=============================================================================== T H E R E P U B L I C O F I R E L A N D William McClatchie =============================================================================== The Republic of Ireland football team opened its account in international soccer in the 1930's. A team made up of amateurs and professionals, they were inconsistent in producing results, though at that stage they were always able to pull off a shock or two, like when they became the first non-British team to beat England at Wembley. Since then they haven't exactly set the World alight. A series of near misses in qualifying for the World Cup in the 1970s and 1980s made the Irish people impatient with the team. That was until February 1986 when The Football Association of Ireland appointed the first ever non-Irish manager, Jack Charlton, a World Cup winner as a player with England who had also enjoyed success as a manager with Middlesbrough and Sheffield Wednesday. Although he lost his first game in charge, 1-0 to Wales, people noticed that the shape of the team was changing. Charlton took the initiative to use the FIFA parentage rule to full advantage, and introduced players of high class to the team. His first mission was to qualify for the European Championships to be held in Germany in 1988. Ireland were placed in a tough group with Belgium, Bulgaria, Scotland and Luxembourg. Despite some dodgy performances, the Irish team achieved good results. However the group was to go right to the wire and Ireland only won it because Scotland managed to shock Bulgaria in Sofia. Thus qualification for Ireland's first ever major tournament sent a wave of interest and excitement around the country. People were now beginning to take pride and interest in their national team. When the summer of 1988 came around, Ireland were in a group with England, Russia and The Netherlands. The first game was against England and the English did not appear to be worried about the underdogs, and took a more relaxed attitude to the game. However, to everyone's shock, Ireland scored from a header by Ray Houghton after only six minutes. The Irish fans had never experienced such euphoria before, to score against the "old enemy" was previously unthought of. The team held on for the rest of the match to achieve a somewhat more that historic victory. The match made overnight heroes of all those concerned, especially Houghton and Bonner, whose fantastic performance in goal ensured that the ball would not pass him. Next on the list were Russia and Ireland put on another commendable performance and drew 1-1. Ireland opened the scoring with a spectacular 18-yard bicycle kick from Ronnie Whelan. Yet the Russians equalised and Ireland felt somewhat robbed at the end of the 90 minutes. The final group match to be played was against The Netherlands, and victory or even a draw would put Ireland through to the semi-finals. Yet it was not to be, the Dutch scored with a header from Kieft with only six minutes left and Ireland were out. Although the Irish didn't get past the group stages, they had achieved more than they could possibly have dreamed of and when the team returned to Dublin they were greeted as if they had won the tournament. Following the success of 1988 great feats were expected from the team. It was thought that they now had a squad that could reach the World Cup Finals for the first time. In qualification for Italia '90 Ireland were drawn against Spain, Hungary, Northern Ireland and Malta. Although Competition was provided courtesy of Hungary throughout the campaign, the one time 'Mighty Magyars were left behind in the end and Ireland finished second in the group behind Spain. And so December of 1989 brought the draw for the World Cup in Italy, to be held the following Summer. Already it had been decided that England would be seeded and put in Sicily and Sardinia. Knowing this, the Irish would have settled for anything but to be drawn in that group, yet the luck of the Irish failed them on this occasion and they were drawn in a tough group with England, Holland and Egypt. The first match against England was an entertaining one with Bobby Robson's men taking the lead after 11 minutes through a Gary Lineker goal, yet Ireland equalised in the 73rd minute through a smart low drive from the left foot of Kevin Sheedy. When the final whistle blew it was a case of mission accomplished. Ireland set out for a point, and they got exactly that. Next on the list was an encounter with Egypt under the blazing afternoon sun of Palermo. A win was widely expected from the Irish and was demanded by the manager, considering that Egypt were thought to be the weakest team in the group and Ireland might have been on a roll. While the Egyptians certainly had some skill, they weren't really of a standard that would beat Ireland. However, they were very defiant from the start and it was clear that they had no intention of letting Ireland win. 'They played a game of "negative tactics"' said Charlton after the frustrating 0-0 draw, which now meant that Ireland would have to try and beat the Dutch, then the reigning European Champions. That match ended up 1-1, The Netherlands taking an early lead, and Ireland equalising late on through Niall Quinn - something which has now become a pattern of Irish play against the stronger nations. Three points from the group matches booked Ireland their place in the last 16 of the tournament. As their record was identical to that of the Dutch, lots were drawn to decide second and third place, and here Ireland had the luck by being drawn as runners-up. This meant that they would play Romania in Genoa in the second round, an easier game than the Dutch had as they played West Germany. The Romanian game was satisfactory from an Irish point of view, yet while Ireland played the better football they could not convert their chances. The match went to extra time and then to penalties, a first for the Irish team who had never been involved in a shoot-out before. Packie Bonner, the Irish keeper, had put on superb performances before and during this game and so now his status as a world class keeper would be even more scrutinised as he faced five Romanian penalties. While he let in four, he stopped one, and one was all that was needed as veteran David O'Leary scored Ireland's fifth penalty to put them through to a quarter final meeting in Rome's Olympic Stadium with the hosts, Italy. Ireland battled and sometimes struggled against a superior side who were playing excellent football. Italy scored the only goal of the game, a neatly taken rebound from Salvatore Schillachi after Bonner failed to hold on to Donadoni's powerful drive. While the Irish were eliminated there was not a disappointed atmosphere from the team nor from back home. What they felt was pride, honour and a sense of achievement. The campaign for qualification for Euro '92 in Sweden was not a great one. Poor performances against other teams saw Ireland draw at home to Poland and England and then drop a lead of two goals to Poland in Poznan. Yet two victories were achieved against the Turks, and an outstanding performance against England at Wembley didn't leave the Irish two disheartened. The competition in the group went right to the end and only a Gary Lineker equaliser for England in Poland eliminated the Irish. After a sense of disappointment the Irish kept their heads up and looked towards USA '94. In 1992 Ireland were invited to play in a mini tournament in America, to make up for missing out on the European Championships. Like England's involvement in the next tournament in 1993 Ireland's was a disappointing one. They opened the tournament in the Foxboro Stadium with a bitterly and shockingly disappointing 3-1 loss to the USA. Then followed a match with Italy which resulted in another loss for Ireland, a 2-0 loss, and to make matters worse for the first time in his career Packie Bonner, the Irish goalkeeper was sent off. His offense was rugby tackling an Italian in the box which was then awarded a penalty, which the Italians converted gracefully. Ireland were drawn in a group which was thought to be extremely tough, as it contained Spain, Denmark (the European Champions), Northern Ireland, Albania, Lithuania and Latvia, the only European group with 7 teams, this meant two more matches in the qualifying programme for all group members, which is the main reason for the recent lack of friendly matches for the Republic. Although the two Baltic states and Albania were thought to be easy, it was always going to be a difficult task in the away games, and the group went right to the wire in the end, Ireland only qualifying by having scored more goals than Denmark, their goal differences were equal.