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Ireland’s penalty shootout drama since Italia ‘90

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This day 25 years ago, a nation held its breath as Ireland beat Romania on penalties to qualify for the quarter-finals of the World Cup. The details of the penalty shootout have become enshrined in Irish folklore, whilst the 120 minutes of football that preceded the spot-kicks were soon forgotten. Packie Bonner and David O’Leary emerged as the heroes, with Daniel Timofte missing the crucial penalty for Romania. The commentary of George Hamilton has become synonymous with the footage from that magical day in Genoa. In the tense minutes that followed the end of extra-time, Hamilton advised the audience that this would be the first time in the history of Irish football that our national team would take part in a penalty shootout.

Since that day, Irish teams at different levels have contested penalty shoot-outs, so we have decided to cast our minds back on the three most defining shoot-outs in Irish football since Italia ‘90.

Germany v Ireland, 25 July 1998 [UEFA Under-18 European Championship Final]

Ireland U-18 Euro Champs
Ireland celebrate becoming U-18 European Champions in 1998

In the summer of 1998 Irish football overcame the disappointment of missing the World Cup in France by dominating underage football in Europe. Brain Kerr led the U-16 and U-18 teams to European Championship success, meaning that Ireland became the first country to win both tournaments in the one year.

The U-18 title was won following a penalty shootout against Germany, a country renowned for its success in shootouts. The tournament was held in Cyprus and the Irish qualified from a group containing England and a talented Croatian team. The Irish team included Robbie Keane who had already won three caps for Mick McCarthy’s senior team, whilst Richard Dunne, Stephen McPhail and Barry Quinn had all played in the English Premiership during the previous season.

After a disappointing first half performance Ireland took control and were duly rewarded in the 70th minute when Alan Quinn opened the scoring after some fine work from Robbie Keane. However, Germany equalised in the final minutes and the game went to extra-time. After a relatively uneventful extra-time Kerr’s team faced the prospect of a penalty shootout.

It started well for Ireland as West Ham’s young goalkeeper Alex O’Reilly saved the first German penalty giving Ireland an early lead. Ryan Casey, Paul Donnelly and Barry Quinn then went on to convert the first three Irish penalties. Robbie Keane stood up next and surprisingly missed. Luckily for Ireland the German’s followed suit with their own miss. With the score standing at 3-3 in the shootout Liam George was entrusted with the responsibility of taking Ireland’s fifth penalty. He duly converted the spotkick by sending the German goalkeeper the wrong way and Ireland were crowned champions.

Ireland’s success at the U-18 European Championships arguably represents the high-water mark of Brian Kerr’s phenomenal tenure with the Irish underage teams. Like Bonner and O’Leary in 1990, Alex O’Reilly and Liam George emerged as the heroes from the penalty shootout. It is noteworthy that O’Reilly and George were the only English-born players in a squad that was dominated by an outstanding crop of talent produced in the Dublin District Schoolboy League.

Ireland v Nigeria, 14 July 1999 [FIFA Under-20 World Cup, Round of 16]

Kerr’s squad travelled to the following year’s Under-20 World Cup as the reigning European champions and one of the favourites to win the tournament. The European Championship-winning squad was strengthened by the additions of Damien Duff, Colin Healy and Richard Sadlier but crucially the squad was without the services of the injured Richard Dunne.

Ireland U-20 World Cup 1999
The Irish U-20 team at the 1999 World Cup.

After qualifying from their group with impressive wins over Saudi Arabia and Australia Ireland faced the host nation Nigeria in the Round of 16. Richard Sadlier opened the scoring after 35 minutes but Nigeria equalised after 70 minutes. Although Ireland were the more impressive team, the afternoon heat impacted on their performance and they struggled to summon the energy reserves required to win the game in extra-time.

In the resulting shootout Nigeria successfully converted the first penalty to put immediate pressure on Ireland. As was the case in the previous year’s European final both Paul Donnelly and Barry Quinn scored their penalties. However, the third penalty was missed by Thomas Heary, thereby providing Nigeria with an advantage that they never relinquished. Nigeria’s perfect record in the shootout meant that they won 5-3 to qualify for the quarter-finals. Interestingly Robbie Keane didn’t take a penalty, although he may have been assigned the task of taking Ireland’s fifth spot-kick but never got the opportunity.

Ireland’s exit from the tournament was undoubtedly a disappointment as they had a team capable of challenging for the title. Ultimately, eight of the players that played against Nigeria would go on to win senior caps for Ireland. Spain went on to win the Under-20 World Cup that year and were inspired by a young midfielder by the name of Xavi.

Spain v Ireland, 16 June 2002 [FIFA World Cup 2002, Round of 16]

Three years later both Damien Duff and Robbie Keane were an integral part of Ireland’s World Cup odyssey in Japan and South Korea, whilst Xavi was a member of Spain’s World Cup squad. After the drama of Saipan Ireland had battled through their group with deserved draws against Cameroon and Germany, followed by a comfortable 3-0 win against Saudi Arabia. This led them to a Round of 16 game against Spain in Suwon.

Ireland started the game nervously and Fernando Morientes scored after just eight minutes. Spain were unfortunate not to increase their lead with a Luis Enrique goal ruled out for offside. Nonetheless, Ireland gradually grew into the game and the introduction of Niall Quinn as a second half substitute put Spain on the back foot. The pressure paid off when Duff won a penalty in the 62nd minute. The penalty was taken by Ian Harte but was saved by Iker Casillas. To compound matters, the rebound arrived at the foot of Kevin Kilbane who missed a gilt-edged opportunity. Just as it seemed that Ireland’s World Cup adventure was about to end Niall Quinn won a second penalty in the 90th minute when Fernando Hierro tried to tear the shirt off the Irishman’s back. Robbie Keane stepped up to take the spot-kick and send the game into extra time.

Despite being dominant in extra time and Spain being reduced to ten men through injury Ireland failed to take advantage and were once again faced with the prospect of a penalty shootout in a World Cup. Robbie Keane was in confident mood and converted Ireland’s first spot-kick. However, Ireland’s second penalty from Matt Holland hit the bar, whilst David Connolly and Kevin Kilbane had their efforts saved by Casillas. Fortunately, Juanfran and Valeron failed to hit the target with their penalties and kept Ireland in contention. Steve Finnan scored Ireland’s final penalty to make it 2-2, but Mendieta had the final say when he converted his spot-kick to send Spain through to the quarter-finals.

The penalty shootout against Spain was a disappointing ending for a team that had produced some of the most attractive and attacking football ever played by an Irish team. It also served to illustrate the thin margins that exist when the lottery of penalties become a factor. At Italia ’90, a penalty shootout had allowed Ireland to qualify for the quarter-finals of the World Cup despite not winning a game, whereas in 2002, a penalty shootout meant that Ireland were eliminated from the World Cup despite not losing a game. Ultimately, the success and failure in the respective shootouts is what separates the two generations and provides the 1990 vintage with immortality in the realms of Irish football.

  • Author: Alan Hannify
Published inblogfeatureItalia '90

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