Standing there in the driving rain on November 15th, 1995, it was hard to comprehend just how much optimism there had initially been about the Irish team’s campaign to qualify for the following summer’s European Championship finals.
What was abundantly clear by the end of an evening on which Jack Charlton’s side was very well beaten by Portugal at the Estadio da Luz, though, was that the optimism had been misplaced. Ireland were not out of the competition; there would be a playoff the following month against a Dutch side that had not exactly pulled up trees in its own qualification group but there was a growing sense that what we were now experiencing a team and its manager reaching the end of their road.
The draw for the preliminary stages had been kind to a side that kicked off its campaign fresh from a World Cup appearance in the US which had started with one astonishing high then generally petered out. Ireland had ultimately been beaten by much the same Netherlands team that they were about to face again but in conditions so harsh that it was still possible to make a case for them having been hard done by.
The schedule for the Euro ’96 qualifying group games, when it was agreed, had also seemed to bestow a very great favour on the Irish supporters with the campaign teed up to end with a visit to the top seeds. As it swirled in our heads (well, mine anyway) at the time, the idea was that the team would have done the heavy lifting required to avoid having to go there in need of a win and the occasion would provide an opportunity to spend a few sunny autumn days in one of the continent’s most attractive capitals.
At first, things shaped up pretty much as hoped. Comfortable defeats of Latvia then Liechtenstein seemed to be pretty much par for the course and beating Northern Ireland 4-0 at Windsor Park felt at the time like a devastating blow to the group’s third seeds. Charlton’s side went into 1995 with plenty still to do but nine points from a possible nine and in a clearly superior position to key rivals. Portugal also had a 100 per cent record but had actually made much harder work of winning in Belfast.
In March, at Lansdowne Road, there was a significant hiccup when Keith Gillespie got onto a loose ball, beat Phil Babb to the line and crossed for an unmarked Iain Dowie to head home at the far post. It was the first goal the home side had conceded in the campaign but it earned the North a draw.
Beating Portugal 1-0 the following month seemed like more than making amends even if the winner was an own goal and the team still looked to be pretty good shape at the campaign's halfway point. That turned out to be a bit of an illusion, though. The Jack Charlton good times express was about to come crashing off the rails.
Somewhat implausibly, the problems began in Eschen, where, on June 3rd, The Irish Times had predicted Jason McAteer and Ronnie Whelan would "show the way". Instead, the entire team got collectively lost and Liechtenstein earned its first ever point in international football.
Eight days later, “Silence and shock greet Irish team’s swift fall from grace” was the headline after Austria secured a victory at Lansdowne Road that was felt almost as unexpected.
When Peter Stöger scored a hat-trick with his weaker foot in Vienna three months later helping Austria to again beat Ireland by the same 3-1 margin, Charlton’s position, so long entirely unassailable, suddenly started to look untenable. There was endless speculation and though he spoke himself about the importance of recognising when it would be the right time to go, it was clear he was anxious to complete the task of getting Ireland through to another finals and, perhaps, walking away after a triumphant swansong back in England.
Beating Latvia 2-1 in Lansdowne Road a few weeks later didn’t do much to silence the critics, particularly given the quality of the performance, but it did keep Ireland in the hunt for top spot, at least notionally. There was more talk by that point that in the likely event Charlton’s men didn’t win in Lisbon they would need a favour of some sort from Northern Ireland, who were to play Austria the same evening, in order to retain second spot and the playoff that would go with it.
In the event, around 20,000 Irish still travelled, many of them making a longer holiday of it down south before travelling to Lisbon in a great procession. Still some way off becoming a regular in the press pack for away games, I had reckoned this was not one to watch in the office where I would have some sort of supporting role in the coverage; this would be a night to be at the party and so, like a very great many of the others, I had booked the day off about a year in advance.
There was a quite a gang of us there in the end, friends based in New York and London as well a strong Dublin contingent and every time you turned a street corner on the city it seemed as though you ran into somebody else you knew from watching games back in Ireland. Pretty much anyone you didn’t stumble across over the first day or two was apparently, you were told, down in Faro.
We Irish saw the sights, drank Bar Brasilia, and just about everywhere else, out of Super Bock, then almost fell into the giant holes that dotted a city that was in the throes of installing a new underground railway line.
What was not to love about it all?
On day two or three, though, the deluge began. Our group was staying in a small place just off the main shopping street and as it knocked lumps out of the ground some store started to play “Only Happy When It Rains” by Garbage over and over and over again. The staff must have been demented because for all the travelling around the city we did, it wasn’t long before we were.
The team news didn't do anything to lift the gloom. Roy Keane had not travelled, ostensibly because of a hernia problem although an impending four match Premier League suspension had played a big part in persuading Alex Ferguson that this was the time for the Corkman to have his surgery.
Keane had played in only three of the earlier group games, of which only the one in Belfast, where he had scored, had been won, but his importance was still obvious. Neither John Sheridan nor Andy Townsend, both of whom had also got goals in the 4-0 victory, would be available for the game either.
Central midfield would be a problem then, in a game which Ireland needed to win. Charlton sought to address it by deploying Steve Staunton there while his grand gesture to the pursuit of victory was to play McAteer and relatively new arrival Mark Kennedy on the wings. None of it worked.
The stadium, a vast open bowl of a thing with a reduced capacity of 70,000 inside, was a largely open affair with the nature of the concrete seating suggested that the issue of spectator comfort had not come on all that much in those parts since Roman times.
Given the rain, that mattered little, we all stood and stared as Ireland were completely outplayed by the home side. Needless to say, the locals enjoyed it and it was hard not to be impressed by the call and response stuff going on between the two main stands or the way the whole place shook when they jumped up and down together.
The Portuguese had a few standout stars – Luis Figo most obviously but also players like Paulo Sousa and Fernando Couto, who were possessed a lot of quality. Quite a few of the others would leave Portuguese clubs for big sides abroad then return home with things having not worked out they would have wanted. The problem, though, was it was around this time that they were playing the football that would get them their moves.
Ireland, to be fair, defended really well through the first half and though they had barely a sniff of an attack themselves, the likely gameplan of keeping things tight then trying to grab a goal late on still seemed vaguely plausible. Things started to unravel in the 60th minute, however, when Rui Costa put the hosts in front with a wonderful long-range effort that clipped the underside of the crossbar after sailing over a helpless Alan Kelly.
A half an hour remained but there was no detectable reaction from the Irish side. Tony Cascarino eventually arrived on for Kennedy after which Helder promptly made it 2-0 and Charlton's response to what looked a fairly hopeless position was to bring on Alan Kernaghan.
Immediately behind us, a fairly drunken supporter repeatedly but forlornly shouted: "Kick the c**ts," occasionally extending the instruction to: "if you can't tackle them at least kick the f**king c**ts". Ireland finally started to push forward then conceded a third just before the end with Jorge Cadete extinguishing any lingering hope there might have been.
The large tricolour we were sheltering under was not, we now noticed, colourfast. I was entirely green, several of my friends orange as Portuguese supporters swung by to trade souvenirs with supporters who clearly knew how to lose well. I happen to set a lot of store by the ability to lose well but right now, they were bringing out my inner Keane.
Charlton said there was no excuses and that the Portuguese had played very well, Staunton almost became embroiled in a punch-up with a steward and when asked on television about the team’s poor record against their playoff opponents, the best that Townsend seemed able to muster was: “Who knows? Maybe this could be the time.”
It was end of era stuff. It felt exactly that way. And the era, a really wonderful one that had yielded so many great moments and memories, was indeed ended a few weeks later at Anfield.