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How Ireland Collapsed In The Final Few Months Of Jack Charlton's Reign

How Ireland Collapsed In The Final Few Months Of Jack Charlton's Reign
By Conor Neville Updated
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Twenty years ago today, Jack Charlton formally resigned as Ireland manager after which he headed for the Baggot Inn where he supped a pint of Guinness in the company of an Irish Independent journalist.

He told the paper 'I've had 10 great years and I feel great tonight. I'm very happy with the way everything has gone'.

It put a graceful full stop at the end of a disorientating few months, during which Ireland's form deteriorated badly. Ireland entered the qualifying stages as first seeds and began the tournament like a team who meant business.

However, Jack's previously resilient team really began to show their age down the closing stretch of that qualifying campaign.

Looking unassailable in early summer, Ireland finished the campaign in rag order, their grey hairs really showing, their lumbago growing more and more pronounced.

The 0-0 draw with Liechtenstein - which arrived only a couple of months after Ireland defeated Portugal 1-0 in Dublin - was not merely a blip, as Jack had argued, but evidence of terminal decline.

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.

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Ireland's bogey team, Austria, had dutifully disappeared from view during the glory years. Now that Ireland were creaking, they arrived back on the scene in time to do us maximum harm.

Jack flaunted his nutritional expertise before the team on the eve of the match with the Austrians. 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). After Packie cut the tape on the opening, the lads had a go at the fabled Harry's Challenge, a health-unconscious meal which consisted of a giant sized haddock and chips. For those interested, Gary Kelly emerged triumphant.

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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.

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.

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gFnxlT4K7Mk

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.'

However, Tony Cascarino pointed out to us before, 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.

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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.

Ireland travelled to Vienna in September. They lost by the same scoreline - 3-1 and they didn't even have the saving grace of being able to pin it on a fish and chips marathon.

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Despite their tame group and the forgiving qualifying criteria that applied that year, Ireland looked in danger of missing Euro 96. It was feared they might even slip into third spot.

In October, they gratefully limped to a 2-1 win over the Latvians, thanks to two second half goals by John Aldridge.

In their final two games of the Euro 96 campaign they met two teams on an upward curve, almost as steep as their own downward one. Portugal, who hadn't qualified for a major tournament since 1986, boasted a glut of young players who'd won two World Youth Cups in a row in the early 1990s. The Dutch team was backboned by the Ajax side who had won that year's Champions League.

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On a apocolyptically wet night in Lisbon, Ireland were confronted with the evidence of their own decline. They were spanked 3-0.

Tom Kundert, the author of 'A Journey through Portuguese Football', appeared on the Team 33 podcast on Newstalk a couple of weeks back, and said that night ushered in a golden era for Portuguese football.

I remember that game in the Estadio de Luz pouring down with rain. Amazing Irish supporters, 20,000 of them in Lisbon all having a whale of a time. I remember Rui Costa scored that beauty of a goal. That's where it all started for Portugal as a serious international team in 1996.

By contrast, it was clearly the end of Ireland.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s5jkJpfGlH8

It was a mortifying night but Ireland had managed to cling on to second place in the group, at least. Northern Ireland had beaten Austria 5-3 in Belfast.

Had they scored one more goal, they would have stolen second place on goals scored.

There was more comedy ahead of the playoff.

On the eve of the game, the team and management all gather in their private room in a Liverpool hotel to watch this frightening Dutch outfit. They park themselves in their chairs and Jack plonks the old VHS tape in the slot.

Alan McLoughlin told the story best in his autobiography 'Different Shade of Green'.

To my surprise, as the camera scanned across the two teams standing for the anthems it showed eleven anonymous faces in orange shirts surrounded by an empty stadium. I squinted at the Dutch team on screen, unable to make out Kluivert, Bergkamp or any of their other stars. After five minutes it became abundantly clear to everyone that this was a video of the Dutch under-21 team. Everyone, that is, apart from Jack and Maurice. The lads started nudging each other, laughter rippling, as we waited for Jack to realise. Another five minutes passed.

Still Jack hadn’t clocked what was going on. Another few minutes passed. Up Jack leapt, pausing the video. He’s finally realised, I thought. But as Jack started lecturing us, I realised I was wrong.

'Now, watch Bergkamp'

Jack was pointing at the Dutch under-21 striker, who just happened, like Denis Bergkamp, to have blonde hair.

'Now watch the way he pulls away from his defender here'

Cue hoots of laughter.

'What the hell do you think you're laughing at? What's so fucking funny?'

Jack's question was met with more howls of delight. Eventually, Andy Townsend told him what had happened. Jack blamed Maurice and gave him a bollocking. Maurice, in turn, blamed the Dutch. Sabotage! Jack's final word on the matter was 'fuck 'em, we'll beat 'em anyway'. It didn't bode well.

In advance of the Holland game, Cascarino remembers Jack yielding to the players' tactical wishes for possibly the first time in a decade.

Charlton was afraid of the Dutch and wanted Ireland to play one striker. The players weren't comfortable with that.

I remember a training session and Jack wanted to play a particular system which meant one up-front. And the lads weren't quite happy with that. And Jack, I think for the first time in his career, went with what the players wanted to do.

He wanted to play one up front against the Dutch. He kept saying, 'they're too bloody good, they've got too many good players, we're going to get murdered in this area!'

And to his credit, Jack was right.

Cascarino played in three playoffs in the second half of the 1990s.

Of the three losses, the Belgian one bugs him the most. The World Cup was in France where Cas was then playing some of the best football of his career.

He has no such feelings about the loss to Holland in the Euro 96 playoff.

I never had any qualms about Holland in Anfield because we were never going to beat them. We were not even going to get near them and they were a far better team - at that stage. Give us six or seven years earlier I think we'd have given them a really good game but not in '96.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qHZT7U3jOEc

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