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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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