Ye Gods, it can’t be true but somehow it is. When Ireland take on Denmark in the World Cup play-off next month, it really will be 25 years (and a couple of weeks) since I was last in the Parken Stadium watching the two nations go head to head, writes Liam Mackey.
That was a World Cup qualifier too but just the third in a campaign which would take many twists and turns before culminating in that infamous ‘night in November’ in Windsor Park and the 1-1 draw which put Ireland through to US ’94.
Jack Charlton’s team had begun the mission handily enough, with back to back home wins against Albania and Latvia – the former, sports history buffs might like to note, the last time goalkeeper Packie Bonner was allowed to pick up a back pass before football’s new game-changing rule kicked in.
Then came the first big test in the form of the trip to Copenhagen to face the reigning European champions, the Irish having to enter the fray without the injured Paul McGrath and Steve Staunton. That meant an 11th hour recall for the veteran Kevin Moran who had been left out of the original squad and so, it seemed, unofficially consigned to retirement as an Irish international by Jack Charlton.
Reflecting on how the manager could move in mysterious ways, Kevin would tell me at the end of an injury-disrupted campaign in which he would still get to feature in six of the twelve games:
“I might have called it a day back then if he had told me I was definitely out of the picture but, with Jack, he never slams the door in your face because he never knows when he might need you. And the ironic thing is that I came into a squad for the Denmark game that had already got two centre-halves in Alan Kernaghan and Dave O’Leary yet I got in ahead of Dave.
"With Jack, there are a lot of things you don’t work out. With Jack, at times, two and two definitely does not make four!”
As it turned out, Moran would put in a huge performance in a phenomenal Irish display on a wet and freezing night in the vaulting Parken, coming off the pitch at the final whistle in signature mode, bloodied, battered but unbeaten.
And beside him in the heart of the defence, Alan Kernaghan had probably his finest hour in an a much shorter Irish career, at one point putting in a tackle on Danish dangerman Brian Laudrup which, with the rest of the Irish players caught upfield, was as good as a goal to the visitors.
Or as Charlton put it to me the following day back at the team hotel in Dublin, almost levitating out of his seat at the fresh memory: “Alan Kernaghan ran, it must ‘ave been 30 yards, an ‘e fookin’ nailed ‘im right in the middle of the park.”
It was also a night when Packie Bonner made the save of the campaign after Laudrup had, for once, penetrated the Irish rearguard, the ‘keeper getting down brilliantly at his near post to keep out the goal-bound shot.
The final score, 0-0, was rightly hailed as one of the classic ‘moral victories’ of the Charlton era, his team’s performance encapsulating the manager’s best qualities as a strategist.
This was a night when negating the opposition did not mean negative play — Ireland got the result not by massing in defence but by defending in every area of the pitch. In challenging circumstances, Copenhagen was the ‘putting ‘em under pressure’ game at its most effective.
After another superb away point, this time in a scoreless draw with Spain — in which Roy Keane came of age as an international and Ireland were denied the win after a John Aldridge goal had been wrongly flagged offside — the next game saw Northern Ireland put to the sword at Lansdowne Road, setting up the visit of the Danes to Dublin for which, in textbook qualification style, Ireland were expected to capitalise on their away draw by winning at home.
But momentum was rudely interrupted as a collector’s item error by Paul McGrath allowed Kim Vilfort to put the visitors in front before the intervention of the tallest point in pre-floodlights Lansdowne — the very tip of Niall Quinn’s head — salvaged a point.
Away wins against Albania, Latvia and Lithuania and victory in the return game against the Lithuanians got the show firmly back on the road and set up Ireland for a potentially decisive match against Spain at Lansdowne Road, one which it seemed the whole country — not excluding the FAI who had a fireworks display ready to ignite — were certain would see us off in glory to Amerikay.
Instead, in what Charlton would later call “my worst 15 minutes as manager of Ireland”, the Spanish scored three times and, when John Sheridan answered with a late goal, the shell-shocked crowd could barely muster a cheer for what seemed like nothing more than a consolation effort.
Only the following month, after that heart-stopping finale in Belfast, would we appreciate just how critical his goal had been.
There was a Danish twist to the tale of that unforgettable game in Windsor Park too.
Amid initial confusion after the 1-1 draw — some Irish players thought we were through, some thought we were out, some just hadn’t a clue — we all had to wait for the whistle to blow in Seville where Spain were leading Denmark 1-0, a scoreline which if retained to the end of added time would send the Republic to the World Cup finals.
In those days before smartphones, our live link to Spain up in the Windsor Park press box was in the form of a genial, middle-aged Danish radio journalist, the poor guy who’d obviously drawn the short straw back at the office and ended up in chilly Belfast.
And so a group of us gathered around him, as he relayed the information he was getting through his headphones.
“They are playing one minute… The supporters refuse to give back the ball… Still they play… They are playing three minutes now... No, no, it is not over… Now it is four minutes...”
And then suddenly his face slumped and he made a sharp scissors motion with his arms that required no translation. It was all over. Ireland were through and Denmark were out.
When Irish celebrations had died down, I went back over to him to offer thanks and commiserations. He shook my hand and shrugged sadly. “That is sport,” he said. “Congratulations.” Whew.
Roll on next month.
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