Euro Moments: Ronnie Whelan shins it to win it against USSR
Stunning volley caps off exceptional Irish performance in Hannover draw at Euro 1988
Ireland celebrate Ronnie Whelan’s stunning winner against the USSR in 1988. Photograph: Getty
Euro 1988: Ronnie Whelan’s goal v USSR
June 15th 1988
Is there an Irish person in their mid-30s or older who can’t close their eyes and picture it to the last frame? Mick McCarthy with the throw-in, Ronnie Whelan bobbing up and down on the edge of the box, the ball looping in to drop just inside the 18-yards line, Whelan tumbling on his side in mid-air, the ball scything in a perfect curve past Rinat Dassaev and into the top corner.
It became easy and fun down the years to casually dismiss Ronnie Whelan’s goal against the USSR on the basis that he didn’t quite catch it on the laces. Before Gerry, before Mary Lou, it was the shinner to end all shinners. It is as though it somehow lacks a certain truth or is too frayed around the edges to pass a football hipster’s test of credibility.
Whelan himself has heard every stripe of joke about it and though he takes it all in good part, you can’t help thinking that there is a part of him that is perpetually indignant about it not getting its due. “Wayne Rooney scored an overhead kick against Man City,” he told Jarlath Regan’s Irishman Abroad podcast a couple of years back. “And nobody describes it as a shinner, even though it went in off his shin. It was a great goal he scored - but mine was a shinner!”
Here is why Whelan is perfectly entitled to his indignation - it was a goal of stupendous invention, a Halley’s Comet of a strike that beat one of the world’s great goalkeepers all ends up. Dassaev was voted the world’s best goalkeeper that year and the only shots that passed him in Euro 88 (two headers excepted) were a pair of ridiculous volleys by Whelan and Marco van Basten. But for the latter, Whelan’s would have been goal of the tournament.
Every great goal has its context. We can be blasé sometimes about what that Ireland team achieved in 1988 because Italia 90 gets all the press. But whatever about beating England in Stuttgart, giving the USSR a chasing in the second game in Hannover has very few parallels when it comes to performances from Ireland teams down the years.
That Soviet team was littered with dynamic, ball-playing schemers in midfield and backboned by the great Dynamo Kiev side that won the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1986. The names that played against Ireland that day drip off the tongue - Dassaev, Oleg Kusnetsov, Oleg Protasov, Vasilly Rats, Alexander Zavarov, Alexi Mikhylichenko and of course, the magnificent Igor Belanov.
And for well over an hour, Ireland battered them. An Ireland side, it should be pointed out, that was missing Liam Brady, Paul McGrath and Mark Lawrenson from its midfield through injury. Whelan has always maintained that this was the one game under Jack Charlton where the players on the pitch threw out the manager’s gameplan and just got the ball down and played. With Whelan and Kevin Sheedy in the centre of midfield, it would have been nearly perverse to do otherwise.
Still, whatever these players had achieved at club level, this was still completely new territory. English clubs weren’t in Europe at the time so coming up against the likes of Belanov and Zavarov wasn’t something they were in any way used to. And playing England in the opener wouldn’t exactly have acclimatised them.
Yet here Whelan was, 38 minutes into their second game, watching the ball drop from the sky and thinking it was falling nicely for a volley. And not just any volley - one that required both feet to leave the ground and a contortion that left his hips parallel to the ground. The chutzpah alone would make it one of the great Irish goals even if it had deflected of a couple of defenders on its way in.
But it didn’t. McCarthy’s throw - an incredible piece of strongman bravado, by the by, that had to first clear Sergei Aleinikov who was bouncing two feet in front of him - passed over the heads of nine Soviet outfield players on its way to Whelan. If the goal must have a caveat, the terminally slapdash defending that allowed nine players to be taken out by a simple looping throw-in has to be it. By the time they knew what was happening, Whelan was horizontal.
So it came off his shin. So what?