Pole-axed: The story of what might have been

Andy Townsend might struggle to remember Ireland’s 3-3 draw away to Poland in 1991 – the last competitive meeting between the two countries – but it’s a game which is lodged firmly in your humble correspondent’s memory banks.

Pole-axed: The story of what might have been

In fairness to the former Ireland skipper, two World Cups and 70 caps, not to mention innumerable club games in England, must all clamour for his attention whenever he’s invited to take a trip into the past, which perhaps explains why, when asked about that game in Poznan by a few of us out in RTÉ earlier this week, he went from wondering if it was in the same group as the infamous Liechtenstein draw (actually four years later) to floating the idea that ‘The Three Amigos’ — Gary Kelly, Phil Babb and Jason McAteer — were somehow involved at the time (when they wouldn’t actually make the breakthrough until just before the finals of US 94).

The other reasonable explanation for the Hall Of Famer’s amnesia is that it’s a kind of lingering post-traumatic stress reaction to the fact that, having been 3-1 up with just 13 minutes to go, a late double-act of Irish self-destruction allowed the home side to snatch a draw which would ultimately cost Jack Charlton’s men qualification for the finals of Euro 92.

The main reason the game resonates so strongly in my mind is probably because, as the then newly installed Sunday Press Football Correspondent, it was one of the stops in what was my first full qualification campaign on the Irish football beat.

And even before that dramatic night in Poznan, the journey had already provided a game for the ages, with that celebrated 1-1 draw with England at Wembley — in which Niall Quinn scored and Ray Houghton missed a great chance to seal the deal — happening to mark my own away debut as a member of the media team.

(It also provided a cherished personal memory involving two great men no longer with us: the sight of Bobby Moore, working for radio in the press box, having to squeeze back in his seat so that an Irish supporter could stretch an arm across him to get Con Houlihan to sign his match programme).

By the time Ireland fetched up in Poznan, they had only managed one win in three at home, and that a 5-0 stroll in the park against Turkey. The other two home games had yielded draws with England (1-1) and Poland (0-0) which, with Graham Taylor’s team now one point clear – at a time when it was two points for a win — meant most observers felt Ireland really needed nothing less than a victory.

Jack Charlton, however, had baffled the media by suggesting a draw might be preferable, on the grounds, he suggested, that it would give the Poles something to play for in their final match against England.

His decision to abandon his sacred 4-4-2 in Poznan and go with a five-man midfield – in which Paul McGrath was flanked by Andy Townsend and, making his competitive debut, one Roy Keane – seemed, at least on the face of it, to explicitly prioritise not losing over winning.

Yet what was, by Jack’s conservative standards, almost an heretical act, proved to be the springboard for one of the best attacking performances away from home ever seen from an Irish side, with goals by McGrath, Townsend and Tony Cascarino giving the visitors an apparently unassailable 3-1 lead with just 13 minutes remaining.

At which point it all began to go horribly wrong. First Jan Furtok was able to capitalise on a Packie Bonner parry from a deflected shot to tap into an empty net. And then, with just four minutes of normal time remaining, the roof fell in.

This time, the mistake was Bonner’s alone, the hero of Genoa calling to Kevin Moran to leave it as a cross came into the box, only to then see Polish striker Jan Urban get to the ball before him and head the equaliser.

And so 3-3 it ended on a night when the familiar concept of the ‘moral victory’ was rudely supplanted by something we could only call a ‘moral defeat’. My abiding memory of the depressing aftermath concerns a scene which I watched unfold a few hours after the final whistle in the team hotel, as the squad – and the press, oh happy, innocent days – were preparing to leave for a wee hours flight back to Dublin.

The Green Army had also gathered there, forming two lines in the lobby through which the players passed, to almost solemn applause and expressions of sympathy, as they made for the coach outside.

Finally, Charlton appeared and, if there had always been a suspicion about his professed willingness to take a draw, it was fully confirmed now by the look of thunder on his face as he marched towards the exit.

But the supporters knew just what was required. Softly at first, but then with rising volume and boisterous black humour, the strains of ‘Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life’ filled the lobby – and by the time Big Jack reached the door, so help me, he was cracking up, grinning from ear to ear.

There was also the fact, of course, that the game was not yet up for Ireland. But the following month, against a backdrop of ferocious hostility in Istanbul, not even another superb away display in a 3-1 defeat of Turkey was enough to do the trick; on the same night, back in Poznan, a Gary Lineker goal salvaged a 1-1 draw for England and secured the precious point with which they edged Ireland for qualification.

Thus, those finals in Sweden became the missing link between Italia 90 and US 94 for Irish football and, when you consider that Denmark — an 11th hour call-up to replace war-torn Yugoslavia — only went on to win the whole damn thing in Sweden, there is to this day a nagging sense of what-might-have-been about Ireland’s road to Euro 92 – the one, as many people say, that definitely got away.

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