Twenty-five years ago this week, Packie Bonner and Ray Houghton had just helped the Republic of Ireland to their most memorable victory when they defeated England 1-0 at the Neckar Stadium in Stuttgart.
In our first match of Euro 88, Houghton had scored a sixth minute header, following Kenny Samson’s mis-kick and John Aldridge’s flick on, to give Ireland the lead.
It was to prove one of the longest afternoons in the West German sunshine, as England laid siege on the Irish goal for an equaliser. Time and again, Bonner kept the English at bay with a string of fine saves, until referee, Siegfried Kirschen finally blew for full-time.
“There were tears in my eyes,” Bonner penned of the final whistle in his Donegal Democrat column five days later, on Friday, June 17, 1988. “To win any game is important but I am sure that you will agree that this one was very special. Before we even came to these Championships everybody was writing us off and they didn’t give us a ghost of a chance against England.”
England’s World Cup winning central defender Jack Charlton had taken charge of Ireland two-and-a-half years beforehand. The FAI’s coffers were low, having never qualified for a major international competition and Eoin Hand’s reign was called to an end after the failure to qualify for the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico.
Charlton came though a vote, eventually by 10 votes to eight over three-time European Cup winner Bob Paisley, despite having only three votes along with John Giles and Liam Tuohy to the former Liverpool manager’s nine following the first ballot.
What happened in that smoke-filled room in Merrion Square one cold February night in 1986 has never been clarified, nor has it been over whoever switched their allegiances from Paisley to Charlton at some stage late in the evening. Either way, after Gay Byrne announced the news to the nation on The Late Late Show that night, Ireland had a new manager.
If Charlton’s appointment had a stroke of luck about it, so too did Ireland’s qualification. Having defeated Ireland 2-1 in Sofia, Bulgaria needed just a point from their final two group matches to seal a place in West Germany.
Ireland completed their fixtures when goals from Paul McGrath and Kevin Moran gave them a 2-0 win over Bulgaria at a half-filled Lansdowne Road. It was seen as a reprisal for the away loss and nothing else.
Then, with three minutes remaining in their last outing in the depths of November 1987, Bulgaria were holding Scotland scoreless in Sofia before a soggy Gary Mackey from Hearts scored, to that point, the most famous goal in the history of Irish soccer.
Still trying to catch their breath, Ireland were drawn in Group B with England, Holland and USSR for the eight-team tournament. Hosts West Germany, Italy, Spain and Denmark were competing in Group A. It was rumoured at the time, one British tabloid claimed it would be one of the most competitive tournaments in years, as “seven teams are in with a chance of winning it.”
Ireland faced England in Stuttgart on Sunday, June 12, with the sun high overhead. Bonner was picked in goal behind a back four of Celtic teammates Chris Morris and McCarthy, as well as Kevin Moran and Chris Hughton. Houghton was on the right of midfield alongside Ronnie Whelan, Paul McGrath and Tony Galvin. John Aldridge would partner Frank Stapleton up front.
England, managed by Bobby Robson, went into the match as overwhelming favourites. They even had the luxury of placing Glenn Hoddle, seen by many as their most technically gifted player, among the substitutes.
Robson and England had been deprived of a place in the World Cup semi-finals two years earlier at Mexico City’s Azteca Stadium by “the hand of God and the feet of Maradona.” Gary Lineker had finished the competition as Golden Boot winner with six goals.
Houghton, who was the smallest man on the field, headed the opening goal after a catalogue of calamitous defending. He had made his international debut as an Oxford United player two years beforehand in Charlton’s first match in charge, an uninspiring 1-0 loss against Wales in Dublin.
The industrious Liverpool midfielder was born in Glasgow but his father Seamus, who watched the match in London on television, was from Buncrana.
Bonner was given a rude introduction to international football, when, on his 21st birthday, he kept goal in a 3-0 loss against Poland in Bydgoszcz, conceding a goal in less than two minutes to Andrzej Iwan.
It was almost a year before the Clochglas native received a recall but he was firmly Ireland’s No 1 under Charlton, taking over from Bournemouth’s Gerry Peyton, who was his understudy in West Germany. But ahead of the England game, the two had devised a plan.
“Before the game myself and Gerry Peyton discussed how we would deal with Gary Lineker and Peter Beardsley,” Bonner wrote. “We decided that if they came through at us, we would stand up and if they hit us well and good. We felt that if we came out and dived at them they would just chip the ball over. I’m sure you can recall Peter Beardsley in particular doing that for Liverpool many times this season.”
Bonner played his finest ever match for Ireland that day, denying Lineker and Beardsley on countless occasions. And despite Charlton’s team being on the back foot for much of the contest, with the heat stifling Ireland’s natural harrying game, England survived by a hair’s breath when Whelan rattled Peter Shilton’s crossbar with a dipping volley.
“Looking back at the saves I made over the course of the game, the one that I would have been most pleased with from a goalkeeping point of view was Bryan Robson’s shot in the second half,” Bonner added. “I did everything right for that. However, I was delighted to be in a position to make the other ones.
“The save everyone seems to be talking about was the one in the last minute from Glenn Hoddle. I was lucky because I saw it very late. I managed to get back a couple of yards and get a hand to it. I said a prayer when I saw it going around the post.”
Bonner’s clean sheet meant he had gone 731 minutes without an international concession. That sequence would last another 75 minutes before he was finally beaten when Oleg Protasov levelled out Whelan’s spectacular opener for Ireland in the second group game, against USSR in Hannover.
Whilst England would go home pointless, Ireland came within nine minutes of a semi-final place, only losing out to Holland and Wim Kieft’s freakish spinning header in a baking Gelsenkirchen amid a tornado of Oranje.
The Dutch would go on to defeat USSR in the final in Munich’s Olympic Stadium, with the goals coming from Ruud Gullit and Marco Van Basten. The AC Milan striker would finish the competition as top scorer with five goals, although Bonner was the only goalkeeper he failed to score against. Ireland went home with their heads held high.
“The significance of Sunday’s result will be seen in future years,” Bonner continued of England. “We should get a better deal from everyone as we have now gained the respect of the football world.
“Everybody in the team was overwhelmed with the amount of support we received in Stuttgart. The crowd were magnificent and they really got behind us. The scenes of jubilation at the end were tremendous. You would have thought we won the competition.
“That 1-0 win over England will probably go down as the best result in Ireland’s history. To be part of it was an honour and a pleasure.”