Ray Houghton on Ireland's Wembley woes: 'I tried to be too precise, I should have smashed it home'

The Republic of Ireland have never won in six visits to Wembley. Brendan O'Brien looks back to the famous European Championship qualifier in March of 1991 when Ray Houghton had the chance to break that duck for this week's 'Moment In Time'
Ray Houghton on Ireland's Wembley woes: 'I tried to be too precise, I should have smashed it home'
Ray Houghton: ‘It was one of the worst misses of all time. I don’t think I ever missed an easier chance’. Picture: David Maher

The Republic of Ireland have never won in six visits to Wembley. i[]Brendan O'Brien looks back to the famous European Championship qualifier in March of 1991 when Ray Houghton had the chance to break that duck for this week's 'Moment In Time'

Almost 30 years on and that 79th-minute miss against England at Wembley is seared as deeply into the memory bank as his header in Stuttgart three years earlier and the gravity-defying shot against the Italians in New Jersey at the 1994 World Cup.

How many near misses have made anything like that imprint?

It came from a long ball. Of course it did, but there was a beauty in the way Tony Cascarino cushioned his header into the path or the onrushing Ray Houghton. And a cleverness in how the Liverpool midfielder had ghosted infield to leave Stuart Pearce yards adrift just to create the chance.

All of which left him with the simplest of jobs to do against David Seaman who, in his first competitive start for his country, was left utterly exposed despite his manager Graham Taylor's decision to go with three central defenders and a sweeper system.

Houghton opened his right boot to guide the shot beyond Seaman's left hand but the net stayed stubbornly still as the ball flew over the 'Hi-Tec Sports' advertising board behind the goal and on into the vast, empty arc that separated the pitch from the stands.

“Oh, inches wide,” groaned George Hamilton on RTE.

It would be another 22 years before the sides met at a very different Wembley again and Houghton spoke in the lead-up to what was an end-of-season friendly that would also finish 1-1 about how the miss still haunted him after all that time.

“It was one of the worst misses of all time. I don’t think I ever missed an easier chance. I remember coming back to Liverpool a couple of days later and Ronnie Moran said, ‘how did you miss that, all you had to do was pass it into the corner?’

I tried to be too precise. I should have smashed it home. Jack gave me an almighty telling off after it but he didn’t do it in front of the lads, he did it up in the bar in front of my wife.

He told me I could have been a hero again, but I messed it up. That’s the polite way of saying it. I thought I’d got away with it, but he certainly let me know.”

The miss remains vivid for many reasons. Here was little old Ireland with their foot to the throat of the English football team at their very own Mecca. Score and Ireland may well have made the Euro '92 finals in Sweden. Score and they would have actually won.

That last one bears some exposition.

It's remarkable to think how many of Irish football's 'Great Days' have produced stalemates rather than outright victories. Their best performance at Euro '88 was the 1-1 draw with the USSR, they didn't win a game at the 1990 World Cup and here they were claiming a point in London.

It's a theme that has spanned subsequent eras: the only team that Mick McCarthy's side defeated at the 2002 World Cup was Saudi Arabia and Euro 2016 kicked off with an impressive performance but no more than a share of the spoils against Sweden.

It's a habit that has spilled over into qualifiers: Richard Dunne's heroics in keeping Russia's Red Army at bay in Moscow; John O'Shea's last-ditch equaliser away to the Germans in Gelsenkirchen; the 2004 draw in Paris when Kevin Kilbane had the best chance to win it.

But Wembley in '91 may be the mother of all those wins that got away.

Taylor had upped the ante before kick-off by claiming that England should have won all three of the previous meetings stretching back to Euro '88 and issuing a warning that they couldn't afford to get sucked in to the visitors' long-ball game.

Charlton accused him of playing “silly buggers” by delaying his team announcement and declared matter-of-factly that all the hype would be answered on the field - but not before the Geordie was booed into the dugout before kick-off by the home support.

Tony Cascarino told the makers of the 'Boys in Green' documentary that Charlton turned to him in some disgust and said, “I won the World Cup for this country'. It was his team that ultimately did the talking, regardless of what the final scoreline suggested.

Taylor gave an interview to TV after the final whistle when he suggested that they could have won it after Lee Sharpe made a few yards down the Irish flank in the dying minutes. It was laughable, like a man thankful for having the key to his front door after his house had burned down.

The common consensus is that this was Charlton's Ireland at its peak, not only that night but throughout the campaign. Finishing Group 7 undefeated is obvious testimony to that but the quality of their football was just as persuasive.

The average age of the starting XI against England that night was 28.8. This was a team in its prime. It was Charlton's 48th game in charge and the half-dozen thirtysomethings in the line-up still had plenty to offer. Even Kevin Moran, at 34, was three years from retirement.

John Aldridge was 32 and had just swapped Real Sociedad and the Basque Country for Tranmere Rovers and Birkenhead but he scored 40 goals for the Second Division side that year and added another 134 across a total of 294 games before retiring in 1998.

Alongside him up front was a 24-year old Niall Quinn who had been reborn with a move from Arsenal to Manchester City that season. Quinn would break the 20-goal barrier for his club in that campaign and it was his deft finish that gave Ireland an equaliser after Lee Dixon's opener via Steve Staunton's boot.

Quinn would be a fixture in the national team for the next ten years, Staunton was still only 22, the other full-back was a young Denis Irwin who got the nod ahead of Chris Morris while Roy Keane captained the U21s in a 3-0 defeat in Brentford the day before.

Keane would make his full debut later two months later. Oh, what might have been.

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