The Donegal connection at Euro 88 - Packie Bonner, Fran Fields and Ray Houghton. Photo Paddy Gallagher
It was a summer that will never be forgotten. This week 30 years ago the country went Euro crazy as the Republic of Ireland, under Jack Charlton, took part in a major tournament for the first time ever.
It was a fantastic time for sports fans; and 30 years on, people will still look back on that tournament with much fondness.
For all time greatest sporting moments, Ray Houghton’s goal against England (on June 12th) still ranks up there with the best for so many Irish fans.
Remember Ronnie Whelan’s strike against the Russians? How could we forget it.
And while Ireland’s involvement in the tournament ended with defeat to the Dutch in their final group game, the team had written themselves into Irish sporting history.
The build-up to Euro 88 started the previous November when Scotland’s surprise win away to Bulgaria ensured Ireland - fourth seeds in their group - would qualify for Germany as group winners.
The winning goal was scored by Hearts midfielder Gary Mackay - a player who will always have a special place in Irish hearts.
He came off the bench to score a late winner in Sophia and while he knew his strike ended Bulgaria’s hopes of qualification, he didn’t realise its significance until he arrived back home.
“I only really realised the magnitude of my goal when I got back to Glasgow,” Mackay said later.
“Pat Bonner was playing for Celtic at the time and though I didn’t know him, he came to the airport to meet me off the plane with a huge grin and a bottle of champagne.”
Bonner of course, was part of the Donegal connection in the Ireland squad. Ray Houghton, fresh form a move from Oxford United to Liverpool, was born in Glasgow but qualified to play for Ireland through his father, Seamus, who was born in Buncrana.
Tournament football was a lot different 30 years ago than what it is now.
Back then, there were only eight teams taking part, making up two groups of four, with the top two in each group qualifying for the semi-finals.
Given the fact that the team were heading to their first ever tournament, and they were in a group along with England, Holland and the Soviet Union, they were given little chance.
As it turned out, two of the eventual finalists, the Dutch and the Soviet Union, would contest the final.
Houghton, speaking since, referred to the fact that the Irish were most people’s underdogs.
“Nobody gave us a prayer,” he said.
“I don’t think anybody in Ireland gave us a prayer. We were certainly the underdogs by a long way, but it was a case of making sure you went out there and did your job.''
Packie Bonner has also spoken about the fact that the players themselves were experiencing something very new.
“I can still remember staying out in a hotel in Lucan pre-tournament and touching down in Stuttgart,” he said.
“The bus came out to pick us off the plane, which wasn’t normal for us. Suddenly you felt, ‘Jesus, we’re at a tournament here’. The games themselves were fantastic.”
Ireland opened against the English in Stuttgart on a sunny Sunday afternoon in front of over 51,000. England, one of the pre-tournament favourites, conceded after only six minutes when Houghton took full advantage of some sloppy English defending to beat Peter Shilton with a never-to-be-forgotten header.
“Shilton was out a bit so there was a lot of goal to aim at,” Houghton has since recalled.
“It sat up and I was under no real pressure. It was just a case of picking your spot…
… and I hit that spot. Then it was pandemonium.”
Bonner was brilliant that day. A combination of some crucial saves, brave defending and a typically dogged Irish performance helped them to a shock win.
Houghton recalled: ''There’s a great picture – it’s something I remember vividly – from after the game where Mick Byrne, our physio, went behind the goal where all the Irish fans were and was blessing himself on his knees.
“But next to him was Kevin Moran and he had this white stuff around his lips because he was so dehydrated. For all the things I remember, that’s the one that sticks out for me: looking at Kevin and thinking ‘My goodness, look at him’. We put everything into it.''
Next up for the Irish were the Soviets, a team who had beaten the Netherlands in their opening match thanks to a goal from Vasyl Rats.
Ronnie Whelan gave Ireland the lead in Hanover, scoring a wonderful volley, only for the Soviet Union to earn a 1-1 draw with an equaliser from Oleh Protasov.
The Irish had played well enough to take all three points, a point not lost on Packie Bonner.
“People still today talk about that game as the best they have ever seen us play,” he said recently.
“We played really, really well. Tony Galvin should’ve had a penalty but that Soviet Union team were a good side. And of course they got to the final.”
In the other game in the group, England crashed out of the tournament following a 3-1 defeat to the Netherlands.
It meant a draw in their final game against the Dutch would be enough to see Ireland qualify for the semi-finals at their expense.
But it wasn’t to be. Ireland held the Netherlands scoreless in Gelsenkirchen until 82 minutes when Wim Kieft scored, but only after Paul McGrath hit a Dutch post at the other end.
So the Dutch and the Soviets progressed from the group and Ireland and the thousands of fans who followed them to Germany, went home wondering what might have been.
Looking back at the tournament, Packie Bonner said the Irish might have been inexperienced at international level, but they had quality players to call on.
“When you look at the players we had back then, they were winning European Cups with their clubs,” he said.
“The Man United lads (Kevin Moran, Frank Stapleton, Paul McGrath), and the Liverpool lads (Ronnie Whelan, John Aldridge, Ray Houghton and Mark Lawrenson). So we had a real nucleus of top players. It’s only when you go into a tournament and play against big teams that you realise how good a side you are.
Then with a manager behind you like Jack (Charlton), he gives you a huge amount of confidence.”
Both Bonner and Houghton would go on to enjoy even bigger and better days in the Irish shirt at the World Cups in Italy and the US.
Remember Houghton’s wonder-strike which beat the Italians at USA ‘94?
But there was something that bit more special about Euro 88, when Joxer went to Stuttgart and Ray Houghton got the ball and he stuck it in the net . . .