Tag Archives: irish football

Euro 2016: Clough Disciples can take us past Group Stage

7 Jun

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So as the Irish team prepares to leave for their magnificent looking Versailles base (Saipan it certainly isn’t) and with new contracts just hours ago having been agreed for Irish boss Martin O’Neill, assistant Roy Keane and other staff members, it should be a fairly happy Easyjet flight that leaves these shores tomorrow.

It’s been a very interesting seven days since Ireland’s final warm-up defeat to Belarus in Turner’s Cross and the squad announcement and apparent fall-out (among some sections of the Press anyhow) of Roy Keane’s perceived disaffection with some of the Irish players’ performances in that Belarus game.

In my opinion, Keane was absolutely on the money, but I would also wager there was calculated method in his comments that had the complete backing of his gaffer. The squad hadn’t been announced and a couple of spots were up for grabs on the flight, yet far too many of the eleven who started (with most if not all unlikely to feature in the starting XI against Sweden in Paris next Monday, barring injuries) against Belarus failed miserably to lay down a marker to O’Neill that they could merit a starting place if the cards fell their way.

For me, the biggest contrast in attitudes and ability on the night were Aiden McGeady and James McClean. In terms of natural ability, McGeady is streets ahead of McClean. In terms of honesty of application and attitude, McClean blows the moody and enigmatic McGeady out of the water. Aiden McGeady rescued a crucial opening qualifier victory in Georgia twenty one months ago with that world class goal (his second on the night) and looked set to finally blossom in the Irish shirt after so many infuriating performances lacking in end product and effectiveness. A move to Everton following a productive enough spell with Spartak Moscow looked set to further McGeady’s cementing of his reputation as a top class player. Sadly, it has all gone pear-shaped for McGeady as injury and loss of form saw him slip out of favour with Martinez at Everton. The fact that a well-meaning move to Premier League chasing Sheffield Wednesday utterly bombed should fill O’neill and Keane and indeed all of us, with complete fear at how low McGeady’s stock has now fallen. His first half performance against Belarus bore that out. He was ineffective, disinterested and completely bereft of any semblance of sharpness. He is lucky to be boarding that plane tomorrow.

McClean on the other hand bounced back from a pre-season slaughtering in the British (and some Irish) media over his God Save the Queen stance in a pre-season friendly for West Brom, followed by the annual November nonsense (Poppygate) by absorbing the  garbage with his usual class and steadfastness and then becoming a regular in the first team at The Hawthorns. He had a fine season (despite a couple of silly red cards) and demonstrated last Tuesday against Belarus that not only did he want to be certain of making the squad, he wanted to show O’Neill that he covets a starting spot in Paris next Monday. This he did by making some  crunching tackles from the off and covering the ground in his usual manner and getting in a quota of crosses. He was everything McGeady wasn’t. McClean however must get his timing right or he will incur referees’ wrath.

It was Keane’s post-match comments however that made the headlines and I really don’t understand the fuss that was made of them, with some speculating already that there might be unrest in the Irish camp as a result! What utter rubbish!
Has it not occurred to anyone that both O’Neill and Keane were managed by one of the greatest managers of all time in Brian Clough? Has it not occurred to those who felt Keane was out of order that these two former pupils of Clough might now be indulging in some

well-rehearsed cajoling and psychology to ensure all twenty three Irish players know what’s expected of them? Has it not occured to anyone that the players might actually agree with Keane (and O’Neill who himself was unimpressed with the Belarus showing)? And if they don’t agree with Keane and were “hurt” or “stung” by the criticism, well maybe they should pack it in and let their wives/girlfriends massage their poor bruised egos.

In my opinion, the timing of this perceived criticism of several players was absolutely spot on, be it personally from Keane, or if it was prompted by O’Neill himself, with Roy the usual “bad cop” trotted out so everybody would be listening.

We travelled to Poland in 2012 without a clue what our management team was thinking or saying due to their pigeon English. We travelled to Poland, despite several players being patently unfit, wrongly assuming all was well and smelling of roses in the camp. We travelled to Poland on a wave of utterly misplaced confidence. O’Neill and Keane are ensuring we don’t repeat that  mistake this year.

So what of our chances in the group? I am cautiously optimistic we can advance through the group. Sweden are workmanlike and honest and have Ibrahimovic. Ibrahimovic can be and has been shackled before and if Ireland can do a job in containing their big star, we can

definitely gain a point at least from the opener. Three points is not beyond us either given the O’Neill knack in getting into his players’ heads (the Clough factor) and playing above themselves when it matters.

The fitness of Jonny Walters and Robbie Brady is key to our chances in Paris. Walters was our talisman and Player of the Qualifiers. Brady has become key for set piece delivery and eye for a goal (both play-off legs v Bosnia). Deprived of one or both of them could mean the difference between no points and three next Monday. I believe both will make it as this game should determine our duration in France.

Belgium will hugely miss the absence of Kompany, when he is fully fit (if he ever will be again), he is one of the best defenders in world football. Despite the rich talent at Marc Wilmots’ disposal, Kompany’s absence will make a difference to the fate of Belgium. On their day however and depending on how we’ve fared in Paris, this is probably our toughest game of the three and I would take a point now from Bordeaux.

Italy are Italy, despite the retirement of Pirlo and the absence of a centre forward of note to score the goals they need. Despite Italy’s tradition and history, I firmly believe Ireland can win this one and an avoidance of defeat in the other two games should be enough for us to make the last 16.

Make no mistake however, this is still a bloody tough group for Ireland and history has taught us that anything is possible on any given day, be it positive or negative, so my belief we can progress beyond the group stage is peppered with caution.

If everyone is fit (and I mean 100% fit, not Euro 2012 fit), I think the starting XI will be as follows: (4-5-1) – Randolph, Coleman, O’Shea, Keogh, Brady; Walters, Whelan, McCarthy, Hendrick, McClean; Long.

We’re all set, let the games begin and let us hope we see us make it beyond the group stage for this time in a European Championship! GWAN IRELAND!

 

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Martin O’Neill: Irish Tinkerman?

13 Oct
O'Neill got his mojo back in the win over Germany

O’Neill got his mojo back in the win over Germany

What to make then of Martin O’Neill’s first ten qualification matches as Irish gaffer? A record of five wins, three draws and two defeats has been enough to progress Ireland to the perilous play-off situation next month and with a goals record of 19 scored and only 7 conceded, I think it’s fair to laud the Derryman on making the play-offs in a group containing World Champions Germany, an always formidable Poland and an improving, if ultimately careless Scotland under Gordon Strachan.

Much has been made of O’Neill’s team selections since the group got under way thirteen months ago away to Georgia. The big questions before that opener in Tbilisi were would he go Trapattoni-like with a rigid and strait-jacketed 4-4-2? Would he play three at the back as he often did at Celtic? 4-5-1 (when defending) or 4-3-3 (when attacking)? Would the mercurial and forgotten (under Trapattoni) Wes Hoolahan finally find a regular place in the starting eleven?

In that first game away to Georgia, he elected to play three in central midfield with Whelan, McCarthy and Stephen Quinn getting the nod, flanked by McGeady and Walters, with Robbie Keane on his own up front. Ireland won the opener 2-1 in what was a very patchy performance, rescued by McGeady’s injury time wonder goal. In eight of the subsequent nine qualifiers he went for the three in the middle. The game he didn’t was Scotland away where Darron Gibson and Jeff Hendrick made little impression with Long and Walters getting no service up front and McClean and McGeady totally ineffective out wide, where Scotland deservedly won 1-0 at Celtic Park.

O’Neill always kept everyone guessing as to his starting eleven and I would wager that includes his players. Below are the amount of changes he made to the starting eleven from game to game following that opener in Georgia:

Gibraltar (home), five changes,won 7-0

Germany (away), three changes, drew 1-1

Scotland (away), five changes, lost 0-1

Poland (home), seven changes, drew 1-1

Scotland (home), two changes, drew 1-1

Georgia (home), two changes, won 1-0

Gibraltar (away), one change, won 4-0

Germany (home), four changes, won 1-0

Poland (away), five changes, lost 1-2

While losing players to injury and suspension is always an issue in international football, I’d be doubtful that many teams with the same pool of players available as Ireland would make as many changes from game to game as O’Neill did. The five changes from the memorable win at home to Germany to the disappointing loss in Warsaw three days later were in my opinion unduly excessive. In my opinion, Christie (superb against Germany) should have been retained and moved to left back for the exhausted Ward with Brady remaining in midfield where he excelled against Germany with Hendrick and McCarthy That midfield three showed more than enough in that remarkable victory to merit being kept together in a match where a victory or 2-2 draw was very much attainable and thus avoiding the shark-infested waters of the play-off. With O’Neill breaking up that trio, reverting Brady to left back (a position he is still coming to terms with) and not convincing Hoolahan to give it socks for an hour or more in Warsaw stunted the massive momentum the team created after beating the World champions. In a game we should have taken to Poland from the off, the return of Whelan alongside McCarthy and Hendrick saw us return to ponderous and predictable midfield graft rather than the mobile and progressive stuff we saw with Brady, McCarthy and Hendrick three days previously. While not in the social media league of Glen Whelan-bashing, I really feel a corner was turned in terms of midfield passing and mobility in that Germany victory and bringing Whelan back handed over a pre-kick off initiative in Warsaw and our attacking play on the night bore that out in what was as bad a performance as the Glasgow defeat (which Whelan missed to be fair!) in terms of the dearth of attacking play and chances created.

So Martin O’Neill has many conundrums and dilemmas ahead of next month’s play off, the draw for which is next Sunday.

Over the ten games, he started twenty four different players.  Those ten games didn’t reveal a clear identity or philosophy of play under O’Neill apart from the expected honesty of effort and pride in the shirt. A philosophy seemed to be emerging with the Herculean performance over the Germans, or was that merely a one off or false dawn given the subsequent disappointment in Warsaw?

O’Neill really needs to find the correct blend in his midfield three that makes this team more threatening coming forward. Performances such as in Warsaw, Glasgow and the first half at home to Poland cannot be allowed to continue. He must do without Walters (and John O’Shea) for the first leg of the play-off. Walters has been a real stalwart in the campaign for his application , tenacity and nicking of crucial goals such as the winner against Georgia and the opener against Scotland at home. He will be missed, but maybe it gives Hoolahan another chance as a roving wide player with (hopefully) a fully fit again McGeady on the other side and and the central trio of Hendrick, McCarthy and Brady given their head again.

A bold approach can see us on that plane to France, leaving Scotland at home next Summer to mind the two islands. Ruthless and brave decisions have to made by O’Neill. Let’s hope he gets those decisions right over the next 180 minutes of football.

Footnote:

For the record, below is the list of players who started matches in the qualifying group.

John O’Shea 10

Jonathan Walters 9

Glen Whelan 7

James McCarthy 7

Jeff Hendrick 7

Seamus Coleman 6

Robbie Keane 6

Wes Hoolahan 6

Robbie Brady 6

Aiden McGeady 5

Shay Given 5

Marc Wilson 5

Stephen Ward 5

James McClean 4

David Forde 4

Richard Keogh 3

Cyrus Christie 2

Shane Long 2

Daryl Murphy 2

Darron Gibson 2

Stephen Quinn 2

Ciaran Clarke 2

David Meyler 2

Darren Randolph 1

*************************************************************************************************************************************************

Phelim Warren, 13th October 2015

@freewheeler12

James McClean: An Irish Fan’s Take.

22 Jul

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Much has been written in the past couple of days regarding the “controversy” generated by James McClean’s admirable stance (literally) when the British national anthem was played in his English club’s (West Brom) friendly match in America over the weekend.   Much guff has been written about it and too much but predictable guff has been written by Twitter and Facebook keyboard warriors. Some of stuff by “reputable” journalists in the UK has been predictably pathetic and comments on RTE’s “Soccer Republic” by football pundit Damien Richardson were lazy and nonsensical in stating McClean shouldn’t play in England if he won’t stand and face the British flag for the British National Anthem.

 

What remains however in my opinion is that James McClean demonstrated intelligence, consistency, respect, bravery and steadfastness regarding his nationality and beliefs and as a Dublin-based Irishman, I applaud his actions heartily.

 

Let’s get one thing straight. James McClean did not turn his back when God Save the Queen was struck up. His ten team mates turned to face the flag, James turned to face the original way the players were facing. James McClean is from The Creggan in Derry, a city scarred so badly by The Troubles. The Bloody Sunday atrocity of 1972 still remains seared on the psyche of the people of Derry, not least on McClean’s mind as he was growing up, when British paratroopers opened fire on unarmed and defenceless nationalist citizens of Derry, with fourteen people losing their lives. That it took 38 years for the British Government to apologise for the killings, the lies and the cover ups added to a justified sense of anger and bitterness among the nationalist community. James McClean listened to and learned what happened in 1972 and like any fair-minded person, knew where the blame lay.

 

McClean wrote a hugely thoughtful, measured and respectful letter to his chairman at his then club Wigan Athletic in 2014, when McClean opted to not wear a Remembrance Day Poppy on his shirt last year. I am quoting McClean’s statement in full here:

 

Dear Mr Whelan I wanted to write to you before talking about this face to face and explain my reasons for not wearing a poppy on my shirt for the game at Bolton.

I have complete respect for those who fought and died in both World Wars – many I know were Irish-born. I have been told that your own Grandfather Paddy Whelan, from Tipperary, was one of those. I mourn their deaths like every other decent person and if the Poppy was a symbol only for the lost souls of World War I and II I would wear one. I want to make that 100% clear .You must understand this.

But the Poppy is used to remember victims of other conflicts since 1945 and this is where the problem starts for me. For people from the North of Ireland such as myself, and specifically those in Derry, scene of the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre, the poppy has come to mean something very different. Please understand, Mr Whelan, that when you come from Creggan like myself or the Bogside, Brandywell or the majority of places in Derry, every person still lives in the shadow of one of the darkest days in Ireland’s history – even if like me you were born nearly 20 years after the event. It is just a part of who we are, ingrained into us from birth.

Mr Whelan, for me to wear a poppy would be as much a gesture of disrespect for the innocent people who lost their lives in the Troubles – and Bloody Sunday especially – as I have in the past been accused of disrespecting the victims of WWI and WWII. It would be seen as an act of disrespect to those people; to my people.

I am not a war monger, or anti-British, or a terrorist or any of the accusations levelled at me in the past. I am a peaceful guy, I believe everyone should live side by side, whatever their religious or political beliefs which I respect and ask for people to respect mine in return.

Since last year, I am a father and I want my daughter to grow up in a peaceful world, like any parent. I am very proud of where I come from and I just cannot do something that I believe is wrong. In life, if you’re a man you should stand up for what you believe in. I know you may not agree with my feelings but I hope very much that you understand my reasons.

As the owner of the club I am proud to play for, I believe I owe both you and the club’s supporters this explanation.

Yours sincerely,

James McClean

 

Not exactly your typical comments from a modern day footballer. Indeed it is so rare for a footballer these days to comment on any issue with any degree of insight or intelligence, so McClean’s statement was particularly well written and thought out.

 

For people then to state McClean is a hypocrite for earning his living in England but not “respecting” God Save the Queen just defies all logic. McClean completely respected the National Anthem by remaining silent and still. If he had turned to face the British flag, we could then accuse him of being a hypocrite given his Remembrance Day statement. But he remained true to himself on his beliefs. If you want disrespect of a national anthem, look and listen no further to a sizeable amount of English fans who sing(?) their national anthem willy nilly during matches and in bars and on the streets without any regard for the appropriateness of a national anthem. That some deem to sing it while using a Nazi salute demonstrates who the hypocrites are when it comes to national anthems.

 

If you want disrespect for a national anthem, cast your mind back to a World Cup Qualifier in 1989 at Lansdowne Road between Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The North’s keeper, George Dunlop indulged in a notably and blatantly disrespectful session of hopping up and down on the spot as the Republic’s anthem “Amhrán na bhFiann” was played. Where was the outrage back then, the calls for Dunlop to be disciplined in the way McClean has been called out to be sacked by his club West Brom and ran out of the UK by the mob mentality?

 

If you want respect for a neighbouring Head of State, anybody care to remember Martin Johnson’s pathetic game of one-upmanship on his Irish hosts at a rugby international at Lansdowne Road in 2003? Johnson led his team to the Irish side of the red carpet deliberately and when politely asked to move to the English side, refused, which caused the President of Ireland, Mary McAleese to trudge through a heavy and dirty surface for the pre-match handshakes. Bravo Martin.

 

Then enter McClean’s club manager Tony Pulis into the affair. Tony Pulis signed McClean during the Summer, surely knowing full well that McClean took and maintained a stand over Remembrance Day. After McClean’s actions over the weekend, Pulis was quoted as saying his player should have turned to face the flag “like everybody else”. Oh really Tony? Did not it occur to you that James might have a mind of his own when it came to British national anthems or remembrances? Pulis then said McClean has been “reminded of his responsibilities”. What responsibility is that then Tony? Did he do a Gazza and mimic a flute-playing bigot? No. Was McClean found drunk behind a the wheel of a car? No. Did McClean beat up his wife/partner? No. Did James break a fellow professional’s leg and put a career at risk? No. I could find other examples of appalling acts of modern day players and their “responsibilities” but I think I’ve made my point. So don’t talk to James McClean about responsibilities Mr Pulis.

 

In short and in this fan’s eyes, James McClean behaved respectfully, rationally, consistently and bravely. He is used to social media backlashes and is clearly ready and able to deal with the flak. His opinions and stance remain rare in a modern day footballer and the fact that he won’t have stuff rammed down his throat and ordered how to carry himself as a proud Irishman is as admirable as it is correct.

 

I’m sick of people talking down to us on what Irish people should or shouldn’t sing about, what events of history and people we choose to laud or celebrate, trying to hide and tuck away history and events, events that shaped this country and have shaped James McClean into the person he is. James McClean may not be an outstanding footballer but he’s an outstanding Irishman.   We should learn from him.

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

25 Years on, St Raymond’s Day. Euro 88, Stuttgart 12th June.

11 Jun

OK, for those of you who know your saints and religious history, Saint Raymond’s Day is actually on January 7, the real St Raymond  being St Raymond of Pennafort, Patron Saint of Canonists (yes I googled him).  But to Irish football fans,  St Raymond is none other than  Raymond Houghton, Glaswegian born footballer of a Donegal father,  who scored that famous goal in Ireland’s first ever match in a major finals.   That it was scored against England, the old enemy, the mecca for so many Irish football fans who worship English teams and their players, the players with whom we are most familiar, a nation whose perceived arrogance when it comes to potentially winning every tournament both amuses and irritates us, together with many other good and not so good reasons, made this victory all the sweeter.  It also ensures that those of us who were there and those who weren’t, but to whom it meant so much, annually remember THAT goal every 12th June.  OK again, so we cringe and moan when England’s World Cup win in 1966 is rammed down our throats at every conceivable opportunity, but please excuse us Irish if we indulge ourselves in remembering the Irish St Raymond’s moment of pure ecstasy every Summer.

 

Of course it might never have happened.  Jack Charlton’s merry Green Army might never have started recruiting in that memorable Summer of 1988.  It had been Charlton’s first qualifying campaign following a dismal 1986 World Cup Campaign and Eoin Hand had been replaced as Manager by the 1966 World Cup winner in chaotic fashion by the FAI.  This first campaign had seen a resurgence of the Irish form and performances, albeit with a direct style of football that didn’t appeal to everybody, be it fans, media and arguably some of the players at Charlton’s disposal.  While the campaign had only seen a solitary defeat away to Bulgaria (Ireland always lost in Sofia) in a group also containing 1986 World Cup semi-finalists Belgium, Andy Roxborough’s Scotland and Luxembourg, Bulgaria looked certainties for qualification.  They only required a point at home to Scotland in the group’s final match to advance to the 1988 tournament and very few gave Roxborough’s team a chance.

 

As we all know however, football never ceases to fly in the face of expectation.  With the Bulgaria v Scotland game still at 0-0 in the 86th minute (and with Irish Television carrying the match live), Gary Mackay, making his Scottish debut as a 46th minute substitute for Paul McStay, latched onto Stevie Nicol’s slide-rule pass and curled a left footer inside Boris Mihailov’s far post.  As I watched with disbelief as the ball nestled low in the corner, I waited a few seconds before celebrating as I more than half expected a linesman’s flag to go up, or for the referee to call the play back for a Scottish free kick as Gordon Durie had been upended seconds before.  As TV pictures however showed Ian Wilson running back to halfway applauding, I jumped off my armchair punching the air, turning the air blue with celebratory expletives and hugging my Dad who watched with me in similar shock and euphoria.  Bulgaria 0, Scotland 1, unbef***inglieavable.   There was still time for Bulgaria to almost nick a qualifying equaliser as Sirakov beat Jim Leighton but also shaved the post with a late strike but eventually, mercifully and incredibly, the referee blew for full time and Ireland were going to their first major finals, courtesy of Scotland and the newly immortalised Gary Mackay. 

 

The draw for the group matches in Germany gave us Holland in Gelsenkirchen, Soviet Union in Hanover and our first match, England, to be played at The Neckar Stadium in Stuttgart.  T-shirts were very soon printed off with the match venues changed to match the expected amounts of drink that would be consumed that Summer, so we were instead bound for Scuttered, Hangover and Belchin Burpin.  It would be that sort of Summer and June 12 would be that kind of day.

 

June 12 was actually a Sunday and kick off time in Ireland was 2.30.  For those of you not altogether familiar with 1988 Irish licensing laws, it wasn’t permitted for bars to open between 2pm and 4pm on a Sunday due to what was called “Holy Hour” (one hour really meant two, very Irish).   Holy Hour was finally abolished about 1999 or 2000, but what would football fans do who’d gone for a pint after Mass on that Sunday (everbody must’ve gone to mass that day given what happened)?  I cannot actually answer what the pubs actually did, nor did I particularly care.  I was in Germany and on my way to the Neckar Stadium, but I’m sure it was a real conundrum for bars and punters alike.

 

I had travelled to Germany with six companions and we were based in Cologne for this memorable week.  We were taken by Coach early on the Sunday morning, following a very heavy Saturday night in the Cologne bars, but the anticipation of what was ahead of us kept the sizeable hangovers at bay.  The sun was shining brightly as we arrived at our Coach Park in Stuttgart and the volume of green clad fans was hugely encouraging and comforting.  We took up position with the vast majority of the Irish fans behind the goal where the historic moment would happen a bit later on and we sang the national anthem with fervour and passion (the German band actually played the lesser known verse first before going into the chorus that is universally played at almost every other occasion, as I said it was that sort of day!) and we settled down with a catalogue of emotions;  hope, fear, pride, expectation, nervous tension and more besides.   After a mere six minutes we were jumping for joy like we never jumped before, or probably since.

 

Gary Lineker gave away a free kick for a foul on Chris Hughton on the Irish left,  inside Ireland’s half.  Kevin Moran struck the free kick high down the left channel.  Frank Stapleton was the target of the long ball, but thanks to a lack of communication, two England defenders, full back Gary Stevens and centre half Mark Wright both attacked the same ball.  Neither defender dealt with it and the ball dropped on the corner of the penalty area for Irish winger Tony Galvin who hooked the ball into the far post area.  Another England defender, Kenny  Sansom was waiting but Sansom however, like Stevens and Wright, failed dismally to deal with the situation and he booted the ball straight up in the air in panic.  As Irish players sensed blood, John Aldridge rose above Tony Adams to complete the English back four’s failure to deal with what should’ve been a routine defensive job.  Aldridge headed the ball to his right where little Ray Houghton stood unmarked and from 8 yards, Houghton headed the ball over Peter Shilton’s right shoulder.

 

From my vantage point almost directly behind where Houghton headed the ball, I can still see Houghton’s thick mop of hair shaking when he arched his back to head the ball.  I can remember time standing still as we followed the arc of the ball looping agonisingly towards that far corner.  Finally, the net bulged and you could almost hear the collective intake of Irish breath at that moment.  I again looked for a linesman’s flag but when I saw him running back towards halfway, the penny dropped.  We’d scored!  Jaysus! Yeeeeeeeeeeeessssssssss!    A massive Irish exclamation mark rose up above the Stadium as we embraced our companions and anyone else close enough to embrace.   Utter pandemonium ensued as the Irish players celebrated in front of us.  TV pictures showed Charlton had whacked his head on the dugout ceiling when we scored.  Several heads were probably bashed in the Irish end also but nobody cared.  The cheering and celebration lasted several minutes until we finally stopped for breath again and remembered there was a game back on in play.  We also realised we’d still over 80 minutes to survive the predictable England fightback.

 

Bobby Robson’s England seemed genuinely shocked and disturbed by St Raymond’s goal.  So were we.  It was Houghton’s first international goal after all in what was his 16th cap.  After the noise died down a bit, Ireland began to dominate with Houghton in particular outstanding having scored his goal.  The remainder of the half saw England having plenty of possession but doing very little with it.  Wingers Waddle and Barnes were being well shackled by the Irish full backs Morris and Hughton and in midfield Ronnie Whelan and the majestic Paul McGrath were easily containing Neil Webb and Bryan Robson.

 

The second half would be different.  The second half would be terrifying.  The second half would be endless.  From the early minutes, England, clearly put in their place by Bobby Robson, went straight on the offensive.  Bryan Robson dinked a ball over McCarthy and Lineker was in, his shot was parried by Bonner but Peter Beardsley followed up but skied the rebound over the bar from 12 yards.  It was a portent for a second half onslaught.

 

Lineker  utterly and terrifyingly exposed McCarthy’s lack of pace (it later emerged McCarthy was close to not playing as his calves had gone into spasm beforehand) but somehow Ireland’s goal survived intact.  Lineker was inches wide from a Tony Adams pass, Bonner saved with his legs from Lineker and as the England waves continued to crash on the Irish shore, Bonner was at his brilliant best to save Robson’s shot and dive on the rebound as Beardsley again followed in.  It was the Alamo but Ireland dug in bravely.   The non-stop Tony Galvin eventually succumbed to exhaustion and the stylish Kevin Sheedy replaced him, with Frank Stapleton also called ashore and a young Niall Quinn introduced.  Bobby Robson replaced Beardsley with Mark Hateley, but more tellingly and ominously, Neil Webb was replaced by Glenn Hoddle.

 

Hoddle settled seamlessly into the match and we thanked our lucky stars he hadn’t started the game as he probed and pulled the strings as still the Irish defence clung on.  Ireland only threatened sporadically as a fine Chris Hughton cross was headed over by Aldridge and a snap shot from Ronnie Whelan just cleared Shilton’s bar, but they were brief respites from an English battering.  We chewed our fingernails to stumps but one of our companions, Alan Keane, a Leeds and Shamrock Rovers fan and an eternal pessimist piped up with 20 minutes or so remaining, “they’ll never score”.  We said nothing back, the bridge was creaking but Keaner said what he said and we prayed he’d be right but expected he’d be wrong.

 

England got a corner on our right.  The corner was lofted to outside the Irish box where Hoddle was prowling unmarked.  Hoddle caught the ball as he almost always did, beautifully, sweetly.   My heart sank.  I was right behind the trajectory of the volley and the ball arrowed towards Bonner’s top left hand corner of the goal.  Bonner dived out of habit, but he wasn’t gonna get near it and as I motioned my hands to my head in dejection, the ball took a sudden, last gasp curve and scorched the paint off Bonner’s post before going wide.  I will remember that shot to my dying day, Keaner’s words were beginning to look prophetic.  There would be still one final heart-stopping English chance.

 

Barnes skipped down the left in injury time and Morris fouled him, more out of exhaustion than malice.  That man Hoddle swung the free kick in viciously, right onto Lineker’s head.  Lineker hit the target but the inspirational Bonner somehow adjusted his position and reaching back and to his right and with blinding reflexes pawed the ball away.  Just like Hoddle’s volley, the ball agonisingly crept outside the post, corner.  Lineker stood there, hands on knees, crestfallen, disbelieving, defeated.  Irish fans rose to acclaim another miracle.  Keaner’s statement echoed again, “they’ll never score”.  We were deep into injury time, our voices were all but gone, our emotions spent, our nerves shot to bits, how much more could anyone take?  Hoddle took the corner, but finally and crucially erred having given a potentially game-changing substitute cameo to try and rescue England.  The ball floated beyond the far post and out for a goal kick.

 

The Irish fans roared their approval as we had roared every single time an Irishman cleared his lines or every time Bonner defied Lineker in that eternal second half.  As Bonner slowly retrieved the ball and the cheers died down, East German referee Siegfried Kirschen finally called a halt to the drama by blowing for full time.  The Irish roars gradually but steadily resurrected into one massive victorious and united chorus of triumph.   YYYYYYYYYYEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSSS.  Amid the physical and mental exhaustion of players and fans, we again embraced as many sweaty, delirious Irish fans as we could to celebrate the most famous victory in the history of Irish football.  We’d been down so many cul-de-sacs before.  We’d read of and seen so much heartbreak down the years.  Poor Irish teams, dodgy refereeing, ham-fisted organisation, you name it, we’d had it.  All that however was now laid to rest with this amazing, nerve-wracking, historic result.  We acclaimed our 13 heroic players, Bonner sank to his knees in exhaustion and exultation, Stuttgart was turned into a little part of Ireland at this stage.  Bobby Robson’s men slipped down the tunnel almost un-noticed, a situation they would get used to at Euro 88, but none of that mattered to the Irish fans.  We waved our heroes goodbye eventually and little by little filed out of the stadium but not before having taken the historic photo of the giant scoreboard behind us that read “England 0 Rep Irland 1”. 

 

The initial wave of utter euphoria and triumph finally subsided as our bodies understandably dipped.  We were all physical and emotional wrecks as we slumped into our seats on the coach to take us back to Cologne.  As we snailed through the after-match Stuttgart traffic, German drivers honked their horns and gave us the thumbs up.  Similarly, German pedestrians wore wide grins and took delight in our delight and once again we summoned up energy to acknowledge the German happiness for the visiting Irish.  The coach back to Stuttgart I recall was subdued, but I think that was down to the aforementioned exhaustion.  It was also due to everybody just absorbing what they’d witnessed and ensuring that these thoughts would be stored in the memory bank forever.  Everything began to sink in, we were at our first finals, we’d won 1-0, we’d beaten England when nobody bar ourselves gave us a chance.  We had two more matches to look forward to.  We had a long night in Cologne to look forward to.  We had died and gone to Heaven.

 

A couple of nights later in The Dubliner bar in Cologne, I met a lad with his arm in a sling resting an injured hand.  I asked him what happened.  After St Raymond’s goal, he had like the rest of us jumped around in delight.   Sadly for him, his vantage point was just beside the security fence and his wedding ring had got caught in the fence.  His finger was almost but mercifully not quite ripped off and his delight turned to agony in a split second.  He retained his perspective however despite his misfortune.  “ I was there when Houghton scored, that’s all that matters”  he said with a grin.  That’s all that mattered indeed.

 

Happy St Raymond’s Day everybody.

 

 

 

Phelim Warren, 12 June 2013.