Alan McLoughlin gave Ireland some genuine joy when it was in short supply

Republic midfielder’s Belfast goal is epochal - it brought smiles to the face of the nation

Alan McLoughlin in action for Ireland against England in 1990. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Alan McLoughlin in action for Ireland against England in 1990. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

 

It wasn’t so much a goal as an intervention. The replays and the documentaries can reflect and relive but they can never recreate the grim suffocating tension that took hold across Ireland that night, sometime after 9pm, when all of the complexities and hatreds and wrong turns of Ireland, north and south, seemed to be played out before our eyes on a floodlit football pitch in Belfast.

Windsor Park. The two Irelands. The Republic 1-0 down and sinking. November 17th, 1993.

Yes, it’s nearly 30 years ago so you had to be there - and the ‘there’ in this instance is any of the jam-packed pubs or crowded family living rooms throughout the island - to understand the scale of emotion on that blustery, uneasy night when Alan McLoughlin stepped out of the shadows and scored his luminous goal.

It is, of course, reductive to pin what was a long and hugely resilient football life to a single goal. McLoughlin knew adoration at Swindon and at Portsmouth - and it came pouring out as the sad news broke - that had nothing to do with his loyalty to the Irish cause. But many gilded and celebrated footballers have come and gone without ever experiencing the sensation of scoring an epochal goal. That was McLoughlin’s fate that evening.

As an exercise in football technique, it was first rate. See it now; an in-swinging free kick from the right hand side of the box by Dennis Irwin and a scuffed, headed clearance leaves the ball darting towards a Republic of Ireland figure, who has smartly placed himself on the edge of the box, away from the crowd.

He’s wearing number 14, a substitute in a first 11 that all but picked itself. He controls the ball deftly and it hangs perfectly as he follows with a sweetly struck left-foot volley. It seemed to travel through the crowd of Northern and Republic players in slow motion then and still does now: little wonder that McLoughlin, after wheeling away in celebration, turned to double check that all was good.

Sliding-doors

It was a sliding-doors moment. Ireland had an exceptionally good football team in 1993. But that hadn’t prevented them from missing out on the European Championships the previous summer. And now they were just minutes from being extinguished from the shimmering promise of USA 1994 in front of a baying, delighted Northern Ireland crowd.

It was an evening in which all the actors were - perhaps understandably - overcome with the emotional and political weight of the occasion. Hate and paranoia had taken hold. A football game featuring first and second generation Catholics, Unionists, a pitch lit with English and Dublin and Belfast accents, the sound of black Irish footballers being abused, the sight of an England World Cup winning stalwart managing Ireland, and of so much pain and pride and love and hate swirling in the air.

It was madness - with a referee in the middle.

Northern Ireland could not qualify by winning this game. All they could do was prevent the Republic of Ireland from getting to the World Cup. Let them bring each other down. It was an apt metaphor for the endless spiral of hopelessness and violence. “Fourteen minutes to go,” noted George Hamilton glumly just before the goal. “And America seems an awful way away at this point of the night.” His dejection caught the mood perfectly. It felt inevitable that nothing joyful – or good – could come from this football match.

Roy Keane and Alan McLoughlin celebrate at Windsor Park in 1993. Photograph: Inpho
Roy Keane and Alan McLoughlin celebrate at Windsor Park in 1993. Photograph: Inpho

Into that cauldron stepped McLoughlin, son of a Limerick woman and a Galway man. “There’s plenty of time,” insisted co-commentator Jim Beglin, another formidable Irish footballer from that era. And then, magically and calmly, McLoughlin struck.

After two years rooted to the bench, he scored one of the most important – and lucrative – goals in Irish football history. And it meant that his name became evocative of a particular mood and time in Ireland. Everything that happened afterwards – Giants Stadium and Loughlinisland and the sense of an Irish team ageing suddenly in the American heat, Jack’s long goodbye two years later – all stemmed from that night.

“That one’s for me wife and my little girl at home, Abby,” McLoughlin told the television interviewer as the camera bulbs flashed around him. He’s understated and cool in the moment. Around Ireland, impromptu parties broke out and car horns sounded through the provinces. A cloud lifted.

Bracingly articulate

McLoughlin belonged to arguably the most interesting fraternity of second generation Irish: he was Manc-Irish, schooled with Noel Gallagher near Maine Road. You can hear the same vocal tone in the interviews he’d give down the years: energetic, smart, bracingly articulate and nobody’s man but his own.

He took Roy Keane to task for a loose line in his biography, when it was suggested the English lads didn’t understand the nuances of that night in Belfast. Keane readily apologised. He called out the FAI for their failure to invite him to a commemorative game against Northern Ireland three years ago. John Delaney phoned to apologise and McLoughlin accepted: he was honoured by the FAI prior to a World Cup qualifier against Luxembourg in March.

Alan McLoughlin with Chris Houghton in Malta 1990. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Alan McLoughlin with Chris Houghton in Malta 1990. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

By then, he could admit that it was sometimes tiresome being asked to regurgitate the story of that goal year after year. There was much more to him as a footballer and it was only during Mick McCarthy’s first reign that his ability as a ball playing midfielder flourished.

McLoughlin played 42 times for Ireland and if he provoked tears of joy on that black night in Belfast, he admitted that he shed tears of his own on the pitch when Ireland missed out on France ’98 after conceding a late goal to Macedonia, which denied him what would have been a sweet late turn to his Irish career.

But that divine moment in Belfast is no bad legacy and it will continue to travel as cleanly as the ball he struck. It was well known that McLoughlin had been treated for cancer over the past number of years, an illness which he managed with typical candour and dignity. But Tuesday’s news was still terribly saddening and unexpected. Fifty-four is old in football years but not in life.

He was the source of an outbreak of genuine joy in Ireland during a sharp time when that was in short supply. Alan McLoughlin. Anyone who remembers the name can’t but smile when they hear it.