Euro 88 – One of the finest of all Ireland’s performances

Jack Charlton knew how good his team were, and how far they could have gone

Anchored by the pragmatism of an upbringing in the northeast of England, Jack Charlton was a man not given to flights of fancy. Yet he had no hesitation in stating that, with just a couple of changes in the teams he sent out to contest the finals of the 1988 European Championship, the Republic of Ireland could have fashioned the biggest triumph in its sporting history.

"That was our best chance of hitting the jackpot," he has told this reporter, "and I'll tell you why. We were new to that level of football, and opposing teams simply didn't know how to deal with us. On top of that we had a core of good players who were just coming to their prime when we set down in Germany, " Charlton said. "On my reckoning we lacked just two players to go all the way, a central forward with the pace to get away from defenders and a left-sided midfield player to supply the running power we missed on that flank."

Only eight countries made it to the finals, but at a time when eastern Europe hadn’t yet been fragmented, quality superseded quantity, a point perfectly perfected in the structure of the team that represented the Soviet Union.

The top two in each group of four teams advanced to the semi-finals, and, with England and the Netherlands joining the Soviet Union in Ireland’s group, the challenge awaiting Charlton and his players was at once intimidating and inviting. Pointedly, both finalists emerged from this group, with the Netherlands defeating the Soviet Union 2-0 in the decider.


Ireland's start could not have been more convincing. England were brought down by Ray Houghton's early goal in Stuttgart, and with Packie Bonner denying Gary Lineker on at least three occasions the travelling support, embracing a wide diversion of sporting interests, was in its element.

The Irish Times match report was headlined "The longest day and the greatest day", and it was all of that as Stuttgart's numerous beer taverns resounded to the beat of Irish music and the locals, never averse to a good party, joined the throngs celebrating Houghton's masterclass in opportunism.

Hanover was the next port of call, and with Paul McGrath out through injury, and the European Footballer of the Year, Igor Belanov, calling the shots in the Soviet Union team, the optimism generated by the heroics of Stuttgart just four days earlier was already coming under scrutiny.

But Ronnie Whelan’s goal, perceived as a thing of beauty at the time but later revealed as a good old-fashioned shank, was cancelled out 16 minutes from the end by Oleg Protasov, and a 1-1 draw was interpreted as scant reward for one of the finest of all Ireland’s performances away from home.

It meant they now had to take at least a point from the last of their qualifying games, against the Netherlands, in Gelsenkirchen, to make it into the semi-finals. And with 40,000 Dutch fans streaming over the border we suddenly began to fear for our chances of survival.

By comparison Charlton’s private army of 15,000 revellers now looked tiny on a warm, humid afternoon, and they may have sensed the worst when McGrath’s errant header from Houghton’s corner kick hit a post rather than the back of the net. For many Irish supporters inside the stadium that mistake may have fallen like the clap of doom. The sense of grievance was heightened when, with just six minutes separating Charlton’s team from a place in the semi finals, a mishit shot by Ronald Koeman ended with Wim Kieft, on as a second-half replacement, plundering a fortuitous winner for the Netherlands.

That was heartbreak on a shocking scale, a disappointment suffered by millions of Irish people around the world.

Imagine my surprise, then, when, on leaving the press box, I bumped into a leading FAI official with a somewhat different take on the drama we had just witnessed. “That was some escape there, wasn’t it?” he blurted out. “Do you realise that, had we qualified for the semi-finals, we didn’t have the money to stay in Germany without embarrassing ourselves?”

A German bailout, some 20 years before the ball was really burst? Never.