Football

Balls Remembers: The Most Embarrassing Result In Irish Football History?

The 3rd of June 1995, a dark day for Irish football. Twenty years on from that date, we look back on what may have been the most embarrassing result in our history.

It was a night to remember for us. It was the first draw in our history so it was a sensation for us. It was amazing.

Mario Frick

It was a massive scar on us as a team. That was the time we became the aged team who couldn't go on any longer.

Tony Cascarino

There's nothing I can do for you. You'll have to work this one out for yourselves.

Jack Charlton (to the team at half-time)

Ireland started their Euro 96 campaign in a manner befitting the ninth ranked nation in the world - confident, authoritative and businesslike - they began like a team well used to winning matches.

By the end of the qualifying phase, the team were a wreck. The players seemed to have aged about a decade over the course of a single summer and were now unsure of themselves against any opposition.

Despite Ireland’s status as top seeds starting out and the forgiving qualifying criteria that applied that year, their form deteriorated so badly that they ensured there would be no phase beyond the qualifying phase.

It opened in September 1994 when Latvia were dispatched 3-0 in Riga. The following month saw the minnowest of minnows, Liechtenstein beaten 4-0 in Lansdowne Road. The following month came the biggest statement of the lot as Northern Ireland were sacked in their own backyard.

Billy Bingham was gone and so too was all the fury and spiritedness of the previous November. 4-0 and the game was long over by half-time. Ireland had destroyed the Nordies in Dublin in early 1993, but this was an even bigger demolition. The Republic had so comprehensively passed out the North that they were now in danger of lapping them.

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Clockwork, etc.

As '94 turned into '95, there was an annoying little setback in March when a sloppy Ireland drew 1-1 with Northern Ireland in Dublin.

At the end of the previous year, these wondrous inventions called floodlights had been installed at Lansdowne Road but for some reason (habit, maybe) the Nordie game was still played on a Wednesday afternoon.

The decision was taken to employ the floodlights for the game against Portugal (the evenings were getting longer so they wouldn’t be knackered from overuse) and so schoolgoers didn’t have to pretend to have the flu to see it.

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Good thing too, as Ireland won a superb victory, following a strange own goal from Vitor Baia.

Heading into the summer fixtures, Ireland sat serenely on top of the table. The horizon looked perfectly cloudless.

In his Irish Independent diary column, Paul McGrath said that six points from the two early June games would more or less guarantee qualification for Euro 96. The top two sides from every group would qualify automatically, except two poorest performing second placed teams. Those two would have to duke it out in a playoff for the final spot. But that didn't look like cropping up.

'THE SCENERY WAS SPECTACULAR...'

It was just as well for the travelling Irish support that the scenery was majestic. Liechtenstein is a largely mountainous country and a popular skiing destination. There were no shiny, modern, rising stands to obscure the views of the surrounding mountains.

Nestled between Austria and Switzerland, Liechtenstein has a population of 36, 925 at latest count. Though to accept this figure is give Ireland too much credit, for this has risen substantially from the 30, 824 that lived there in 1995.

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If it was in Ireland, it would be the second smallest county in the country, just ahead of Leitrim and roughly on a par with Longford. Incidentally, a week after Liechtenstein's historic draw with Ireland, managerless Longford were encouraged to take their cues from the tiny principality by Sean Moran in the Irish Times, as they headed into a daunting championship encounter with Meath in Pearse Park. They lost by 15 points.

A rich man's paradise, Liechtenstein is one the wealthiest countries in the world per capita. It is also classified, by pretty much every reputable international body, as a tax haven. According to Barack Obama and a few Guardian columnists, this is something it shares with Ireland. Indeed, back in 2006, the Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman in the UK, Michael Oakeshott cooked up the phrase 'Liechtenstein on the Liffey' to describe Dublin's financial environment. Never one to throw on the green jersey willy nilly, Fintan O'Toole agreed with him in the Guardian.

The Euro 96 qualifiers marked Liechtenstein's first foray into international competition. It began with a series of horse-whippings. It was expected by most experts and Liechtenstein players that it would continue in that vein. They lost 4-1 in Belfast and 4-0 in Dublin. Their two games preceding Ireland's visit to Eschen saw them lose 8-0 in Portugal and then 7-0 in Austria.

Mario Frick was the only professional player in the Liechtenstein squad, playing for local club FC Balzers, where he now works, at the age of 41, as player-manager. In between, his career would take him to the heights of Serie A, where he played four seasons with Verona and Sienna.

He still lines out for the national team, though he reckons this might be his last year. John Giles, who always seemed to regard 'announcing one's retirement' as an act of monumental self-indulgence, would approve of this selfless longevity. In a country like Ireland you played as long as you were needed or were able. In Liechtenstein, the same situation pertained. Liechtenstein do not enjoy the resources to wantonly overlook anyone still within reasonable proximity of their 40th birthday.

Their situation also necessitates versatility on the part of their players. Thus, Frick, by some distance his nation's leading goalscorer, has converted himself into a central defender in recent years. In his fifth decade, he is still helping his country through gruelling qualification campaigns.

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20 years on from the Ireland game, he doesn't bother with any false pablum about 'having a positive attitude' and 'thinking we can get something out of every game.'

We expected nothing... We tried to go as long as we could without conceding. The Irish team had made a very good World Cup in '94. We tried to play in our own half. That's what you have to do when playing against the Irish team.

The team were made for one of those modern graphics which are so popular these days - showcasing the day jobs of players from minnow countries.

The oldest player, at 32, was Roland Hilti, a teacher in the local secondary school (or gynasium). He now works as the vice-principal at the same school. Over the phone, he scrambles to remember the day-jobs of the players who lined out with him that day. It's evident from the team line-up that day that Liechtenstein had and has a thriving financial sector. Bankers line out for Liechtenstein the way geography and PE teachers line out for inter-county teams.

Patrik Hefti was, how you say, a postman. Now he's in Singapore (he's head of risk management at a bank). Daniel Hassler was a builder and now works as a coach with Vaduz FC. Two or three are bankers now.

Up front, Mario Frick was accompanied by mechanic Alex Burgmaier. The team also boasted a draughtsman, an architect and a wine grower.

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A WALL OF GREEN

It turned out the town of Eschen was adorned with an Irish bar, albeit one of dubious provenance. This being Liechtenstein, where versatility is the name of the game, it also operated as a newsagent and a post office (I wouldn't be surprised to learn if one of the players also worked there). Jim Ryan and his pals were in there beforehand, when two Aussie girls dropped in to post a letter to Ireland, 'as it happens'. The female proprietor of the Irish bar asked whether Ireland was in Europe or South America.

'Maybe it was only an Irish bar for a day', is Jim's way of thinking now.

The ground was small and rickety but impossibly charming. There was a dinky little stand on one side of the ground capable of holding 500. In deference to UEFA regulations, the Liechtenstein federation erected some temporary seating on the other three sides of the ground, which consisted of long wooden planks.

Jim Ryan is a regular away day traveller and the little Sportpark-Eschen Mauren remains one of the most memorable venues.

It's a spectacular place. The ground was tiny. But behind one of the goals, you had this mountain straight up behind us. It was just spectacular. We were sitting on planks behind one of the goals. It was very topsy-turvy.

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Liechtenstein did not boast a large army of supporters. The make-up of the crowd was reminiscent of one of those summer games between a local League of Ireland outfit and a Premiership team where the away team has all the support. Of the 4,500 spectators huddled around the pitch, at least two-thirds were Irish. All of them expected a carnival-esque turkey shoot.  Mario Frick just remembers 'a wall of green' behind the goal.

The game began as it was to go on - with a blizzard of Irish chances. A series of oohs and aahs and near misses and heroic last-ditch defending. After 20 minutes, bemusement as to how Ireland hadn't scored yet would have already set in.

Niall Quinn missed a sitter of a header early on, thereby setting the pattern for the day. The relentless sequence of artless attempt on the Liechtenstein goal followed by artless attempt on the Liechtenstein goal was broken by Daniel Telser, who fired a 30 yard shot which was uncomfortably near the left hand post.

By half-time, it was clear that something strange was happening. According to reports, Jack delivered a rather gruff message to his players saying he there was nothing he could do and it was all on them. 'Just get out and fuckin' score, will ye' type thing.

But they persisted in not scoring. The Liechtenstein netting remained unruffled in the first 15 minutes of the second half. With his 6.4ft striker enjoying no luck in front of goal, Jack decided to change gears and give his 6.3ft striker a go.

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His entirely predictable decision to swap Niall Quinn for Tony Cascarino was attacked from all angles. This stubbornness generated another round of eye-rolling from the 'purists' - aka, Jack's official enemies.

As Mark Lawrenson might put it, with Plan A well and truly discredited, Ireland threw themselves into making Plan A work. The standard response to a faltering Plan A was to double down on Plan A.

But then, Ireland were hardly likely to get more patient as the game wore on. Gary Lineker recalled that if Barcelona needed a goal urgently, even Johan Cruyff would turn into Jack Charlton and hoof the ball into the box in the hope of nabbing a goal. When United were looking to grab an equaliser in the Nou Camp in 1999, they were content to bomb the ball into the danger zone and let it fly around like a pinball. Cascarino can't see how the tactics were at fault.

The tactics weren't wrong because we had a host of chances. The thing is we didn't take them. I think Jack was aware that we all were guilty. On any given day, we could have won by four or five goals but we didn't.

Liechtenstein goalkeeper Martin Heeb was a central figure in all of this. In a team of postmen, bankers and roofers, Heeb had a job which stood out. He was a groundsman.

In Irish football trivia lore, the story is Heeb repelled Cascarino, Aldridge and co. on the very pitch he spent the morning mowing and lining. This isn't quite true.

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Frick points out that he was in fact groundsman at another pitch, in Schaan, some 8 kilometres away. Indeed, he is still groundsman there today. Inevitably, he is also the federation's goalkeeping coach.

When reminded of Heeb's double-jobbing as goalkeeper/groundsman, Cascarino can't stop himself laughing.

Aw don't, aw please don't... I know, I know, it was horrible. You know, look, you don't want to take anything away. It was frustration because whatever we seemed to do that afternoon, we couldn't get it past the keeper.

Ireland did manage to force the ball past Heeb at one stage in the second half, when Jason McAteer bounded onto a loose ball and surged into the area. He toe-poked the ball and it squirted under the advancing keeper's body. The resilient roofer Daniel Hassler got back to hook the ball off the line and out for a corner.

The superhuman, vaguely disturbing, doggedness of the Liechtenstein defenders was wearing down the Irish players. The smell of panic hit Daniel Hassler's nostrils. So too did Jack Charlton's booming, increasingly tetchy voice.

The more scoring chances the Irish gave away the more nervous they became. The error ration got higher and the coach in the coaching zone got louder. This was a sign for us we were doing many things right.

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The Liechtenstein boys are gracious enough today to admit they were 'a very lucky team'. Frick just remembers the Irish team 'having many, many chances' and his pals and him subsisting in their own 'half-field.'

In the closing seconds, with Ireland staring down the barrel of a scoreless draw, Staunton belted in a free from 25 yards. It shaved the top of Cascarino's head and whistled inches past the post. It was Ireland's fortieth attempt on goal. Like the previous thirty-nine, it came and went without altering the scoreboard.

The referee blew the whistle immediately.

The Liechtenstein players gambolled around the pitch in a state of giddy delirium. The Irish fans did what they do best and lustily serenaded the bemused part-timers on their jaunt around the pitch. Roland Hilti found the Irish fans' boisterousness particularly funny.

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The hero of the hour, Martin Heeb, was hoisted up into the pavilion in the main (only) stand, where delighted men in suits fed him champagne and salmon. His goalkeeping gloves from that game somehow ended up adorning the walls of Bennigan's pub in Greystones (sadly the pub is closed down about fifteen years ago). We're indebted to Greystones' native Miguel Delaney for this particular titbit.

The Irish players slunk away. The lap of honour remains Cascarino's most vivid memory from the game.

It was horrible. You know, look, you don't want to take anything away. It's horrible when a team gets a 0-0 draw and does a lap of honour in front of everybody and nearly everybody in the stadium was Irish as well ao it made it more embarrassing for us. You've just got say, 'it wasn't our day today. Goalkeeper was superb'. But you know it's a scar. It's a massive scar on you as a group that stayed with us. And I still it was probably the start of the end of many of our international careers.

Jack put on a herculean display of bullishness afterwards. In post match interviews, he concentrated on getting across his incredulity that Ireland hadn't scored from one of their 40 shots on goal. All in all, he preferred to see the result as a random act of God rather than evidence of a deepening malaise.

Once the joyous dignitaries allowed Martin Heeb to rejoin his teammates, the Liechtenstein players went gallivanting in Vaduz. Liechtenstein wasn't big enough to contain their celebrations and as the night wore on, they traversed into neighbouring Switzerland. British travel writer Charlie Connelly reported scenes of Irish supporters in pubs around Vaduz hoisting Liechtenstein players up on their shoulders. Frick has vague memories of the 'big party' the Irish fans had in Vaduz while Roland Hilti bumped into some Irish fans in Switzerland.

It was funny. We went to pubs in Vaduz. The Irish fans were singing and laughing and drinking. Then we went to a nightclub in Buchs in Switzerland. There were plenty of Irish fans in the nightclub. It was called 'Snechen' in Buchs.

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Jim Ryan and is crew were scheduled to fly back that night but problems arose.

The result was a total bummer. And then our flight was delayed until the following morning. We went back to the B & B and then they charged for the evening. We arrived back on the Sunday and went down to Limerick where we (Cork) were beaten in the Munster semi-final by Clare with a last minute goal.

The weekend's sport was rounded up on Sunday evening when Ireland squeezed past Wales in the final pool game in the Rugby World Cup.

FISH AND CHIPS

The Liechtenstein game was not a blip. It was evidence of terminal decline.

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The following week, Jack flaunted his nutritional expertise before the team on the eve of the match against Austria. The most famous fish and chips scoffing exercise in the history of Irish football has been a staple of the Irish football autobiography genre ever since.

Jack was a shareholder in the recently opened Naas Road branch of Harry Ramsdens (sadly no longer with us after hitting the wall in the early 2000's. The government really should have stepped in and preserved it as a site of genuine historical importance). After Packie cut the tape on the opening, the players had a go at the fabled 'Harry's Challenge', a meal (although it would euphemistic to describe it as 'a meal') which consisted not of pasta and rice and all the things footballers are supposed to eat, but of a giant sized haddock and chips.

According to the very reliable Niall Quinn, Gary Kelly emerged triumphant, eating everything the delighted staff threw at him. We don't know if the guy off Man v Food got his idea for his show from reading Quinny's book but it's quite possible he could have. Immediately after Harry's Challenge, the players got on a bus and headed for Lansdowne Road where they attempted to make a go of a training sessions.

In the words of Quinny, this quickly descended into an orgy of 'burping and farting' in which the players were 'creased over with laughter' for most of it.

The following day, Ireland lost to their bogey team, a team who had done nothing and qualified for nothing in years. A 3-1 home defeat and Ireland had even taken the lead in the second half. To younger fans accustomed to consistent Irish over-achievement, it was surreal.

The result notwithstanding, Jack remained loyal to the business in which he held shares. Determined to see no connection between the 3-1 defeat and the meal the players had enjoyed the previous day, he declared on national radio, 'I liked the fish and chips, and the players liked the fish and chips.'

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But then these kind of stunts had been part of Jack's modus operandi for 10 years at that stage. They were part of his charm. Had Ireland beaten Austria, 'the Harry Ramsden's Challenge' would have been just another funny anecdote.

Cas again:

Like everything, when something goes wrong it escalates. No one would have even mentioned it had we won the game... It's quite common knowledge that before the World Cup quarter final in 1990, that Jack had a couple of kegs of Guinness sent up to the hotel.

To be honest, Jack did a few off the wall things over the years and the only one that ever went wrong was the Harry Ramsden challenge. Every other time it worked for us.

Jack gets a bad rap from sophisticated people these days, but maybe the role of 'Harry's Challenge' has been overstated. His old team were a long time on the go and were probably finished anyway. There were no fish and chips marathons before Liechtenstein.

Read also: Balls Remembers The Night Scotland Went Beyond The Call Of Duty To Help Out Ireland


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Perennial finalist in stand-up comedy competitions and former Contract Lawyer/ Coal Salesman with Corless, Corless and Sweeney