Net gain: The evening Stapleton back-heeled a vital goal for the Republic

For every Packie Bonner penalty save or immortal score in a Munster hurling final there are a million more half-remembered but magical moments that had us leaping from from our seats. Brendan O'Brien kicks off a weekly 'Moment in Time' series by digging up memories of a dramatic ending to a difficult day in Malta 37 years ago.
Net gain: The evening Stapleton back-heeled a vital goal for the Republic
Frank Stapleton playing for Ireland. Photo: Archive

For every Packie Bonner penalty save or immortal score in a Munster hurling final there are a million more half-remembered but magical moments that had us leaping from from our seats.

Brendan O'Brien kicks off a weekly 'Moment in Time' series by digging up memories of a dramatic ending to a difficult day in Malta 37 years ago.

The Republic of Ireland were less than half an hour into their pre-game practise at the Ta’Qali Stadium in March of 1983 when Mark Lawrenson lost his footing on the rutted, partially-grassed surface and an exasperated Eoin Hand called a halt.

Bad enough that his side would have to navigate 90 minutes on a surface more cratered than the moon the next day, there was no point in leaving. themselves hostage to fortune twice.

Not when Lawrenson, Frank Stapleton, and David O’Leary all had minor injury issues anyway.

Officials from both FAs shared nettled words but the players were instructed to keep their frustrations to themselves as Hand ushered them off a patch that suggested the contractors hadn’t checked the snag list when finishing the ground just two years before.

“There was a big hullabaloo before the match,” says Stapleton now. “When we got there the day before we went to have a look at the pitch and it was full of rocks and stones.

"It was like a cabbage patch. It was dangerous and we complained about it. The referee said it was alright but you wouldn’t believe it.”

Ireland had more reason again to be skittish.

A side denied a place at the previous year’s World Cup finals on goal difference still boasted a sublime roster replete with players who were playing their football with the biggest clubs in England but the campaign for Euro ‘84 hadn’t started well.

A 2-1 defeat to the Dutch in Rotterdam had been tempered by a win against Iceland in Dublin before two Stapleton goals rescued a 3-3 draw against Spain at Lansdowne Road.

So they were already running out of road if they wanted to make it to France 15 months later

Here’s the scene: There are 89 minutes played and the story of the day, apart from the shitty surface and a gale-force wind that created a mini-sandstorm, is Maltese goalkeeper John Bonello who has made a string of saves that would make Jan Tomazewski blush.

Footage of the game shows exactly how treacherous the conditions were, the ball bobbling about like a wagon on a Wild West trail and standing in evidence against the contention of Austrian referee Adolf Mathias prior to kick-off that the surface was ‘just playable’.

And then it happened.

Ipswich Town’s Kevin O’Callaghan found possession pinballing its way down the right wing and his cross, low and pulled back from the line, bobbled to Stapleton whose back was to goal.

The Manchester United centre-forward stopped it, shielded it and ... back-heeled it to the net.

“A moment of inspiration” was how the the Irish Examiner correspondent Bill George described it in the next day’s paper.

Stapleton, a “craftsman supreme”, had been the best player on the pitch, George wrote, and the goal had been a fitting reward.

It was a goal that saved Ireland’s blushes, and their ambitions, if only for another month when Spain would undo them 2-0 in Zaragoza.

Any lingering hopes were ended the following October when the Netherlands would win 3-2 in Dublin.

None of that was a fact when Stapleton intervened in Valletta.

Stapleton was a celebrated player in his day — he scored five times in that campaign alone — but think of him now and back-heels do not spring immediately to mind so much as the image of him hanging in the air and knocking a header past the muddied palms of some flailing keeper.

There are two compilations of some of his goals on YouTube, one from his Arsenal days and another from his stint at Old Trafford.

Of the 35 shown, 19 are headers: Flicks, nods, dives, bullets. Liam Brady has described him as the best header of a ball he ever saw.

“Frank Stapleton was great, one of the best centre-forwards,” said Don Howe in a DVD entitled ‘501 Arsenal Goals.’

“They talk about Ted Drake, and Ted Drake was wonderful, but Frank Stapleton was as well. When he got on that back post he could get up and knock ‘em in. No trouble to him.”

The problem with that reputation may be that it presents him in 2D when there was so much more that that.

Stapleton wasn’t the most talented player in the world but he worked his arse off to be the best he could be and that goal in Valletta is one by-product of that ethic.

The man himself played it down when chatting over the phone this month. Could have gone anywhere, he said. Just flicked the old heel at it, he insisted.

His take immediately after the game shed a more revealing light on the goal and on the player.

“I knew how far out from goal I was,” he explained 37 years ago.

“The back-heel is something I try in training, but you do not expect the ball to go in on a pitch like this. It has got to be my most important goal for Ireland because it keeps us alive.”

Stapleton was never a prolific scorer. His ratio with Arsenal, Manchester United and Ireland - his peak years - stood at roughly one goal every 3.4 games but what we forget is how beautiful some of them were and how wondrous it was to see an Irishman do it at that level with those clubs.

Tony Gubba did a piece with him for BBC’s Football Focus in 1986 when he said his goals in the previous two seasons for United were memorable more for their quality than their quantity.

The archived footage from the ‘70s and ‘80s backs that up.

United played Everton in an FA Cup sixth round tie less than three weeks before that game in Malta.

They won it thanks to an injury-time Stapleton volley with the outside of his boot that flew into the top corner after being set up by a cushioned Lou Macari header.

It’s a piece of art that belongs in a museum instead of some forgotten corner of the internet.

The same online trawl threw up all sorts of delights: Low pile drivers, two sublime lobs on the run from 25-30 yards, the expected plethora of headed wonders and a half-volley for United against Ipswich Town at Portman Road from outside the box after chesting the ball down.

“Frank was a dream to have on your team, an absolute dream,” said Terry Neil who managed him at Arsenal. “You knew what you were going to get. Every game, home or away, winter or summer. Anywhere. Home, abroad, you knew and that is so reassuring for a manager.”

Apart from Malta in ‘83 when he produced a bit of magic that no-one had expected.

More in this section

Sport
Newsletter

Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up
IE_logo_newsletters

Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox