own period of dominance again but apart from a rightly disallowed Italian goal, David Forde was relatively untroubled as the Irish defence, superbly marshalled by John O’Shea coped and remained resolute, disciplined and organized. Ireland finished strongly, substitutes James McClean, Simon Cox and Stephen Quinn were all involved with the latter crashing a 10 yard drive off the underside of the Italian crossbar, with Quinn setting up McGeady for the rebound who forced yet another save from Sirigu. That was the Irish winning moment one felt but the game finished in a hugely enjoyable and energetic 0-0 draw.

While Brian Kerr in the Setanta studio was pleased, he advised us to not get carried away by the result or performance. Martin O’Neill however was understandably beaming and delighted with the efforts of everyone who played on the night (the match stats read 17 goal attempts to 8 in Ireland’s favour) and it probably gave him his best overall view of what he now has at his disposal, given that stalwarts such as Richard Dunne, Robbie Keane and James McCarthy were absent.

So five games into O’Neill’s reign and it’s a win, two draws and two defeats so far. Those statistics could very easily be three wins rather than one and overall, I think we can see the O’Neill philosophy on the game emerging with this group, slowly shedding the strait-jacketed system that Trapattoni imposed.

The fact that there have been few, if any, withdrawals for the two recent matches and the two games in the States against Costa Rica and Portugal to come seems to indicate that everyone wants to be in the frame for starting positions in September’s Euro 2016 qualifiers. Markers were laid down by otherwise fringe players such as Hendrick, Meyler and Pilkington to O’Neill that they will not let the team down if called upon. Regulars of the last couple of years such as McClean, Ward and Wilson know they have to earn their place in the team and while it’s expected that Richard Dunne will return to partner John O’Shea, others will know they’ll get their chance sooner rather than later.

O’Neill will however be concerned that Robbie Keane’s absence in the last couple of games has been very much felt in terms of Ireland not taking their chances. It was apparent in the defeats to Serbia and Turkey in Dublin and again apparent in the Italy draw. While it’s hugely commendable that Ireland are creating far more chances than that of the Trapattoni era, we can’t rely on Robbie Keane forever and for all Shane Long’s wonderful honesty, strength and aerial attributes, it’s a worry that he misses a far greater proportion of chances than he scores. We may pray we get another full campaign out of Robbie Keane to turn draws into wins at home, or defeats into draws away.

Overall however, the short-term future looks most encouraging and the manner in which Ireland are playing is a lot easier on the eye. The fact that Wes Hoolahan has always been a notable asset to the team so far points to the way O’Neill sees the path this team is taking. It is of huge importance that Hoolahan’s club situation is an improvement on last season. He needs to play, all the time.

Saturday’s performance will hopefully continue into the Stateside games with a win over Costa Rica and hopefully another good outing against surely a formidable Portugal. Robbie Keane will be back for those, Roy Keane is staying on for those. Both situations are welcome and we can now close the chapter on Roy’s situation for the forseeable future and let the players now get on with it.

Phelim Warren
@freewheeler12