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.