This Sunday will mark the 20th anniversary of Ireland’s Euro ’96 qualification play-off against Holland at Anfield, in what was Jack Charlton’s last game in charge. It was a night that ended in disappointment as Guus Hiddink’s classy Dutch team proved too strong for the Boys in Green. Big Jack had previously spoken about his desire to lead Ireland to the European Championships in what would be the first major tournament on English soil in thirty years when he was part of England’s World Cup-winning team.
Jack’s team in decline
The loss to Holland may have brought the curtain down on Charlton’s managerial career, but the decline in the Irish team had been evident over the course of the previous six months. Ireland had actually started the Euro ’96 qualifying campaign in impressive form securing a comfortable victory against Northern Ireland in Belfast and a well-earned 1-0 win at home to Portugal. By the halfway stage, Ireland had secured 13 points from a possible 15 and looked odds on to qualify automatically for the Euros. However, it all began to unravel in June 1995 when they travelled to Liechtenstein for what appeared on paper to be a routine assignment against the group’s minnows. Despite an aerial bombardment from the Irish team Liechtenstein’s goal remained intact and the 0-0 result represented a low point for Irish football.
There was an opportunity to restore some pride when Ireland faced Austria a week later in Lansdowne Road. The build-up to that game was later relayed in Roy Keane’s first autobiography when he recounted the squad’s visit to Harry Ramsden’s for a feed of fish and chips the day before the game. Ireland dominated Austria for over an hour and eventually got their reward when Ray Houghton opened the scoring after 66 minutes. However, Ireland subsequently capitulated as Austria scored three goals in the space of ten minutes to leave with an unlikely 1-3 victory. Following Keane’s revelations, the accepted theory was that the team’s intake of fish and chips had left the players leaden-legged, which explained their lack of energy in the last twenty minutes.
When the qualifying campaign resumed in the autumn, Ireland looked like a team that had run out of ideas and no longer believing in the system that had made them so difficult to beat for the best part of a decade. The sense of a growing malaise was evident as Austria recorded a further 3-1 win against Ireland in Vienna before the Irish team stuttered to a nervy 2-1 win at home to Latvia. The final fixture in the group was in Lisbon against a rampant Portuguese team that eased to a 3-0 victory over a patchwork Irish team in damage limitation mode. Despite only picking up four points from their final five games, a play-off place was secured, which was thanks in no small part to Northern Ireland beating Austria in Belfast.
Lack of Belief
The backdrop of poor results and the sense that the team had stumbled into the play-off meant that confidence was low and there was no great belief that Big Jack could stem the decline. Irish fans travelled to Liverpool more in hope than expectation. It was a daunting prospect for an aging and injury-ridden Irish squad having to face a Dutch team that was backboned by a wonderful generation of technically-gifted young players. A total of eight players from Holland’s starting eleven were part of the Ajax team that had won the Champions League earlier that year. This crop of players included Edwin van der Sar, Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids, Ronald de Boer and Patrick Kluivert.
There was also a growing discourse about Charlton’s future as manager and whether opposition teams had finally figured out how to overcome his narrow tactical approach. It could be argued that the uncertainty over the manager’s future and an impending sense of doom did little to help the focus of the Irish players. Nonetheless, the strong team spirit that had characterised Irish teams throughout the Charlton era would appear to have still been in evidence. A passage from Alan McLaughlin’s autobiography A Different Shade of Green describes an incident in the days prior to the play-off game when Jack sat the team down to watch a recording of the Dutch team:
In a private room in our Liverpool hotel everyone sat attentively in rows of chairs, Jack Charlton and Maurice Setters up front, with the players behind them.
The Netherlands had a formidable side and so everyone was very serious as the VHS went in the slot and the picture, crackly at first, came on the television. To my surprise, as the camera scanned across the two teams standing for the anthems it showed 11 anonymous faces in orange shirts surrounded by an empty stadium.
I squinted at the Dutch team on screen, unable to make out Kluivert, Bergkamp or any of their other stars. After five minutes it became abundantly clear to everyone that this was a video of the Dutch under-21 team. Everyone, that is, apart from Jack and Maurice. The lads started nudging each other, laughter rippling, as we waited for Jack to realise.
Another five minutes passed. Still Jack hadn’t clocked what was going on. Another few minutes passed. Up Jack leapt, pausing the video. He’s finally realised, I thought. But as Jack started lecturing us, I realised I was wrong.
– ‘Now, watch Bergkamp’
Jack was pointing at the Dutch under-21 striker, who just happened, like Denis Bergkamp, to have blonde hair.
– ‘Now, watch the way he pulls away from his defender. Here.’
Cue hoots of laughter.
– ‘What the hell do you lot think you’re laughing at, eh? What’s so fucking funny?’
Jack’s question was met with more howls of delight.
Eventually, Andy Townsend told him what had happened. Jack blamed Maurice and gave him a bollocking. Maurice, in turn, blamed the Dutch. Sabotage! Jack’s final word on the matter was ‘fuck ’em, we’ll beat ’em anyway’. It didn’t bode well.
Dutch show their class
The Irish team was roared on by a strong travelling support that took over the Kop end at Anfield. This seemed to spur on the team in the early stages, as both Terry Phelan and Paul McGrath had attempts on goal. However, Ireland struggled to cope with the incisive passing and movement of their Dutch counterparts. Holland took the lead after half an hour when some quick interplay between Seedorf and Davids released Kliuvert into a good position inside the Irish box. The 19-year old Kluivert finished with aplomb. Ireland’s attempts at chasing the game were based on sporadic forays into the Dutch half of the field, but as the minutes ticked by, an equalising goal seemed increasingly unlikely. Holland eventually sealed the win when Kluivert scored his second goal with ten minutes to go.
In Paul McGrath’s autobiography, Back from the Brink, he describes a squad of players that was past its sell-by date and lacking the energy that had epitomised the Charlton era:
On reflection the magic of the Charlton era was on the wane by then. I believe we came home from America a tired team, a little of the old ferocity had left us…
Our efforts to qualify for Euro ’96 died technically, with a 0-2 play-off defeat to Holland at Anfield in December 1995. But being honest, the Harry Ramsden Challenge (where we dipped into a chippy for dinner on the eve of a vital qualifier against Austria) had marked the end three months earlier. We were gone as a competitive force. And Jack walked before he was pushed. It was a sad, even vaguely brutal end.
End of an era
As the final whistle went at Anfield that night, Irish fans raised their scarves on the Kop and broke into song in what was clearly the end of an era. Jack Charlton later returned from the dressing-room to the field in order to salute the fans that had remained in the stadium, and they in turn showed their gratitude to a manager that had delivered so much during the previous decade.
By securing Ireland’s first ever qualification for a major tournament at Euro ’88 and reaching two World Cups, Big Jack created an incredibly strong bond with the Irish nation. Those halcyon days are etched in the memories of Irish fans that are old enough to have experienced them and the appearances at major tournaments endure as key milestones in Irish popular culture. In many ways, it’s the legacy of the Charlton era that creates the bond between the Irish team and the nation, which is unrivalled in other sports. This connection manifests itself on those rare occasions when Ireland reach major tournaments, as new generations of Irish fans seek to recreate the experiences of Stuttgart, Italia ’90 and the Giants Stadium. Twenty years on and as we look forward to the draw for the European Championship Finals, Irish football still owes Jack Charlton a huge debt of gratitude.
- Author: Alan Hannify