At the beginning of Qualification for the 1990 World Cup, Ireland’s fans were more optimistic than ever before. The long wait for a major tournament was broken months when Big Jack led us to Euro ’88. England had been beaten, and Ireland were within ten minutes of the semi-finals before an agonizing defeat to the eventual champions, Holland.
So as one of the best teams in Europe, Ireland’s fans no doubt believed that they would be in Italy two years later. They nearly didn’t get there. Ireland drew two and lost one of their opening three games, all away from home, against Northern Ireland, Hungary and Spain (where we lost 2-0). Four home games in succession got our campaigns back on track however, as Spain, Malta, Hungary and the Northerners all came to Lansdowne and lost between April and October of 1989. The final qualifying game, twenty years ago last Sunday, was held in Valetta and qualification, already virtually secured, was clinched with a 2-0 win. Ireland were headed for Italy, having kept seven clean sheets in the eight games. We all know what happened there...
Four years later, an Ireland side which missed out on Euro ’92 were faced with a tough group which included Spain, Denmark and Northern Ireland. Things started well, with wins over Albania and Lithuania and draws away to Spain and Denmark. However, one point from home games against the Spanish and the Danes left Irish fans with a nervy ending to the group. The equation facing us in November 17th 1993 was simple. Ireland, taking on Northern Ireland in Belfast, needed a win to guarantee qualification. A draw would be enough, but only if the game between Spain and Denmark in Seville wasn’t a draw. The Northerners wouldn’t make it easy for us, even if they were unable to qualify themselves.
Spurred on by Billy Bingham, the home side took the lead thanks to a wonder strike from Jimmy Quinn. All looked doomed, before Alan McLoughlin, a bit player in the team, scored an equalizer which ended up being one of the most important goals during the tenure of Jack Charlton. This, and Spain’s win over Dublin, meant that we were on our way to America and eventual revenge over Italy at Giants Stadium.
The next qualifying campaign, beginning in 1996, saw Mick McCarthy in charge of an aging Irish side that was in need of new blood. Drawn in a weak group, qualifying for France shouldn’t have been out of the question. It was an unimpressive campaign however – results included 0-0 draws at home to Iceland and Lithuania and a defeat in Macedonia. A late resurgence in form – Roy Keane manhandled us to a 4-2 win in Iceland – meant that we finished a million miles behind Romania, albeit in second position. A play-off with Belgium ensued, and we drew the first leg in Dublin after a Denis Irwin free-kick. We went to the Heysel Stadium but were ultimately undone by Luis Oliviera and lost 2-1, despite a Ray Houghton header. A loss to Holland at Anfield two years previously may have ended the tenure of Jack Charlton, but it was defeat to Belgium that ended the careers of many of the players who had given him and us so many great memories.
As a result of this, the team that entered the 2002 Qualifying campaign had an entirely different look but the same manager in the form of Mick McCarthy. Where four years previously we had been inept in many of our games, this wasn’t the case here as Ireland qualified out of a tough group which included Holland and Portugal. Along with the 1990 campaign, this was as good as Ireland ever performed. Estonia, Cyprus and Andorra were all dispatched with, home and away but the best performances came against the group’s superpowers. In our opening game we drew 2-2 in Amsterdam (a match we should have won having gone 2-0 ahead) and then 1-1 away to Portugal while in June 2001 we managed another 1-1 draw against the Portuguese. The group’s highlight though, came on September 2nd 2001 (I didn’t have to look that up) where Jason McAteer scored to sink the Dutch and give Ireland a second-place finish in the group. This set up another play-off, this time against Iran. Ireland won the first leg 2-0 and then battled hard in the tough atmosphere in Tehran, losing 1-0 to a late, late goal. It didn’t matter though, and we were on our way to the Far East, via Saipan.
McCarthy was gone by the time our next qualification group got underway, and again we were up against France. Many fans were critical of Brian Kerr’s negative approach, given that we had some creative players. There were draws in Switzerland and in Israel, and the campaign’s highlight was a 0-0 draw in Paris. However the negative approach hurt us at home, most notable when we blew a two-goal lead at home to Israel. A Thierry Henry moment of magic handed us our only defeat of the campaign at home to France, but we could have reached another play-off with a win against Switzerland. That match finished 0-0 and Brian Kerr’s contract was not renewed.
Since then, Stan has been and gone and we know all about Trapattoni this time out. Comparing this campaign to all of our others, as I’ve done today, a number of things stand out. Ireland struggle, regularly, and to get as far as we have is the exception rather than the norm. Also, comparing this set of players to some of the ones which have been successful, it could be argued that our current team is not as good as any of the ones which have qualified in the past. We’ve also had several amazing moments and fantastic wins over some of Europe’s greatest football powers. Tomorrow night, if it went well, would be the best of all.