The weaknesses in the Republic of Ireland’s current national team have been spoken of until the brink of near exhaustion. Euro 2012 was flaccidity exposed by some real opposition who were distinguished classes apart. Germany arrives on October 12th and we still expect. But scratch beneath the surface and anxiety pours out.
Not dissimilar to the jaded couple who eat in silence and think of the passion that once burned in their lives, as Ireland fans we inevitably slip into the past and draw warmth if only for a short time, on the strength of great Irish teams gone.
And there is a lot to draw from. A well of memories that, as inevitably happens, appears deeper and richer at a time of scarcity.
But we should recall that one of our greatest periods came at a time of little hope and paucity of performances.
Ireland’s qualifying campaign for Mexico ’86 saw them struggle to stay off the foot of the group. Despite starting with a solid home victory over the Soviet Union, thanks to a goal from Porto’s Mickey Walsh, this would prove to be one of only two victories throughout the duration of the group.
Ireland would prove to be, as appears so regularly the way, poor travellers, gaining only one draw in Berne against Switzerland. The other three away matches to the Soviet Union, Denmark and Norway would all bring defeat. A 3-0 home defeat of Switzerland midway through the campaign glossed over some of the visible cracks.
But ultimately no restoration of self belief occurred and the final two group games saw Ireland score one and concede six. The final game against eventual group winners Denmark was an embarrassing 4-1 reversal at Lansdowne Road. This was Ireland’s worst home defeat in 14 years and saw Ireland finish second from bottom. And with that Eoin Hand was gone and Jack Charlton surprisingly took the battered reigns.
The poor showing in their previous campaign meant that prior to the draw for the Euro ’88 qualification campaign Ireland were only seeded fourth. Ireland were drawn with Belgium and Bulgaria, both impressive in Mexico, and would, it appear, battle it out for top spot. Unlike the previous campaign, in this group only the winners would qualify for the eight team tournament in Germany.
The other two countries drawn were Luxembourg and Scotland.
Scotland also had a new manager in Andy Roxburgh and a strong squad with which they felt quietly confident of pushing close to winning the group. The strength they possessed throughout the squad is one that Craig Levein, Scotland’s current manager, could only crave for now.
Levein, who wouldn’t make his Scottish debut until 1990, played for Hearts at the time alongside a player that would eventually score a tidy break away goal for Scotland away to Bulgaria in their final group game. Gary Mackay. Mackay scored the winner that night and his name would forever be indelible in the memory of Irish fans.
Mackay would only ever make four Scottish appearances yet he would play a minor but pivotal role from an Irish perspective.
And so after an impressive 2-2 draw away to Belgium, Ireland disappointed at home to Scotland in a 0-0 draw were they failed to score despite an array of chances.
The return match would be away to the same opposition four moths later in February 1987 in front of 45,000 fans in a must win game for both sides at Hampden Park.
We might slaver slightly now over the Irish players at our disposal at the time but firstly you have to account for the Scottish side they faced that night.
Jim Leighton in goal, a defence that included Maurice Malpas, Richard Gough and Alan Hansen with Brian McClair, Gordon Strachan and Pat Nevin in a strong midfield and a front pair of Mo Johnston and Ally McCoist.
But the Irish side that night were superior. Such was the talent available to Charlton that night Ireland had to find an unorthodox role for Paul McGrath at full back, in a back line that was barely troubled all evening. Mark Lawrenson, Mick McCarthy and Kevin Moran made up the remainder of the back line.
Tony Galvin played on the left wing with Ray Houghton staking the man of the match award for a typical energetic and incisive performance that whilst on the right, was everywhere on the pitch. Ronnie Whelan and Liam Brady at opposing stages of their careers provided a vintage midfield performance that controlled the game.
John Aldridge and Frank Stapleton tore into the Scottish from the start, Aldridge going close with very early headed opportunities. And it was with only eight minutes gone that John Aldridge acted smartly to take a free kick quickly to release Mark Lawrenson through on goal to beat Leighton and ultimately Scotland on the night.
Away wins then as now are rarities for Irish teams and this was deemed one of Irelands greatest. That night, Ireland moved joint top of the group and with a little help from Mackay and his smart technique in Sofia Ireland qualified for Euro ’88.
So it is from the depth of apparent footballing darkness, that success can come. The question remains, will the light chink though on October 12th.