It was one of the great days, possibly the greatest. Twenty years ago, the Republic of Ireland stepped out into Giants Stadium to face the might of an Italy side boasting a host of household names such as Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi, Giuseppe Signori and Roberto Baggio.
What followed has gone down in folklore as the outsiders, inspired by Ray Houghton’s early goal, Roy Keane’s dynamism in midfield and a defensive masterclass from Paul McGrath, upset the odds to claim a famous World Cup victory over opposition who would go to reach the final.
The 75,338 attendance included a sizeable Irish contingent and the players were struck by the volume of fans around even before they reached the stadium.
“It hit us en route, really,” Houghton recalls. “You’re on the bus, you see all the fans as you travel up to the stadium — I think we saw Ken Doherty en route with his Irish top on, which was quite surreal.
“The nearer we got to the stadium, the more people we saw, the more Irish fans were there. That was a huge plus for us. When you know there’s going to be people supporting you, it’s hugely important. You know who you’re playing against.”
The next thing Houghton remembers being struck by was a theme that would dominate the tournament and obsess Jack Charlton — the heat. Houghton recalls “getting off the bus and feeling how warm it was. It was really hot”.
On the pitch, things didn’t take long to sizzle either, as Houghton, who had played second fiddle to Jason McAteer in pre-tournament friendlies, picked up a wayward Baresi header before leaving Gianluca Pagliuca clutching thin air with a left-footed shot that floated over the stricken Italian goalkeeper.
Cue unbridled joy and what he now describes as a “very silly” tumble celebration.
“Haven’t got a clue,” Houghton says now of where he got the celebration idea. “Never done it before, never done it after that either. Going into the World Cup itself, I was second in line, Jason McAteer was ahead of me. Jason had played in a lot of the build-up matches and it was only when I got out there and trained that I realised I had a chance [of starting].
“A lot of people were doubting me going into the World Cup. It was one of them things, I was unsure about my starting position, got the opportunity, and then when I scored, it was just delight.”
While Houghton can’t explain the thinking behind the tumble celebration — an action he instantly forgot — there was some thought process behind the direction he ran in before it.
“I wanted to share the moment with my family. My wife and my children were over on the side I ran to, but I don’t know why I did the celebration. Even afterwards when the press lads were speaking to me about the goal itself I didn’t remember doing the celebration, couldn’t remember at all.
“We had to go over the road to a race track to meet the family there. It was only then that I met my family and they said, ‘why did you do that?’ It was then that I realised that I had done something very, very silly. I’ve been asked many times since if I could do it but at my age, I’d be worried about getting back up!”
It was a famous moment in Irish sport but Houghton is dismissive of the suggestion that it was personally enhanced by the fact he was unsure of a starting berth until the 11th hour.
“It was special anyway,” he protests. “Whenever you play in the World Cup, it’s always special, that’s your dream as a footballer.
“It doesn’t get any bigger than playing at the World Cup. There’s lots of brilliant players who’ve never played there. George Best never got to a World Cup. So when you’re there, you’ve got to make the best use of it, and this was my opportunity and that’s how I saw it.”
We didn’t know it at the time but the Italy game would be as good as it got for that team. Ireland would lose 2-1 to Mexico in the baking heat of Orlando six days later, before a 0-0 draw against Norway set up a last 16 clash with the Netherlands, where Charlton’s men went down to a tame 2-0 defeat, after costly blunders from Terry Phelan and Packie Bonner.
In later years, some would wonder if Ireland made as much as we might have from such a breathtaking start to the tournament. In his autobiography, Jack Charlton admitted Ireland “underachieved in America”, an assessment McGrath agreed with in his own memoir.
“Beating Italy was the high point of our tournament,” he wrote in Back from the Brink. “We didn’t win another game or, for that matter, produce another compelling performance. All in all, it seemed a mediocre return, given that our build-up to the tournament had featured victories in away friendlies against both Holland and Germany.”
Houghton, though, disagrees, citing the age-profile of the side — an average of 28.5 — and the US heat.
“We were an ageing team in many respects,” he explains. “Paul McGrath, John Aldridge, myself, Andy [Townsend] were in our 30s and there weren’t a lot of youngsters coming through.
“The conditions were so warm out there; it took its toll. If you looked at our games after Italy, our level dropped a little bit, particularly when we played Mexico. I think it was about half past 12 local time and 110-115F pitchside — there’s a good reason why you can’t run around. It was something we were not used to, whereas the Mexican players were.”
While the heat may have been something Ireland’s players were unused to, the success that team achieved was something the Irish public embraced and savoured.
Brazil may continue without us but we’ll always have the memory of Giants Stadium 20 years ago.