When Ireland were better than England

Ireland’s Euro 2024 qualifying campaign has been another miserable one. Failure to appear in Germany will mean the national team has not reached a major tournament since 2012. It will also be 30 years since Ireland qualified without having to go through the playoffs.

In the late 80s and early 90s, it was a different story for Ireland’s footballers. Under Jack Charlton, the team feared no one and could proudly claim to be better than England.

1988 and That Ray Houghton Goal

With four wins and three draws from eight qualifying fixtures, Ireland topped group seven to qualify for their first-ever major tournament in 1988. At the finals, held in Germany, Ireland was drawn in group two along with England, USSR and the Netherlands.

The opening game of the group was an eagerly anticipated match between Ireland and neighbours England. The England team included established stars such as Peter Shilton, Bryan Robson and Barcelona’s Gary Lineker. Jack Charlton’s side included some players from England’s top division, but few outright markets for football odds gave them any hope of victory against one of the tournament’s favourites.

Six minutes into the game, Ray Houghton pounced on a loose ball in England’s penalty box to home and give the Irish a surprise lead. On the hour, Ireland almost extended their lead when a ferocious volley from Ronnie Whelan hit the bar with Shilton beaten. Late on, Pat Bonner denied Lineker and Ireland won the game.

A draw with eventual runners-up USSR in their second game left Ireland needing just a point from their final group game with the Netherlands to qualify. An 82nd-minute goal for the Dutch ended Irish dreams, though. After an impressive performance, the Irish finished third, ahead of England who lost all three games.

Two World Cups

Two years later, Ireland made their World Cup finals debut at Italia 90. Once again, they were drawn from a group that included England and the Netherlands, along with Egypt. Three draws saw Ireland qualify for the knock-out stages where they secured a dramatic penalty shootout win over Romania. The fairytale came to an end in the quarter-final when they lost 1-0 to hosts Italy. But the Irish team had established themselves on the world stage and picked up plenty of fans along the way.

The following World Cup was held in the USA in 1994.  The qualifying round for this tournament had the Republic of Ireland drawn from a group with Northern Ireland. It was a 1-1 draw in Belfast that secured qualification for the Republic players, while Northern Ireland could only finish fourth and were eliminated.

Will the Glory Days be Repeated?

The influx of players from all over the world to the Premier League has resulted in fewer Irish players being able to break through in the English game. This is one reason for the current state of Irish football. But it’s worth remembering that the golden age of Irish football saw the team exceed expectations for a nation of just five million people.

It’s also noteworthy that it wasn’t just talent that saw Jack Charlton’s Ireland become better than all their local rivals. It was desire, team spirit and good leadership. So, there’s always hope of a repeat.




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