Henry’s handball? Plus ça change

By Kevin O’Sullivan

A trip to Paris marred by a poor refereeing decision, a French manager arriving in Dublin ‘lurching from one crisis to another’, Liam Brady reflecting that ‘the difference between making it and not making it is so slight – but why is it that we never get the breaks that would make the difference?’ and an Irish manager uttering ‘You are a disgrace and a cheat’? Not 2009 but 1981. Plus ça change.

On 27 October 1980, Ireland’s football team arrived in Paris for a World Cup qualifier, top of their group and in a good position to take a significant step toward their first major tournament. They had taken two victories over Cyprus, beaten a fading Dutch side in Dublin, and drawn with Belgium. But from Paris events took a turn that makes Henry’s handball, in the words of Shirley Bassey, look like just a little bit of history repeating. With Ireland one down, Mick Robinson, a 22-year-old Brighton forward whose Irish passport arrived just four days before the match, had a goal disallowed in dubious circumstances. The French in the press box, surprised and relieved by the decision, were less than stunned by the two-goal margin of victory. With a side that included Michel Platini, Jean Tigana and Didier Six, France outplayed Ireland, and in spite of stuttering in the group’s final stages, went on to a famous World Cup semi-final with West Germany, followed by victory in the European Championships on home soil in 1984.

From malchance in Paris to pech in Brussels. Going there for a crucial qualifier the following March Ireland still led the group, knowing that a draw would be enough to keep them in the hunt for a World Cup place. But with three minutes to go, a header from the brilliant Jan Ceulemans sealed their fate. The headline in the following day’s Irish Independent said it all: ‘A real sickener!’ The free-kick that led to the goal came from a theatrical dive by Eric Gerets. Earlier in the match Ireland had another goal disallowed for ‘no reason … apart from the fact that the referee saw a Belgian player lying on the ground’ (manager Eoin Hand). Hand went so far as to call the referee, who unsurprisingly refused to comment on his decision, ‘a disgrace and a cheat’.

The Irish never recovered. A draw in the Netherlands and a magnificent home victory over France in Lansdowne Road proved not to be enough, the loss of a point in Brussels denying them a place in the finals on goal difference. The following qualifying campaigns, for the 1984 European Championships and the 1986 World Cup, brought little solace, the latter marked by a 4-1 hammering in Dublin by the ‘Danish Dynamite’ side whose brilliance has secured them near-mythical status (see Lars Eriksen and Rob Smyth’s excellent short history in the Guardian).

But as we wallow in the latest in a long line of increasingly unpalatable moral victories, and our politicians deflect attention from their own shortcomings to an equally incomprehensible FIFA bureaucracy, it is worth viewing the failure of Hand’s Ireland in the longer term. On 25 February 1981 the Irish side that met England in an under-21 international in Liverpool included no less than Packie Bonner, Ronnie Whelan and Kevin Sheedy. Hand’s senior squad had talents like Kevin Moran, David O’Leary and Chris Hughton at its disposal. The last throw of the dice for a brilliant generation of Irish footballers, the 1982 qualifying campaign also marked a beginning for a new concept of ‘Irishness’. Mick Robinson was not the first, but he was followed by a quickening conveyor belt of talent, starting with a 25-year-old Spurs winger named Tony Galvin and casting its net ever wider after the arrival of a certain Yorkshire man named Jack Charlton as Hand’s replacement in 1986.

Who can forget the beautiful results that followed? Euro ’88, Houghton and Christy Moore; Italia ’90, Bonner and The Van; USA ’94, Houghton (again) and ‘Watch your House for Ireland’. Is it really such a stretch to imagine the transition from the nearly-men of 1982 to trips to Stuttgart, Genoa, and Orlando, meetings with the Pope and open top buses, as evidence of a growing confidence in the Irish nation? If economists can measure a country’s response to footballing success not simply in terms of direct monetary benefit but as part of an overall euphoria, how will historians describe the Charlton years’ embrace of the Irish diaspora (plus the ‘ice-cream man’, Tony Cascarino), its vision of Irishness, and what it brought to a country on the brink of what the Financial Times memorably called a ‘prosperity blip’? For those of you who sniff at the idea of sport’s ability to change, or reflect a changing society, consider Tom Humphries latest missive in The Irish Times, the arrogance of Stephen Ireland, or the attitude of a nation to Roy Keane, Saipan and the World Cup in 2002: an Ireland in which we are all now ‘stakeholders’, still railing at injustice done but with an at times ugly, arrogant streak to match. Times have changed, we have changed, but the sport remains the same.

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5 Responses to “Henry’s handball? Plus ça change”

  1. Eolai Says:

    If I remember rightly our disallowed goal in Paris didn’t cause too much of a stink at home because RTE lost the live pictures for a spell and we didn’t see it, relying instead on audio reports.

    Ceuleman’s goal for Belgium following the free-kick from Gerets’ dive was scored as Seamus McDonagh was fouled – making it a double sickener.

    We knew we’d lost out by the time we came to beat France at Lansdowne, but we also tended to forget that Mark Lawrenson was offside the previous autumn for that late winning diving header against the Netherlands at home.

    I do think that those bad refereeing decisions don’t quite compare with the scale of this one though. The pattern of play in this match; the once off nature of the fixture; the multiple transgressions in the goal; the technology available to see the transgressions so clearly; the signifiicance of the fixture; and most of all the reaction worldwide and especially from the supporters (and some players) of the team which benefited from the decision, place this mistake in a different category from previous ones whether against or in favour of us.

  2. puesoccurrences Says:

    Hi Eolai,

    Thanks for the additional info and the memories. I agree that the nature of Henry’s transgression (great use of that term by the way) affords it an extra significance, but I think the things you mention that make it of a different scale – the technology, etc – are simply symptoms of the media’s approach to the game and its ubiquity. Sure, the fact that this match was a play-off makes it a more difficult pill to swallow, since there is no opportunity to come back, but in 1981 Ireland’s results were fairly good after the defeat in Brussels, almost as well as they could have expected to do, rendering Ceulemans’s goal the killer.

    Essentially, I think that sporting memory can sometimes be too short and the reactions too sharp. I wrote this post simply as a reminder of another, in many ways superior, generation of players that lost out on the opportunity of appearing on the highest stage.

    I also think that by mentioning Lawrenson’s ‘offisde’ goal against the Dutch, you’ve (intentionally?) echoed Roy Keane’s comments this week about the penalty that beat Georgia in Croke Park and how we seem to have forgotten all about it. But then, isn’t that the beauty of the sport? Good with the bad, human infallibility, etc. You can probably tell I’m not in favour of video technology – I’d prefer two umpires in long white jackets and wellington boots behind the goals, thanks very much.

    Actually, thinking about it, the Portuguese are probably wondering what all the fuss is about, and perhaps we should commend our players for not responding a la Abel Xavier, etc, in the semi-final of the European Championships in 2000 after a decidedly dodgy penalty award in favour of the French put them out on a golden goal.

    Kevin

  3. Justin Says:

    It seems that as far as football goes, the luck of the Irish is purely mythical. I’m not Irish, or even of Irish descent, but I felt genuine outrage at that handball and I can’t blame anyone for the borderline-hysterical reactions that followed it. But this article does an excellent job of putting things into perspective; better men have been undone by smaller errors, though it’s a hard thought to come to terms with. Thanks Kevin, I enjoyed reading.

    • puesoccurrences Says:

      Thanks for the comments Justin, and nice to hear from someone outside Ireland. ‘Better men’ indeed.

    • puesoccurrences Says:

      Thanks for the comments Justin, and good to hear the perspective of someone outside Ireland. ‘Better men’ indeed.

      Kevin

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