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Ireland's 'shock' win was no surprise


By David Dunne 04.05.2020

Ireland 1 – 0 England 12th of June Neckarstadion Stuttgart, West Germany 1988

Ireland 1 – 0 England 12th of June Neckarstadion Stuttgart, West Germany 1988


“More seconds tick away at England’s growing embarrassment” – that was how ITV’s Brian Moore described England’s impending defeat at the hands of the Irish. From the anguish in the legendary commentator’s voice, you knew what he was thinking: “This wasn’t supposed to happen to England” - or Ireland for that matter.


 At Euro’88, Ireland’s job was simple. Show up, sing a few songs, and for the love of god do not disgrace yourselves!


England’s? Well, win the damn thing of course. Didn’t you know, they invented football?


The Three Lions under the guise of Bobby Robson had qualified for the 1988 European Championships in style and had entered the tournament as one of the hot favourites - of course, they bloody did. Meanwhile, those little upstarts from the Emerald Isle were 50/1 outsiders (out of eight teams) having barely scraped through, thanks to the first Scottish born hero of Irish football, Gary McKay.


Upon reflection of Group 2 (England, Holland, U.S.S.R. & Ireland) David Lacey of the Guardian had scoffed: (England were) “Trying hard to keep their faces straight. A child of eight could see that Bobby Robson and his players have an outstanding chance of reaching the semi-finals, and possibly the final”.


The eventual winner's Holland were perhaps an unknown entity having missed out on Mexico’ 86, however, the Soviet Union were always a handful. Also, surely a ‘child of eight’ could count how many medals their lovely neighbours had stuffed in their cabinets? Not only did the Republic of Ireland have in their possession the “best centre back in the competition” with Paul McGrath according to Ron Atkinson, but they also had more silverware than the Queen.  


Across the water, Nick Owen had asked his ITV colleagues Brian Clough and Ian St John before the game: “Do they have a chance?”. To pose such a question, you would swear England were about to face San Marino…


True to form, Brian Clough would forego any niceties about Mick McCarthy. The cantankerous Clough would declare the future 'Captain Fantastic' as “not international class” - words he would be eating after the game. Twisting the knife further, the Nottingham Forest manager presumed that Mick’s inclusion would lead to Gary Lineker and Peter Beardsley “rubbing their hands with glee”.


For the record - Mick McCarthy had a fine game, Beardsley and Lineker did not.


When it comes to football and sun holidays the English have ingrained in their DNA a feeling of self-entitlement. Every year is their year, always feeling it is their God-given right to win every tournament - Ireland the exact opposite. We often feel blessed just to have made the flight.


The widely accepted version of that famous day in the Neckarstadion is: Ireland scored early, battened down the hatches and succeeded where their ancestors failed, keeping the English onslaught at bay. Even the excellent Boys in Green documentary is not immune to the rhetoric.


Boys in Green


In the documentary, after Ray Houghton’s sixth-minute opener, George Hamilton tells us how he felt that Ireland had merely “prodded the Lion” and now we were essentially buggered. We are then indulged with clips of England missing chance after chance with Packie Bonner somehow keeping the English and specifically Gary Lineker at bay. “Packie Bonner had a great game, ball was hitting him... we hit the woodwork...” said Lineker. 


In Reality


Yes, England did hit the woodwork, but let us not forget, so did Ireland. In the second half after a Peter Beardsley chance had gone begging, Ronnie Whelan crashed the top of Peter Shilton’s crossbar with an exquisite strike from 20 yards out. Curiously, that little glimmer of fortitude from Ireland’s “shock” defeat of the old enemy is absent from Boys in Green and it’s not the only one.


Before Whelan’s near reprisal, the Irish had also created enough chances to double their early lead and at half time were very much in control. Ron Atkinson, who was Brian Moore’s sidekick that day, observed: “First 20 minutes all Ireland, England established themselves somewhat without hurting Ireland”.


Another member of ITV’s coverage was injured and suspended Liam Brady, ready to give an Irish perspective to ex-pats living in England. Brady was happy to admonish Brian Clough for his crass comments about Mick McCarthy before the game and rightfully so. The classy midfielder had opined cuttingly towards Clough: “I know who I’d rather have in my team…".  After all, it was Gary Sansom's sloppy defending that had gifted Ray Houghton his chance to put Ireland in front.


Thus far the Irish game-plan was being executed effectively - “We’ve got one, now you’ve got to come out and get one too” was how Big Jack described it years later.


Over to you England.


Glenn Hoddle’s introduction on the 60th minute had turned the screw for the English. The elegant playmaker was starting to find joy with his trademark passing, causing all kinds of trouble for Ireland’s defence and were quite unlucky not score at least once. Thankfully, Gary Lineker, Peter Beardsley and Mark Hately just could not put the ball past Packie Bonner, who was having the game of his life.



Even after all that English pressure, John Aldridge should have wrapped things up for Ireland in the dying minutes when he had got the better of Mark Wright and somehow put his header wide. The Liverpool striker had netted an outstanding 29 goals for his club that season but had not yet scored for his country.



When the final whistle sounded, a mystified Brian Moore declared that Ireland had "provided a massive shock” and “Inquests galore about the England squad, commitment and sloppy defending…” with Big Ron questioning the attitude of Bobby Robson’s players. Meanwhile, a very smug Liam Brady confirmed that Ireland had been: “splendid, calm, cool and collected”.


Ronnie Whelan who had an excellent tournament had mentioned on Boys in Green how he and his teammates “held no fear” of the English. I mean, why would they? As the Liverpool legend rightfully pointed out, they “played these guys every week” during their day jobs.


I am not for one moment trying to say that the game was a stroll in the park for Jacks’ men. But, to suggest that after Ray Houghton’s goal Ireland had to withstand a constant flurry of English dominance without reply, as the Boys in Green suggests, is doing ourselves a great disservice.


I’m not picking on Boys in Green either, they are telling a version of events that is widely accepted and from a documentary point of view it is far more romantic than the truth – which is much more straightforward and perhaps a little depressing.


On the 12 of June 1988 in the Neckarstadion Stuttgart, West Germany - two teams lined out to face each other that day. One packed with world-class players, the other team was England. 


The English XI had a respectable total of 16 topflight winner’s medals: with Peter Shilton being the most distinguished member. The 41-year-old keeper contributing with five major honours consisting of One First Division (77/78), League Cup (78/79) European Super Cup (1979) and two European Cups (1979 & 1980). 


As impressive as that sounds, it pales in comparison to the Republic of Ireland who lined out with an eyewatering 37 winner’s medals. Liverpool’s Ronnie Whelan contributing with a whopping ten: Five Leagues titles (82, 83, 84, 86, 88) an FA Cup (1986), Three League Cups (82, 83, 84) and a single European Cup (1984).


Also, let us not forget that had it not been for a cruel injury the previous year, the Irish would have boasted another one of the finest players in football at the time with Mark Lawrenson. Had the moustached titan taken his rightful place at the top table of international football, he would have done so at the cost of Chris Morris. This would have added a further Eight winner’s medals (Lawrenson’s 10 minus the 2 of Morris) bolstering the Irish starting XI to 45 major honours.


So no, it was not a “massive shock” that England succumbed to the Irish that day. If Ireland’s game plan had been different, going for the throat instead of sitting on the counter, we could have been looking at a much heavier scoreline in Green. Jack had in his arsenal the means to do so and as Ireland’s performance against the Soviet Union suggested, they could ‘play ball’ amongst the best of them.  


The Republic of Ireland had always possessed quality players, Jack Charlton just happened to be the first one to take it to the next level, for which he deserves great credit. However, if perhaps Big Jack had given his players a little more freedom, who knows, maybe the Republic of Ireland could have reached the highest level?


Even with the team on Jack’s leash, the Republic of Ireland were desperately unlucky not to reach that competition’s semi-finals. In their second game, having taken the lead through Ronnie Whelan’s scissor kick, the Irish played the Soviet Union off the park and should have been four goals up before eventually conceding a sloppy equalizer. Also, how Tony Galvin was not awarded a penalty that day remains one of the great Irish mysteries…


The Boys in Green, the team not the programme, would eventually succumb to a 1-0 defeat and elimination by the Dutch in their final group game. If Paul McGrath’s header had spun in, and not out, from the Dutch upright, perhaps even Wim Kieft’s fortuitously offside goal would not have stopped the Irish from reaching a semi-final.


Both the Soviet Union and the Netherlands would eventually meet again in the final a week later, with the ‘Oranje’ taking the spoils and Marco Van Basten probably just shading Ronnie Whelan’s effort for the goal of the tournament.


Even to this day, looking back on Ireland’s maiden European Championships I cannot help but feel aggrieved, we were after all eight minutes from a semi-final.  Never mind the party, ignore the naysayers and the rhetoric, we had the players to do the business and lift the Henri Delaunay trophy in 1988, the fact that we did not, in my opinion, was a major opportunity missed.



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