Euro ’88: Jack Charlton points Ireland’s ‘beautiful, skilled losers’ on path to glory

A phone call in December 1985 set in train one of the key chapters in the history of Irish football


In the era of the “what if...” novel, it may be only a matter of time before somebody revisits Jack Charlton’s time as Republic of Ireland manager and resolves, for themselves at least, just how things might have worked out had he preferred to place his faith primarily in the talent of his players rather than the soundness of his own tactics.

For those still wondering what might have been, though, it’s worth remembering that few of the players see much cause for complaint. Niall Quinn seemed to sum up their mood well enough when he observed once that Ireland had been “happy as we were,” prior to the Englishman’s arrival, “beautiful, skilled losers”.

What Charlton achieved is beyond dispute. And some three decades years on from his appointment, the success of his teams still influences the level of expectation set for rather less talented squads.

The story of his appointment and that first campaign, Euro’88 is still one of the key chapters in the history of Irish football.

The search for something different

Early in December 1985, the phone rang in my office at home. The voice on the other end of the line was, unmistakably, Irish.

“Is that Jack Charlton?”

“It is,” I replied.

This is Des Casey, President of the Football Association of Ireland. Would you be interested in doing the job?”

“What job?” I enquired.

“Managing the Ireland team.”

“Yes,” I said – and with that, the line goes dead. Not another word, nothing. Bloody hell!

– From My Autobiography by Jack Charlton

Like quite a few great journeys, this one started with a long drive. On November 13th 1985, a 4-1 defeat by Denmark at Lansdowne Road effectively spelt the end to Eoin Hand’s time as Republic of Ireland manager.

Three weeks later Dr Tony O’Neill and Des Casey flew to Manchester, hired a car and hit the road. Casey described the next two days as “an odyssey”.

It was certainly an excursion that was to have a profound impact on the game here and, in particular, of course, on the national team.

“There was an executive meeting where Tony O’Neill and myself were given a mandate,” recalls Casey, “an open book to source suitable candidates and to bring back a recommendation. The idea was that we would welcome declarations of interest and follow up what we considered to be suitable candidates.

“We also decided that where we were interested in managers who were already employed, we would observe the proper protocols and seek the permission of the directors of the clubs concerned. That was on the 22nd of November.

“The word went out and we were getting phone calls and declarations of interest from all over the place. From our side, I think the benchmark really was that the fact that Billy Bingham, while living in Southport, had got Northern Ireland to qualify for the World Cup twice, in ’82 and ’86 with what was perceived to be . . . well, I won’t use the term ‘inferior group,’ but we would have felt that we had more quality players.

“So we put together a schedule, people who might be interested and we decided to go over. A fortnight after that decision, on December 6th, we were on a plane to Manchester.”

Bob Hennessy, a journalist who specialised in covering Irish angles to the British game, helped with phone numbers and the pair continued to explore different possibilities as they went.

Even before they landed, though, they had a hectic schedule lined up.

“The first man we interviewed was Jack Charlton, at the Crest Hotel. Jack was there doing something with the BBC about fishing. We met him in the bar and sat down. I had a friend called Russell Cushing who was secretary of Newcastle United – the league had played Newcastle a couple of times when I was the treasurer – and I enquired about Jack because he was available.

“Russell said he was a very straight guy, that he’d give us 100 per cent and that he’d be suitable for us. We met Jack and he asked about how we’d come to make contact with him and he seemed quite chuffed to hear about the recommendation.

“When he talked about the job he was able to rattle things off and he said he couldn’t understand how we hadn’t qualified for the World Cup with players like Dave O’Leary, Liam Brady, Frank Stapleton, Kevin Moran and Paul McGrath, He mentioned them all . . . he said ‘if I had those players, I would certainly do something with them’.

“I asked him if he was interested and he said that he was; that he hadn’t applied for the job but that ‘if you’re interested in me then we can take it from there’.

“We left it at that. He was number one on our list.”

The pair went from there to a meeting with Pat Crerand, then the assistant Manchester United manager who, Casey recalls, was very keen, after which it was off to the Knutsford Service Station where former Everton boss Gordon Lee was interviewed.

“It appeared from talking to him that he would be a very strict disciplinarian which maybe wouldn’t have suited our players.” Lee became the first to be eliminated from the reckoning as the two men started out for London.

Terry Neill was next up, then Arsenal assistant manager Theo Foley. They stayed in London before travelling to Peterborough the next morning where they called on Noel Cantwell, by then well settled with his family and running a pub. “He was just honoured to be asked,” says Casey.

Before leaving, O’Neill returned a call to a journalist in Nottingham and was told Brian Clough was interested in the job on a part-time basis. He phoned the club and spoke to the chairman Maurice Rowarth about making an approach. It took Rowarth an hour to come back with a refusal. In a hotel near Birmingham Airport they wrapped things up by meeting Billy McNeill and then John Giles.

“The standout candidates were McNeill, Giles and Charlton,” says Casey but Manchester City chairman Peter Swales effectively ruled McNeill out at a further meeting with the terms he demanded for the club while politics back at home ensured Liam Tuohy was added to the list.

At 5pm on February 7th, Casey arrived for the executive meeting where a vote to decide the matter was to be taken but as he entered the building he was told by other association officials that Bob Paisley had thrown his hat into the ring.

Casey, who had established strong connections at Liverpool over the years, dismissed the idea, saying that he contacted the club’s chairman, Peter Robinson, at the outset of the selection process and been told that Paisley, who would later be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, was already believed to be unwell.

“I was told,” he says, “from inside the club, from the top of Liverpool that Bob had health problems and that he wouldn’t be coming back into football management. So I said, ‘right, get Bob on the phone’. I knew him personally and asked had he applied for the job. He said, ‘I’ve been asked and if I was offered it I’d have to consider it.’

“So I left it at that but I had a set to with the others. I told them that he wasn’t on the shortlist because I had excluded him but they more or less said that now that he was interested, we couldn’t ignore it. I said that was fair enough but I was going to put it to the executive.

“So, it was put to the vote. Liam was eliminated, then John Giles. Paisley was stuck on nine votes (he needed just one more) and I was asked from the floor by somebody, maybe it was Milo Corcoran, if I was recommending Bob Paisley and I said ‘most certainly not’. I said that as far as I was concerned he wasn’t interviewed by Tony and myself because I had been given a clear indication by Liverpool that he would not be coming back into management. So another vote was taken and Jack Charlton, who had remained static, got the vote by 10 votes to eight. He was getting the job.”

The new man’s methods

“I had an unexpected visit from a member of Her Majesty’s Inland Revenue staff. That surprised me, for I had never previously been singled out for special attention. I informed the taxman that I always paid my taxes and that my books were invariably accurate. ‘Yes, Mr Charlton,’ he explained, ‘but there was such a sharp decrease in your returns for the year 1986-87, that we thought it proper to call on you.’” Even aside from the scale of the pay cut he had taken, the Englishman might have wondered what he had let himself in for through the build up to his first game in charge, a 1-0 defeat by Wales. The weather was miserable, training difficult and the game awful. The press was still miffed about the FAI apparently missing out on Paisley. And Charlton didn’t even pick the squad or team for the game; he left that to team physio Mick Byrne, although he quickly made it clear that he had strong views about what he wanted from the group, both on and off the pitch.

“He brought us all into this area where we trained (an aircraft hangar according to several recollections of the time) and told us all, ‘look it’s open house, I’ve no allegiance to anybody here,” recalls Pat Byrne, the only League of Ireland player to have featured in Hand’s last game.

“And he didn’t in fairness; he made that very plain from the outset. He was very, very straight.”

“He was straight about the tactics too,” he says. “He made it very clear that first time on the training ground that ‘we are not going to have any nice stuff here. It’s going to be very straight; we’re going to play it this way: we’re going to get the ball, we’re going to put it over the full backs’ head and we’re going to have runners in behind. We’re going to close everything up and we’re going to turn the whole backline; as soon as they’re turned, we’re on our way.’

“A key thing was to get corner kicks and throw-ins because we had Mick McCarthy who had a long throw and we had one of the best deliverers of the ball in Liam Brady for corners and everything else, free kicks . . . so he simplified the game, made it very, very simple. But whichever way you looked at it, it got results – end of story.”

Charlton’s knowledge of the group developed as the team played a friendly against Uruguay in late April and then, after the Englishman had resisted a suggestion that the team head to South America on one of those infamous end of the season tours, travelled to Iceland for a triangular tournament that would help him settle some key selection issues.

Dave O’Leary, already out of favour after his performance against Wales when he was blamed for Ian Rush’s goal, declined a late call-up and would not be asked again over the rest of the campaign. So Mick McCarthy cemented his place in the side along with new recruits Ray Houghton and John Aldridge, then both of Oxford.

Another to benefit from the trip, he feels, was Packie Bonner, who, in his recent book, The Last Line, wrote that he felt Charlton had seen something in him. Certainly the goalkeeping situation seemed to be settled from that point on with Gerry Peyton having to take a back seat.

“To be honest, I don’t know what he did see in me because I didn’t have a great game there. I let a goal in against Iceland and thought that might be the end of me. But he stuck with me.

“It was really his first real opportunity to have a look at all of us. He had it in his mind the way that he wanted us to play and all that. I was disappointed because you always want to make an impression on a new manager coming in and I was relieved that he didn’t just leave it at that.”

The Liverpool contingent didn’t travel and would later have to be brought up to speed on the developing set-piece routines and so Charlton organised what was supposed to be a two-day training camp at Lilleshall.

John Anderson took a lift with Charlton from Newcastle, more than 200 miles away, and Mark Lawrenson recalls him emerging for the car after the long drive with a expression that suggested a mix of bemusement and despair.

After the pleasantries, Anderson explained that Charlton had put on tapes about how to catch salmon and the pair barely spoke for the rest of the journey.

Charlton then had a couple of his senior players go through the routines for the rest of the squad, Lawrenson recalls.

“We all went on the training pitch and he just said to the rest of the boys, ‘right, show these Liverpool hermits the free kicks that we do and stuff’. Jack had his back to the boys putting on the session, it was all set-pieces, like at throw-ins where you were going to get the ball so you’d get a little space to get a cross in, and free kicks; all attacking, I don’t think we did anything against us. He had a golf umbrella and he was practising his swing.

“So after a while he turned and asked, ‘right lads, have you got it?’ and me, Ronnie and Jim were sort of looking at each other but sort of said: ‘Eh, yeah, boss.’”

He got them to run the training session again, canvassed the group as to whether they wanted to stick around for the second day and when they indicated that they saw no point, just said: “No problem. Off you go.”

The turning point

“Apart from the result, there was one aspect of the Glasgow trip that fascinated me – the readiness of the Irish to party. The team hotel was accessible to supporters after games and heck, did they avail themselves of the facilities. I retired to bed at 2am and it still hadn’t finished by the time I got up to catch an early flight back to Newcastle the following morning.”

The media criticism persisted through the early stages of the campaign. The Belgium game away was a good result and the late penalty that salvaged a draw for Ireland suggested Charlton would enjoy more good fortune than his predecessor had. Still, it was to be a little while longer before it really began to hit people that things were falling into place for the team.

“For me it was Scotland away,” recalls Houghton, who was one of the outstanding players that night in February 1987.

“Jack was reluctant to make changes but for that game he put Paul (McGrath) at right back and Ronnie (Whelan) at left back and it turned out to be a masterstroke. We only won the game 1-0 (Lawrenson’s early goal proving decisive) but I always thought that it was much more comfortable than that. That was the night for me that we knew we could qualify.

“You can see these things in the reaction of the players. I mean, Liam [Brady] had come off injured. I liked Liam, he wanted to win and he was a brilliant player, but he never really showed his emotions; he never let them get the better of him but that night he was back on hugging people and telling them ‘well done’. You could see what it meant to him; it showed you the magnitude of that win, I think.”

Lawrenson had been told long beforehand that he would play in central midfield but he remembers the reaction to Charlton’s team announcement both in and outside the squad.

“We were sitting there and he went: ‘It’s Packie in goal, Paul McGrath, Kevin Moran, Mick McCarthy, Ronnie Whelan and we’re all looking at each other trying to figure out whether he was just naming the 11 or whether he was naming them where he was going to play. Mark Lawrenson, Ray Houghton he just went on and on.

“And at the end of all of this I think it was Ronnie says, ‘Jack, you’ve named me a left back,’ and he said, ‘yes, I have, have you got a problem with that?’ ‘No, no.’ And he says, ‘Paul, you’re right back.’ And Paul is just, ‘yeah, yeah, not a bother, that’s fine’. And then we all sort of looked at each other and thought: ‘Oh my God, what is this all about?’

“The press were the same; going ‘what on earth is he doing?’ But in fairness to him, when we saw the Scotland team, and we saw the midfield (with wingers Pat Nevin and Dave Cooper as well as, most controversially, Gordon Strachan rather than Paul McStay in the centre), they were a little bit like Ken Dodd and the Diddymen. So that was his master plan and after the initial shock we just thought, ‘fine, we better get on with it,’ and the rest is a little bit of history, isn’t it.”

Bonner was another to do well that night at Hampden Park and he remembers the occasion with fondness but for him the moment when the team’s collective self-belief was crystallised came three months later when Brady scored the only goal in a friendly win over Brazil.

“I always felt that that game, even though it was a friendly, it was something that almost made the players realise that they could come up against the top teams and get results. It wasn’t a great Brazil team but they beat Scotland then drew with England and then we beat them.

“And I think that was a crucial game that made us think that, ‘okay maybe this way that Jack wants us to play is alright because you can beat Brazil and if you can beat Brazil then that justifies it’.”

Missing out

“And then this gifted man, who can calculate a pass to the last roll of the ball, goes and destroys it all. We’re leading 2-0, there’s only a couple of minute left and . . . . he’s kicked. What does he do? He spins around and kicks the guy back, straight in front of the referee. My heart sinks.”

Brady had a good day against Brazil but his relationship with Charlton remained fractious as the player struggled more than most to come to terms with the restrictions placed upon him. The pair got off to an uncertain start with Brady recalling recently that Charlton’s first words to him had been: “You’re number eight Ian.” To which Brady replied: “Ian Brady was the Moors murderer, Jack.”

Charlton’s inability to get names right became legendary. He claimed that he hammed it up and some of his players, most of whom agree he was generally clever in the way that he handled the squad, admit there may have been something to this though none seem to entirely buy the claim either.

Lawrenson recalls him repeatedly referring to Paul McGrath as John, an unintentional nod to the former Newcastle and Southampton centre half and Kevin Sheedy remembers the manager having appeared baffled by a couple of the opposing players’ names whose names he had scribbled on the back of a cigarette packet (a recurring theme) ahead of his team talk for a game against Wales. When he had to be told who one particular player played for, Charlton, says the former Everton star, concluded: “Well, he must be shit.” The squad howled with laughter.

Niall Quinn spent his early days in the squad being referred to by the manager merely as “Arsenal” but the striker was 19 when he travelled with the squad to Iceland. Brady was 30 when the Englishman arrived on the scene and playing for Inter Milan.

Charlton, to be fair, has repeatedly insisted that he rated Brady as one of the best players he had ever seen and he kept starting him but he had a very set idea about what he wanted of the midfielder which was to play off the strikers while doing his fair share of the pressing.

“Jack had laid down the law in the first game,” says Lawrenson. “‘Don’t worry about the tactics; I’ll sort them out.’ Liam was a little bit concerned because obviously he used to get the ball at the back and then play it out whereas Jack went; ‘I don’t want that, I really do not want that, it’s not the way that I play’.”

There was a sense that the team’s most established players would all be put out but Lawrenson reckons most were happy enough. “I suppose Liam possibly had a slightly different take on it all but if he thought that I was going to be critical of Jack, I don’t think that was going to happen. He had said you’re going to play in midfield and I didn’t really have a problem with that. And then you have another of the senior pros, Frank, thinking, ‘well, I’m going to get the ball earlier, so I’m happy.”

As it happened, a career ending injury removed Lawrenson from the equation before the end of the campaign and Bonner believes that as the team edged towards the finals, Brady was coming around.

“It was a difficult situation. It was kind of . . . ‘how do you tell Liam Brady what to do?’ And it took somebody very strong, somebody with the character of Jack Charlton to do that. Maybe he lost out but then the injury didn’t help. I think if he’d got to that European Championship Liam would have been the star because he was fitting in at that point.”

When reflecting afterwards on the win over Bulgaria that moved the team closer to qualification, Charlton acknowledged as much, claiming that “the penny had dropped,” as Brady turned in an outstanding performance until he got himself sent off for retaliation and subsequently received a four-match ban for violent conduct.

His suspension was cut to two games but injury intervened and he missed the finals anyway. He never started another competitive game for Ireland and with the arrival on the scene of Andy Townsend found himself increasingly surplus to requirements in the qualifiers for Italia’90, a point Charlton would drive home cruelly by replacing him before half-time in a friendly against West Germany in September 1989. With Brady still enjoying considerable popularity, the manager appeared to set him up for a fall. “With Ireland, you see,” he later explained in an unguarded moment, “they don’t give up their fuckin’ heroes easily, so you’ve really got to show’ em.”

Being there

“I think the bugger is winding me up. ‘Hold on a minute, I’m sat here looking at the game same as you, and it’s still scoreless.’”

Ireland’s qualification eventually came down to a late goal by Scotland debutant Gary Mackay in Sofia. Watching at home in Scotland, Bonner gave a running commentary of the closing stages to a friend in London down the phone then got a call after the final whistle from the Daily Record who asked that he head out to the airport so that a picture could be taken of him welcoming the Scots team, which included a couple of Celtic team-mates, home.

Charlton was apparently watching a delayed transmission in England and wouldn’t believe the news at first when a journalist rang to congratulate him on qualification. Having briefly argued the point, the manager watched the rest of the match so as to be certain.

The following summer’s finals in Germany proved to be something of a phenomenon with thousands of fans travelling but, more remarkably, the nation back at home embracing the experience of Ireland’s involvement to an extent nobody could have quite anticipated.

Those with no interest in football opted, somewhat joyously, to go with a flow that had so much momentum it seemed to sweep all before it. Even those with a traditional distaste for the game seem to surrender in large numbers to the celebratory atmosphere and streets in towns and cities around the country were largely deserted for games.

The national party was never as euphoric as after the defeat of England, when Ray Houghton’s early goal proved decisive. Lawrenson, by now retired, couldn’t even watch that game, he was so upset at not being there himself.

The music eventually stopped when Wim Kieft scored late for the Netherlands, a goal the Ireland manager described, in his disappointment, as “the greatest fluke of the year”, but the scale of the welcome home made it clear the team had done more than enough to endear itself to the nation in a way none had ever done before.

In between, against the USSR, the players produced their best performance of those first two years that Charlton reigned and, some of those who took part that day in Hanover remain proud of the football they played. “Oh absolutely,” says Houghton now, “without a shadow of a doubt. It was one of the best performances I’ve ever been involved with with Jack’s teams.

“We were never given credit for playing football. All everybody ever talked about was the tactics: long ball and pressurise but that night we played some great football against a very good USSR side; that team had just beaten Holland in the game before. They were coming in supremely confident against us but we were absolutely magnificent. I remember coming off and thinking ‘wow, if we can play that way anyway often; we’ll be alright’.”

With McGrath out injured, Charlton used Whelan in defence again and brought Kevin Sheedy into central midfield, a move he described as “a risk,” given the midfielder’s more usual role out on the left.

But the Everton player had starred at the heart of the team against Poland in a pre-tournament warm up and had had, by his own account, perhaps his best season at club level playing there only the year before. The now 56-year-old was confident, as they say, he could do a job for the team and he is proud today of his part in a performance hailed at the time as perhaps Ireland’s in living memory.

“I would agree,” he says. “They [Russia] were a top class team in those days. Now, you’ve got all the different countries but back then it covered a lot of countries and they had a lot of very good individuals. We played tremendously well.

“A lot of people have said that that was my best game for Ireland. It was a position that I had played and was comfortable in; It was somewhere where I felt that I could have more of an impact on games [he had certainly done so as they won the title in 86-87 with Sheedy getting 13 league goals, 17 in all, from central midfield].

“He knew that I’d played there before; he had games watched and he knew I was capable of playing in there so he would have spoken to me in training to say that he was going to play me in there and that was a huge compliment to me. But they were a top class team, Russia, and we were unfortunate not to have beaten them.”

After the Dutch defeat, Charlton wondered aloud what difference having Brady and Lawrenson in Germany might have made but he had no complaints.

The players he did have, as he acknowledged, had done him and their country proud. Along the way, he had won his war with the press and, though there would be further skirmishes down the road, appeared to have strengthened his hand immeasurably with the regard to the World Cup qualifying campaign to come. Ireland’s first ever European Championships might have ended with group stage elimination but few still openly questioned the scale of what had been achieved.

The team’s days of being considered rank outsiders were finally well and truly behind them.

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