Falling from the shoulders of giants

GOLDEN MOMENT: Ray Houghton scores his momentous winning goal against Italy in Giants Stadium, New Jersey, on June 18, 1994, at the World Cup. Picture: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

Ireland’s latest trip to Copenhagen marked your correspondent’s fifth visit to the engaging Danish capital which, a couple of thunderstorms aside, presented a much sunnier, summery face than I experienced on my first trip there.

That was back in October 1992 when a premature blast of winter made for wet and freezing conditions in the Parken Stadium as Jack Charlton’s Ireland defied the elements — and the scintillating threat of Brian Laudrup — to claim a precious early away point on what would turn out to be a long and very rocky road to the World Cup in America.

A berth in the finals was only secured on the very last night when another draw, this time 1-1 with Northern Ireland thanks to Alan McLoughlin’s claim to immortality, turned a poisonous evening in Windsor Park into a celebratory one for the Irish team which flew south immediately after the game, back to a heroes’ welcome in the wee hours at Dublin airport.

All of which serves as a jolting reminder that — ye gods! — we’re now on the very eve of the 25th anniversary of USA ’94.

It’s not just recognition of the accelerating passage of time, at least for someone of my vintage, which gives pause; reflection on the events of a quarter of a century ago also brings awareness that this was a tournament which occupies an odd, even bittersweet position in the pantheon of Irish football achievement.

Mention Euro ’88 and the memory is unsullied. There was the ‘revenge for Skibbereen’ victory over England, of course, Ray Houghton’s header the first and arguably still the most revered of all Ireland’s big tournament moments. And what came after wasn’t too shabby either: a wonderful performance in a 1-1 draw with the Soviet Union before the team bowed out, heads held high, after an agonisingly narrow defeat to eventual Euro winners the Netherlands.

Two years later and it was time for that long dreamed-of first appearance at the World Cup. And if Italy ’90 produced little in the way of football to savour — and not just from the Irish — it still gave us the unutterably heart-stopping drama of Packie Bonner’s great leap of faith and the David O’ Leary penalty which allowed a nation to start breathing again, the shoot-out win against Romania sending Charlton’s outsiders through to a quarter-final in which, once again, they bowed out with plenty to be proud of, having given the hosts a good run for their money.

Maybe USA ’94 was always going to pale a little by virtue of, well, not being the first time, but the way things panned out for Ireland in America means that what fond memories it evokes in this neck of woods are essentially all bound up with just one game.

But what a game, one that at the time felt big enough to accommodate a whole tournament’s worth of sensation.

If the realisation that this took place all of 25 years ago isn’t enough in itself to make you feel your bones creak, then consider this: Ray Houghton was already a mature 32 when, reprising his early looping header in Stuttgart, he this time sent an early looping shot under the Italian bar to give Ireland an unlikely lead.

And one which they proceeded to hold through to the end, thanks in no small part to what was, by common consent, Paul McGrath’s greatest of many great appearances for Ireland, as he kept Roberto Baggio under wraps and, even while struggling with a dodgy arm, blocked everything else the Azzurri could throw at him.

But, sadly, that was as good as it would get for Ireland on American soil, the final whistle in Giants Stadium marking less the end of the beginning than the beginning of the end, not just for our interest in the tournament but, as we would learn in due course, for the success of the Jack Charlton era.

The first warning sign that Ireland would fall from shoulders of giants emerged in the very next game, as Mexico did something which few teams before them had been able to do: repeatedly cut the Irish defence to ribbons as they claimed a 2-1 win. A dour scoreless draw with Norway then saw the Irish stumble through to the knockout stages where, in the ferocious heat and humidity of the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, the wheels well and truly came off, a Packie Bonner howler capping a miserable experience for Charlton and his team as they went down and out to a 2-0 win for the Dutch.

One of my abiding memories of the aftermath was being in the team hotel as the squad prepared to go home. Sponsors Guinness had provided the players with some promotional gear which meant that Bonner, a hero four years before but now inconsolable after his handling error, could be seen in the lobby accepting commiserations with a glum face while wearing a black t-shirt bearing the legend ‘Genius’.

Indeed, the Italy game aside, it’s mainly the off the pitch moments which, for both good and ill, tend to linger in the mind from USA ’94. Like, stepping out onto the media level high up in Giants Stadium to the glorious shock of seeing that, contrary to all the pre-match concerns about New York’s Italian community monopolising tickets, the Irish had taken over the place, lock, stock, and tricolour.

I recall too, a trip from the squad’s base in New Jersey into Manhattan to meet up with a friend from home, and walking into the bar of Fitzgerald’s Hotel to be greeted by the bizarre sight of everyone staring as if hypnotised at TV screens showing images of a white car leading a stately procession of police cars along a freeway: my first glimpse of OJ Simpson’s infamous slow- motion getaway bid.

This happened to be the very day the tournament kicked off in Chicago but it wouldn’t have taken the spectacular story of OJ on the run to distract the attention of most Americans from the Mundial unfolding on their doorsteps. Even just a mile away from the various stadia, the World Cup of ’94 was invisible to the point of almost non-existence, what most of the rest of the world would regard as sport’s greatest show on earth lost to the vast indifference of the huge majority in its host nation.

I recall too on the flight home, as dawn was sliding up over the roof of the world, Niall Quinn wondering aloud if anyone would bother turning up in the Phoenix Park for the homecoming about which the Irish camp felt distinctly uncomfortable.

Well, people did turn out but more out of a sense of habit than conviction, the whole thing an underwhelming experience which was in keeping with Jack and the players’ experience of the World Cup itself. Still, no small thing: at least we and they will always have Giants Stadium.

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