We’re only a playoff away from our third ever European Championships so here’s a bit of nostalgia ahead of the Bosnia game going all they way back to another qualifying group with Scotland.
When thinking of the Scottish national team and its relationship to that of the Republic of Ireland the match that jumps out most is not our most recent encounter, a narrow victory in the little loved Nations Cup.
Some may be old enough to remember the famous 1-0 in Dalymount Park way back in 1963, but the Scottish match that most Irish fans think of probably didn’t even feature Ireland. It was that win in Sofia when Gary Mackay scored the only goal of his short international career, a goal which meant that the Bulgarians, who had needed only a draw and were favourites to qualify stayed at home in the glorious summer of 1988.
Instead it was Ireland, in their maiden campaign under Jack Charlton who were off to West Germany for their first major international tournament.
According to some it would even help to kick start the nation’s economy?
And yet the qualifying campaign was more than just Mackay’s unexpected winner, Ireland had topped a tough group having only lost once during qualifying. After draws in their opening two games, away to Belgium and home to Scotland the Irish needed a win to properly kick start their drive for the Euros.
They got that win in the intimidating atmosphere of Hampden Park and the goal would be scored by a man who little realised that his career at the highest level would be over within a year. It would also mark the first occasion that a Republic of Ireland team would defeat a Scottish side on their home turf and can perhaps be seen as a changing of the guard in terms of the hierarchies of the two Celtic nations?
As mentioned Euro 88 qualifying was Jack Charlton’s first major outing as Ireland manager. Eoin Hand had departed early in 1986 after a disappointing World Cup campaign which saw Ireland finish fourth in a five team group behind Denmark, USSR and Switzerland.
The exciting talents of the Danish Dynamite side that would light up the World Cup in Mexico were especially evident against Ireland as they recorded a 3-0 win in Copenhagen before winning 4-1 in the last qualifying game in Lansdowne Road. Preben Elkjær, then starring for Verona in Serie A proving particularly lethal against Hand’s side.
While Charlton managed to restore some faith in Irish camp early on by gaining victories over Iceland and Czechoslovakia in Reykjavik, in the process winning Ireland’s first piece of silverware he had also managed to alienate Arsenal’s classy centre half Dave O’Leary.
He did, however, give a first cap to O’Leary’s young teammate Niall Quinn, as well as unearthing two “granny –rule” players of considerable quality after Oxford United defender Dave Langan put Charlton on to the Irish connections of his teammates John Aldridge and Ray Houghton. This would become a player acquisition route much favoured by Charlton.
While the squad may have gained some confidence from their friendly tournament win in Iceland they still faced a daunting qualifying group which included Belgium (semi-finalists in Mexico 86) an emerging Bulgaria side featuring the talents of a young Hristo Stoichkov, Scotland and Luxembourg.
Ireland’s opening home draws with Belgium (2-2) and Scotland (0-0) meant that the significant task of defeating the Scots in Hampden grew in importance. Playing away from home suited Charlton’s teams to a certain extent, set up as they were for high-pressure, counter attacking football.
It could sometimes be less effective when playing at home when there was a greater onus to take the game to the opponent but it worked in crucial away fixtures like those in Glasgow.
Ireland took on Scotland in Hampden on the 18th February 1987 and would line-up in a standard 4-4-2 formation. A huge Irish contingent travelled to Glasgow for the game (topical) and this became a sign of things to come for the Irish team in terms of vociferous travelling support. In goal was Packie Bonner who was establishing himself as Charlton’s No. 1 having previously played second fiddle to Seamus McDonagh and on occasion Gerry Peyton.
The back four consisted of Mick McCarthy, Kevin Moran, Ronnie Whelan and Paul McGrath, with Whelan and McGrath unusually operating in the full back positions after both Dave Langan and Jim Beglin had suffered serious injuries. Midfield saw Liam Brady (then coming to the end of his Italian sojourn with Ascoli) partner Mark Lawrenson who was positioned in front of the back four allowing Brady space to roam forward.
The pair were flanked by Ray Houghton and Spurs’ Tony Galvin. Up front Frank Stapleton was partnered by John Aldridge who enjoyed a fairly thankless task in Charlton’s system as the prime exponent of his pressing game, harassing the opposing defence high up the pitch the force errors in their build-up play.
The role of Lawrenson in the team was key. He was starting in a defensive midfield role partially because of the competition in defence but mainly due to the gap left in the Irish team by the ultimately career ending injury to his Liverpool teammate Jim Beglin forcing Whelan into the left back slot.
Ever versatile Lawrenson had played in central defence alongside Hansen for much of his time at Liverpool but had also featured in midfield and at full back, especially from the 1986 onward as Gary Gillespie began to establish himself alongside Hansen in the heart of the Red’s defence.
Lawrenson had had injury problems of his own over the last year after damaging his Achilles in a game against Wimbledon meaning he would only feature in three of the Euro 88 qualifiers. However it is worth noting that Lawrenson started in the crucial victories against Scotland and Bulgaria as well as the 2-2 draw with Belgium.
The Bulgaria game would be his last competitive match for Ireland. Having never properly recovered from that earlier Achilles injury he did further damage during a Liverpool game versus Arsenal in early 1988 and by the age of 30 his top level playing career was effectively over.
As was the chance of being part of the Irish squad for the Euros. A combination of injury and suspension would also rob Ireland of the services of the veteran Brady, an ever-present throughout qualifying. He was another who had played at the very highest level who would never get the opportunity to compete at an international tournament.
Lawrenson’s winner against Scotland also showed how the Irish had changed under Charlton. The Irish had usually been cast as the victims, the injured parties in international games as more savvy nations took advantage, or at least that was the comforting narrative.
In the opening game against Belgium Frank Stapleton’s cuteness had won Ireland a late penalty that Brady converted. Early on against Scotland it was Stapleton again who won Ireland a crucial set piece, towering above two Scottish defenders in a challenge for a high ball he won a free while managing to leave Dundee United’s Maurice Malpas sprawled on the deck.
The keen-witted Lawrenson called to John Aldridge to take the free quickly as he rushed past Richard Gough to fire the ball into Jim Leighton’s net before the Scottish defence had time to regroup and with Malpas still lying prone on the field. Lawrenson had struck early, with only seven minutes on the clock but Big Jack’s “Put em under pressure” approach was paying off, the Scots were stifled by the constant pressing and tight marking of the Irish.
It was a famous victory that helped kick-start the Irish qualifying campaign and gathered momentum behind Charlton.
Ireland entered their final group game eight months later at home to Bulgaria and the same eleven that had taken on Scotland did not disappoint, securing a fine 2-0 victory thanks to goal-scoring defenders Moran and McGrath and leaving the Boys in Green with a slim but mathematical chance of qualification.
And so it was that with qualifying over for the Irish that RTE screened the game between Scotland and Bulgaria, in Sofia a city that had brought so much disappointed and controversy to the Irish national team in the past. It was in Sofia that Jimmy Holmes had his leg broken in a vicious tackle, it was in Sofia that questionable hometown decisions were given and where Liam Brady had been given his marching orders only the month before.
Few expected a Scottish victory, least of all Jack Charlton who recorded the game and went out fishing instead. It was only later when watching the game on tape and he started to get phone calls of congratulations that he realised that Ireland had qualified.
The Green Bandwagon had begun to roll and Joxer was off to Stuttgart.
Originally published in 2014 for backpagefootball.com