By Sean Creedon
The Republic of Ireland played their first-ever World Cup game against Belgium at Dalymount Park in February 1934 when Paddy Moore scored all four Irish goals in a 4-4 draw. But we had to wait 55 years and nine months before we would qualify for the World Cup finals for the first time.
There were a lot of disappointments along the way; losing out in the 1965 play-off against Spain in Paris; we also lost out to France on goal difference in 1982 and there were also a few dodgy refereeing decisions along the way. But the ‘Boys in Green’ finally reached the ‘holy grail’ 25 years ago this month when beating Malta 2-0 in Valetta on November 15, 1989, to secure second place in our group and qualify along with Spain for Italia ’90.
Jack Charlton, a former World Cup medal winner with England in 1966, inherited a decent squad of players when he was appointed Irish manager in February 1986. Jack’s motto was to “put ‘em under pressure”. It worked; we qualified for our first-ever major tournament within two years of Big Jack’s arrival.
Charlton got most of the credit, but a Scot named Gary Mackay also helped with that famous goal against Bulgaria in Sofia.
Three months after our exploits at Euro ’88, The Republic began their 1990 World Cup qualification campaign with a trip to Windsor Park, Belfast to play Northern Ireland. The North, who had qualified for the 1982 and 1986 World Cup finals, didn’t exactly “roll over”, but The Republic gained a valuable away point in a scoreless draw.
David O’Leary, who fell out with Charlton over his holiday plans in the spring of 1986, returned for the game against Spain in Seville in November 1988. However, the Spaniards kept up their excellent record of never losing in Seville and won 2-0 with goals from Manolo and Butragueno.
Another important away point was gained against Hungary in Budapest in March 1989 in what was another scoreless draw. But nobody was complaining about a point gained in Budapest.
Next up was Spain before a full house at Lansdowne Road at the end of April. Roared on by a vociferous crowd, the Boys in Green applied early pressure and the only goal of the game came after 15 minutes. Cascarino got his head to Bonner’s kick out and the ball broke to Ray Houghton. He beat Sanchis and crossed low into the box. Ronnie Whelan got a touch and Frank Stapleton was ready to pounce, only for Michel to turn the ball into his own net.
Maximum points were gained in the end of season home games against Malta and Hungary. We won both games 2-0 and Liam Brady made what would be his last World Cup appearance as a late sub against Hungary. Later Charlton would effectively end Brady’s international career in September by taking him off after only 35 minutes in the friendly against West Germany.
Lansdowne Road didn’t have floodlights in 1989 and for security reasons the game against Northern Ireland in October had a 1pm kick-off. The game passed without any major incident and goals from Whelan, Cascarino and Houghton in a 3-0 win meant that with one game to play we were only a point behind Spain who drew 2-2 away to Hungary the same day. A point against Malta in Valetta on November 15 would now be enough to guarantee World Cup qualification.
Heavy fog at Dublin Airport on Monday and Tuesday delayed many outbound flights and some supporters seemed to be crying on cue for the RTE cameras. However, by kick-off on Wednesday night it was estimated that 7,000 Irish supporters had swelled the official attendance in the Ta’Qali Stadium to 25,000.
The breakthrough came on the half-hour mark. Houghton’s corner was headed on at the near post by O’Leary and there was John Aldridge at the back post to head past Cini. Aldridge got his second from the penalty spot on 67 minutes after Townsend was fouled.
Afterwards Charlton was thrilled. He said: ‘‘It was a bit of an anxious game for us, but we won it fairly comfortably in the end. I am delighted, not just for myself, but also for the players and for all the fans who travelled out here.’’ And so after 55 years and 13 qualifying campaigns we were on our way to the World Cup finals. All together now…”Olé, Olé, Olé. We’re all part of Jackie’s Army, We’re all off to Italy”.