We felt ‘a little bit robbed’

Niall Quinn celebrates after scoring the Republic of Ireland's goal. Picture: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE

Ahead of Wednesday’s game in London, we revisit Ireland’s last game against England at Wembley, in the company of 1991 goal hero Niall Quinn

It’s the story of the last time Ireland played England at Wembley, 22 years ago, in March 1991.

It begins with a man getting to shake the hands of some of the football heroes he’d only ever previously been able to see on television in prison. It ends with one of those same football heroes, having partied well but not wisely, fast asleep at a table in a motorway café and being prodded awake by a couple of passing Welsh supporters. And in between is one of the defining games of the Jack Charlton era, a 1-1 draw with England in a European Championship qualifier at their national stadium which should, in truth, have been a victory for an Irish side playing at something close to the peak of its powers.

For one Irish supporter in particular, the experience was bound to be memorable, whatever the result. Hugh Callaghan was one of the Birmingham Six, innocent men who had served 16 years of a life sentence for the IRA’s 1974 Birmingham pub bombings. With those convictions finally quashed after a long-running campaign and, having been released amid scenes of unbridled joy only 13 days before the game at Wembley, Callaghan found himself walking the famous turf as a guest of the Irish team at their eve of match training session.

Niall Quinn, the striker who would have such a significant say in the game itself, has vivid memories of meeting a man who had endured one of the most infamous miscarriages of justice in British legal history.

“He came on the bus with us from the hotel and stood with Jack and watched the training,” he recalls today.

“We had a good chat with him first on the pitch and then he had a cup of tea with us in the dressing room. He was a football fan, very proud of what we’d achieved over in Italy. He spoke about how he used to listen intently on the radio and saw bits and pieces on TV. I think Paul [McGrath] was his favourite – but then Paul was everybody’s favourite. It’s one of those nice memories that stay with you. It was a thrill to meet him and my memory of the meeting is that he was thrilled to meet us, and it was a very happy occasion.”

The Irish team had gone to London with recent history very much on their side in the fixture. The famous 1-0 Euro ’88 win in Germany had been followed by a 1-1 draw at Italia ’90, a scoreline replicated at Lansdowne Road in October of the same year when England visited for the first of two meetings on the road to Euro ’92 in Sweden. And, having begun the latest campaign with a 5-0 stroll in the park against Turkey in Dublin, it meant that even a draw at Wembley would be enough to put the Irish top on goal difference in a four-team group — which also contained Poland – with three games played.

But Jack Charlton and his players were determined to achieve more than their customary moral victory in London. Confidence was overflowing in the Irish ranks in those days and the prospect of actually putting one over on ‘the old enemy’ in their spiritual home was tantalising. As centre-half Kevin Moran had remarked to me in the days leading up to the game: “To some people Wembley might seem outdated compared to the latest stadiums being built but there’s still a tremendous aura about the place for any footballer. And for us to beat England in their own front room would be something very special.”

In the end, the Irish fell agonisingly short of that goal but, in holding the hosts at home – and thoroughly dominating the play for much of the game – they still succeeded in serving up one of the most memorable performances of the Charlton era.

They had to do it the hard way too, coming back from the concession of an unlucky early goal – Lee Dixon’s shot deflected past Packie Bonner by Steve Staunton in the ninth minute – to level through a sublime Niall Quinn finish 20 minutes later, the then Manchester City striker getting on the end of a Paul McGrath cross and cushioning a volley with unerring precision between the outstretched hand of David Seaman and the ’keeper’s post.

“I remember thinking first I might get my head on it but then as it dropped I had to readjust,” Quinn says. “But, I might as well tell you, I’d practised those things every day in training because, in the past, if I couldn’t get my head on it I’d often be accused of slashing at it. So, through practice and hard work, I learned how to cushion a shot like that. And I would have got a lot of confidence from that night that I took into scoring goals later on for City and Sunderland – just gliding the ball into net. That stayed with me – I never felt I had to try to burst the roof of the net like I would have done as a young lad.

“In fact, it was an important goal for me in a lot of ways. Yes, I’d scored the goal against Holland in the World Cup in Italy but that goal at Wembley really established me. And, until we played Holland ten years later in 2001, when Jason McAteer scored at Lansdowne Road, I was picked for every championship game after the game against England – so that’s how important that goal was for me.”

Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to help Ireland secure maximum points, with Ray Houghton – the man who’d famously put the ball in the English net three years before – failing to do the same again at Wembley when he was put through with only Seaman to beat.

Only this week, Houghton, otherwise one of Ireland’s star performers on the night, admitted he’s still haunted by the one that got away.

“Yes, still to this day. 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.”

Ireland’s actual goalscorer on the night is a tad more charitable. Just a tad, mind.

“I was kinda greedy and saying he should have squared it to me for a tap-in but I suppose he saw his names in lights as the man who would score the winner.,” Niall Quinn chuckles. “But then, I think he more than made up for that against England in ’88 and Italy in ’94. So we’ll forgive him that one.”

But when Quinn goes on to say the Irish felt “a little bit robbed” that they hadn’t won the game, he’s not just talking about one missed chance on the night. It was the sheer quality of Ireland’s overall performance – epitomised by a man of the match performance by Paul McGrath in midfield — which stays with him to this day. Sure, there was the familiar element of what, clinging desperately to stereotype, one English newspaper the following day dubbed ‘The Eire Bombardment’, not least during one prolonged spell in the game when a panicking England were trapped in their box under a succession of high balls. But there was also an unaccustomed flair and invention and imagination about much of Ireland’s play, something which seems to have come as a surprise even to their own manager, according to Quinn.

“I remember Jack almost laughing after the game, saying, ‘I didn’t know you could pass that well’. Because we did a play a game that was a little bit different to what we had been doing. We knew we had to keep up the pressure part and work as a unit but what was different was that we also felt better and more confident about doing our own thing, things that Jack didn’t perhaps order us to do.”

Indeed, as someone who covered the Euro ’92 campaign in its entirety for The Sunday Press, this reporter would argue it showcased the most consistently high standard of football played by Ireland in the whole Charlton era. The painful irony, of course, is that despite going unbeaten throughout the campaign, Ireland were eventually pipped for qualification by England by just one point, a Gary Lineker goal against Poland in Poznan sealing the deal while Ireland were beating Turkey 1-3 in Istanbul on the final night of the group. At the time, most of us would have pointed the finger at Irish points dropped home and away to the Poles – especially the latter, an extraordinary game in Poznan when the rampant visitors went 3-1 up only for the hosts to finally draw level at 3-3 with just four minutes left.

But, for all that, it’s to Wembley which Niall Quinn can’t help returning when it comes to counting the cost.

“We dropped other points in the group but they wouldn’t have mattered if we had beaten England,” he laments. “Because back then we had every right to feel we were going to Euro ’92.”

And so, every right, at least on the night, to go out celebrating in old London town. Which brings us back to that touching image of an Irish player slumped on a table in a motorway caff, snoring away.

Let Niall Quinn tell the tale: “One of the most memorable nights I ever had after an international match, socially, was after the Wembley game, in the Galtymore in Cricklewood. [Man City boss] Peter Reid had insisted I be in the next day and I can remember on the way up calling in at the services there at Lymm, just before the turn off for Manchester. And it seems that, despite a lot of coffee, I fell asleep in the café because the next thing I knew I was being woken up by a couple of Welsh fans who were on their way home from a match. And, only thanks to them, I made it in to training, just in time.”

For the record, I feel it’s only fair to add, on Mr Quinn’s behalf, that the in-form striker followed up his Wembley goal with a hat-trick against Crystal Palace in City’s next First Division game. That said, with a new date at Wembley – and a World Cup qualifier soon after – now looming large for Ireland, a certain Giovanni Trapattoni might be relieved to know that, having closed its doors for the last time in 2008, that famous London-Irish haunt, the Galtymore Ballroom in Cricklewood, is no more.

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