#3: Most Memorable Moments in Irish Sport

 
 

#3 – Ray Houghton’s goal against England. Stuttgart, 1988.

It was profoundly appropriate that an Irish side disparagingly known to many as the ‘England-B team’ were drawn against the English in the opening match of the nation’s first-ever major tournament. What ensued was the stuff of dreams, writes Ryan Mackenzie

Prior to the appointment of Jack Charlton as manager, Irish football had seldom experienced success on the international scene. Aside from a brief run in the 1964 European Nations’ Championship preliminary rounds, a major tournament remained beyond the team’s reach until 1988. However, Jack’s army dispelled our dismal tradition by making it to the 1988 European Championships in Germany.

Treading in unfamiliar territory, the Irish team were pitted against the cream of European football. Alongside powerhouses of the game such as Italy, Holland, Spain and World Cup runners-up Germany, our small nation was further dwarfed. Little was expected of the newcomers.

Rather fittingly, the opening match of our first-ever tournament was against our old rivals, England, in Stuttgart. The Irish team boasted so many English-born players that they were satirically known as the ‘England B-team’. Furthermore, they were led by an English manager who had helped his native country win their only ever World Cup in 1966 on home soil. And so, the stage was set for the boys in green to defend the country’s honour and show our neighbours that we could compete with the best in the game.

Amidst a time of social and political turmoil in Northern Ireland, which placed Anglo-Irish relations in a fragile state and a crippling economic recession in the Republic, this match provided a rare glimmer of optimism to the people of Ireland. The country was filled with pride at the sight of its team stepping onto the pitch in Stuttgart’s Neckarstadion Stadium.

Known for their tentative attacking and tight defending, the Irish team could never have imagined the start they were to get. With only five minutes gone, Charlton’s side were awarded a free-kick just inside their own half.

Defender Kevin Moran took the kick and the ball was launched forward in typical Irish style. It dropped around the left-hand side of the English box, where it was hooked speculatively in and dealt with poorly by England defender Kenny Sansom. The ball was launched high into the air and bobbled around the box before finding its way onto the head of Liverpool and Ireland midfielder Ray Houghton.

With exceptional poise, Houghton directed the ball over the helpless Peter Shilton in goal, and into the back of the net – a stunning start to the game and an iconic moment in Irish football.

The Irish team then faced a difficult task. With nearly the entire match still to be played, they would have to defend against the onslaught of the English attack. Led by England’s record goalscorer and Barcelona star, Gary Lineker, the English began to constantly threaten the Irish goal. For Irish fans, the match was a painful exercise in counting down the clock, in anticipation of a famous victory.

The outcome hung in the balance right until the end, when the final whistle was drowned out by the eruption of the Irish fans in the stadium. This response was no doubt echoed across the country, as our first-ever tournament began in awe-inspiring fashion.

While the team failed to make it out of their group and into the knockout rounds, their wondrous success in the opening match still exceeded most people’s expectations of what they could achieve in the competition.

The result stood for more than two points. It marked the moment in which Ireland defied their footballing status as the humble and inferior neighbours of Britain and emerged as a true footballing nation, capable of surpassing its small stature.

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