The night the bandwagon started rolling

 

BY ANY criteria it was a pretty seismic day. A general election had been held the previous day, and three days later Ireland's rugby team would take on the Scots at Murrayfield.

But as the count across the country began to show the makings of a Fianna Fail minority government, the Republic of Ireland were beating Scotland by 1-0 at Hampden Park. The Charlton era had been truly kick-started.

February 18th would become a benchmark in the strategy of Jack Charlton. There had been an encouraging draw in Brussels against Belgium, courtesy of Liam Brady's late penalty, followed by an anticlimactic scoreless draw at home to Scotland the previous autumn. The general feeling was that another draw would have done fine.

Expectation levels were still minimal enough. Ray Houghton recalls that it required a sizeable Celtic following to swell the 4,000 Irish fans who travelled for the game - the days before the bandwagon started rolling.

The team that completed the Republic's most notable and important competitive away victory since Charlton took over featured a centre-half and a striker in central midfield, a centre-half subsequently converted into a midfielder at right full-back and a central midfielder at left full-back. Individuals were subservient to the system that Jack designed that night, as they usually were.

Mark Lawrenson, who was to prove the Republic's match-winner at Hampden, had been the first to get an inkling of Charlton's most unpredictable line-up in his time as Irish manager when the squad assembled in Leeds a few weeks beforehand.

"He said to me that day `listen, I don't want you to play at the back against Scotland. I want you to play in midfield.' There were two reasons. Firstly to protect the back four, but secondly we thought Souness was going to play. Basically stop him playing and try to play myself as well. I thought `yeah, fine'."

Lawrenson adhered to Charlton's request not to tell anyone else. He recalls when the squad were informed of the selection: "I remember the look once or two faces because we had Ronnie Whelan at left-back and Paul McGrath at right-back."

"But his reasons for playing Paul in that position were very sound. He wanted Paul to do a man-marking job on Davey Cooper, and as for Ronnie I think his reasoning was he couldn't put Ronnie in midfield alongside Liam"

"I remember all the journos, when the team was announced, they just looked aghast and thought `he's lost the plot before he's even started'."

However, there was method aplenty in Charlton's apparent madness. "When you analyse the way that we played that night, the first thing we did with all those `defensive' players was we stopped Scotland playing."

The Scots, it should be recalled, were warmly fancied on home soil. "One of the things I recall was seeing Kenny (Dalglish). He'd given us some stick, myself and Ronnie, saying: `Oh, the Jocks are going to walk all over you, don't bother coming up to Hampden' and `I don't want any long faces when you come back to Anfield with a 3-0 beating'."

"We were saying `yes boss, no boss', as you would, and when we were lining up for the national anthems I remember looking to see who was there; smiling and looking at him (Dalglish) thinking `yeah, here we go then'."

It's funny to hear how some of the Irish players recount their different levels of confidence as the teams lined up. Mick McCarthy, like Lawrenson, was another of the Irish players who remembers that night vividly. He was also one of the others who could name the Irish team (Kevin Moran was another) and the nucleus of the Scottish side as well.

The Scottish team read: Leighton; Stewart, Gough, Hansen, Malpas; Nevin, Strachan, Aitken, Cooper, Johnston, McClair. Graeme Souness was injured, while Paul McStay replaced Cooper at half-time and Ally McCoist was thrown on as a third striker with 22 minutes to go, replacing Malpas.

Albeit skilful, it was hardly a team of man mountains. "I remember firstly, looking at their team, and us all thinking how much we fancied ourselves to beat them," recalls Mick McCarthy, rolling the names of both teams off his tongue and drawing favourable comparisons.

"I THOUGHT we were so physically stronger than them and we were on a bit of a roll at the time anyway. We all fancied it for that reason, and when we saw the teamsheet we fancied it even more."

Conversely, McGrath remembers: "Even with the established names we had then the lads still felt that we were probably not going to get a win that night. If we had got a draw the lads probably would have said that was a good result."

Lawrenson and McCarthy are also the two players who single out one key ingredient in the subsequent 90 minutes. "If I remember rightly, they were very, very lightweight in midfield," said Lawrenson. "We overpowered them and they couldn't come to terms with it. People like little Nevin and McStay played. They were quite lightweight and I thought their team, if they had had strength in the right positions, would have given us a game. But they were very lightweight and that really played into our hands."

"I seem to remember Davey Cooper being put in the tramlines by Big Paul," adds McCarthy. "They had Maurice Johnston and Brian McClair up against Kevin and I, and we were just physically stronger than them."

"I wouldn't say I was," recalls Liam Brady heartily. "But I would say Ray Houghton did by running at them and Mark's strength in midfield was very, very important on the night. We got a little bit uncomfortable as the winning post came into sight but up until then, we were by far the better side."

"I don't know how many games Ray Houghton had played at that stage but that for me, was really the night when he demonstrated that he was good enough to hold down a place in the team, and I suppose the versatility of Ronnie Whelan. But I'd say they all played well.

Surprisingly few instances stand out for the Irish players, but foremost among those that do, every time, is "the goal", which arrived after six minutes.

Needless to say, Lawrenson "will always remember that goal, not only because it was an international goal but it was left-footed, and I didn't score many. To score with the left foot was like winning the lottery for me."

Most of the recollections are scratchy. "Frank was fouled, wasn't he?" says Lawrenson. "I was fouled, wasn't I?" says John Aldridge.

No, Stapleton was. "I took a quick free," recalls Frank Stapleton.

No, Aldridge did. Ah yes, they all remember then.

"Aldo put the ball down and I just started to run," begins Lawrenson. "And I suddenly realised nobody picked me up. All the Scottish players were still arguing with the referee. I just remember screaming at Aldo to play it and he did."

"I think Jim Leighton was in goal, wasn't he? I just recall when it came to me, it came across me on to my left foot and I thought just hit it early - make him make a save. I think the fact that I hit it early, he was still setting himself to take up a position. Just as he set himself the ball went across him and it was in the net."

"The first thing I did was I turned around straight away thinking the refs going to chalk this off but, obviously, he allowed it.

Lawrenson is the player most often picked out by his peers, though most maintain it was a true team effort in classic Charlton style. Perceptions about McGrath's man-marking job on the late Davey Cooper also vary in that, typically, everybody on the team thought that McGrath was excellent except the man himself.

"I was more or less to, supposedly, keep him quiet. I remember being nervous because I had seen Davey play a right few times and he was a really good player. I, personally, wasn't so scared about the rest of the Scots but about him. I didn't really want to come off the pitch embarrassed and I felt like I could do. He was a wonderful player."

Yet many of the others singled out McGrath's performance. "Paul never gave Cooper a kick. Paul, played right-back, didn't he?" recounts Ronnie Whelan, otherwise sketchy in his recollections of the game.

"I was hoping that Cooper wouldn't cross wings. That he never did was probably a bad move on their part," says Whelan.

"I seem to remember kicking two off the line in the last few minutes," adds McCarthy. "We all played well. I'll blow my own trumpet: it was probably one of the best games I ever had. It probably just suited me. They put a lot of balls in the box, strangely enough with little Johnston and McClair up front, so no wonder I played well. But I think we all played particularly well. They didn't cause us too many problems, to be honest."

Whelan, by comparison, can hardly remember a thing and what he does gives him a shiver. "I nearly gave a goal away in the last second, that's all. I should have chipped it over the top but I tried to play it along the ground. They cut it out, came down the pitch and it was cleared off the line. I thought that would have been my last game if that had gone in. That's all I can remember about that one."

Fortunately for Whelan, another error was to grab Charlton's attention. When the game was over, Charlton came on to the pitch.

"I got a bollicking off Jack," recalls Lawrenson, still a note of surprise in his voice, over his decision to avail of two against one at an Irish corner near the end.

"He said `I should give you a bollicking'.

"And I said `why?' And I knew why.

"`Because you should have kept the ball in the corner and wasted time. But seeing as you scored I'll let you off'."

"Well, I'll accept that."

The celebrations are more vividly remembered. "It was the first time Jack sang," claims Lawrenson, "and it was Blaydon Races, a north-east song in an Irish sing-song in Scotland, which makes a lot of sense."

Great night, and great times followed. "It was probably the turning point in the group, but I don't think we realised at the time," says Liam Brady. "We'd had two draws in Dublin, but it really put us in with a great chance of qualifying, winning at Hampden. That's the main reason I remember it."

Indeed, despite defeat in Sofia, and a draw at home to Belgium, back-to-back victories over Luxembourg were followed by a win over the Bulgarians in Dublin. Cue to Gary Mackey in Sofia.

But 11 men, who were all made feel a little older this week, recall the night of February 18th in Hampden Park as the match that kick-started it all. A landmark.