Football

How The Greatest Irish Team Never To Qualify Were Robbed

How The Greatest Irish Team Never To Qualify Were Robbed

 

You're a disgrace. You've been paid off

Eoin Hand to Raul Nazare, 1981

Between 1976 and 1982, Ireland were world leaders in the field of disallowed goals.

It is quite possible (unless we are being fed some biased history - perish the thought) that no other country on the planet has ever shown such an uncanny knack of scoring goals that were subsequently ruled out.

In the 1978 qualification campaign for instance, they had been especially prolific in this department. In both Paris and Sofia, Ireland had goals disallowed for reasons which puzzled a number of observers, namely the Irish players and management team, the French and Bulgarian teams and their respective management teams, the spectators in the ground and the people watching at home. Some of those categories of people were more disposed to voice their puzzlement than were others.

In each case, the referee was the only man who knew why the goals were disallowed and, on both occasions, he was disinclined to divulge this information.

It didn't escape notice that Ireland's propensity for nabbing disallowed goals was more pronounced away from home. Indeed, Ireland seemed to reserve all their disallowed goals for away trips, usually in intimidating cauldrons in which the home team had an enviable record.

John Giles has written that, back in the 1970s, he refused to be convinced that Ireland had gotten a result away from home until he saw the scoreline printed in the paper the following day.

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In those days, Ireland were the Wolves of international football, a second class football nation forever complaining that they got no breaks off referees. The fall guys in the conspiracy that saw the big boys get all the decisions.

In this, as in so many other things, the FAI bear some of the blame.

We know that the FAI didn't believe in pampering players at that point - and for a long time after that point. For instance, when Ireland played the USSR in Moscow in 1984, they were admirably relaxed about the threat of 'Moscow Tummy', the strange affliction that dogged visiting teams who made the mistake of eating the food prepared by the native chefs. The effects of 'Moscow Tummy' incidentally, were roughly analogous to diarrhea.

Eoin Hand was less blase about the prospect of diarrhea running roughshod through his playing staff than were his superiors and was forced to personally recruit a chef to cook for the players before the USSR game. The chef turned out to be his wife.

It transpired that the FAI's attitude towards the pampering of players extended towards referees. Hand imagines that the referees were distinctly unimpressed by the FAI's hospitality.

 I think a lot of it, looking back, was because the FAI were a shambles. They really were at that stage. And their treatment of visiting referees would have been nothing compared to way that referees or officials were treated in Belgium or France or England. So, maybe there was a little bit of that in it... 'Oh, well we wont give any decisions to the Irish...' There was that kind of feeling.

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Back in the early 1980s, before the Soviet Union and the Balkans split up into many tiny pieces, there were very few minnows in international football.

Ireland's qualification group reflected this. The phrase 'Group of Death' doesn't come close to doing justice to its perilousness and difficulty.

The Belgians were, like they are now, a promising side expected to feature prominently in major tournaments over the next decade (a premonition which turned out to be largely accurate).

The slinky, stylish French team had a lauded midfield which included Platini and they would go on to win the European championships in 1984.

Holland, meanwhile, had participated in the two previous World Cup finals but they had fallen to infighting and were quietly pinned as the most vulnerable of the trio.

Cyprus made up the numbers.

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Still, Eoin Hand was emboldened at the thought of the players he had at his disposal.

GREATEST EVER IRISH TEAM?

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At the height of the inflatable hammer era in 1988 and 1990, a handy way for the traditional football fan to distinguish himself from the massed ranks of bandwagoners was to insist that the greatest Irish football team was not the Charlton era side but the team that narrowly missed out on the 1982 World Cup.

It was something of a boffin's pick, the pick of those irked by the non-footballing fraternity who found it so easy to glory in the success of the Charlton years.

Brady was the biggest player in the squad. Juventus were on course to claim the League title and Brady was their top scorer, although, this being Italy and Juventus being managed by Giovanni Trapattoni, this wasn't exactly a bewildering tally and he was aided by the fact that he took the penalties.

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Eamon Dunphy's mid-1980s campaign against Hand and Brady kicked off in earnest yet. By 1983, he would be describing Brady's performances as a 'monument to conceit' and 'a disgrace'. He alleged he had grown soft and complacent in Italy.

Hand typically played 4-3-3 and Brady was joined in midfield by, we believe, the only man to play both soccer and Gaelic football at Wembley. Tony Grealish belonged to that Irish community in Britain who knew the words of rebel songs that Irish-born people hadn't even heard of - a fact Eoin Hand attests to. Seamus McDonagh, the goalkeeper for the bulk of the campaign, had a similar background.

Alongside those two, the ageing Gerry Daly and the youthful Ronnie Whelan were deployed at various stages of the campaign.

Up front, Frank Stapleton, recently arrived at Manchester United, was hitting the peak of his powers. Record goalscorer Don Givens started the campaign in situ but by the end had drifted out of the reckoning with Michael Robinson preferred.

Dave O'Leary and Mark Lawrenson's reckless propensity to combine occupying the central defensive position with playing football did not see them banished/moved to midfield.

Hand was also confident enough not to insist that the Lansdowne Road pitch be left in as shambolic a state as possible for visiting teams (and indeed, insist upon the opposite) a policy which Jack Charlton discontinued when he became manager.

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Lawrenson it was who latched onto Brady's dinked free kick to get the winning goal six minutes from time against Holland, as Ireland overturned a 1-0 second half deficit. The campaign had already begun with a 3-2 win away to Cyprus and Ireland were off to a flyer.

In October, the team were tossed back into the mire. Grealish secured a draw at home to Belgium as Ireland dropped their first points, and then, with grinding, bitter familiarity Ireland suffered a 2-0 loss away in Paris.

An eleven minute long TV blackout meant the RTE audience at home weren't treated to the sight of Ireland's latest disallowed effort.

The ball was hoisted into the box, Kevin Moran leapt and nodded it across the goal and Michael Robinson smacked it home. 1-1. Or not.

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Augusto Lama Castillo was adamant that he had seen a handball and another goal was duly ruled out.

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It wouldn't be an Irish away match in the early 1980s without such a spluttering injustice. As far as disallowed goals were concerned, Ireland were only getting into their stride.

The team recuperated with a 6-0 mauling of Cyprus in Lansdowne Road, in which Daly, Stapleton, Grealish, Robinson and Hughton scored.

Next was Belgium.

In an extraordinary article in the Sunday Tribune shortly before the 2002 World Cup, Paul Howard went out to Lisbon, armed with an old VCR tape of the infamous match, to meet the former trade union rep and international referee who so enraged Ireland that night.

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Raul Nazare declared that he felt deep sympathy for the Irish after the game and even confessed that, rather unprofessionally, he had hoped Ireland would win the game. To Irish fans who remember the game, the players who left the field in tears, such a statement strikes one as a sick joke. Perhaps, he was so alarmed at this bias within himself that he over-compensated with his actual decisions on the pitch.

Ireland naturally had a goal disallowed.

Brady clipped in a free kick and Stapleton redirected the ball into the net. When asked to recall the incident by Howard, Nazare confidently insisted that Stapleton was offside. This, he said, he remembered very clearly. In fact, it was his linesman who made the call.

When shown the footage of the goal on videotape, he was forced to revise this recollection very quickly. Stapleton is so far onside that that argument becomes immediately untenable.

I think I made a mistake when I told you it was offside. Yes, now I remember. I awarded an indirect free-kick. My hand is up to say indirect. And Liam Brady shoots direct. That is why the goal was disallowed. Nobody touches the ball before it goes in the goal.

Howard reminds the reader that the footage quite clearly shows that Stapleton volleyed the ball into the net. Nazare continues to argue that he didn't touch it. How does he account for the change in direction?

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Undeterred by the four feet of distance between himself and Stapleton, Nazare gamely changes tack again and tells Howard that the ball in fact hits off him.

The ball hits off me. It hits off my back and goes in the goal. I remember that is why I disallowed it.

Possibly unnerved by the sight of the man squirming and reaching desperately for an explanation, Howard moves onto the other controversial incident.

With two minutes left, the score is 0-0 and Belgium send a crossfield ball into the box, Eric Gerets scampers past Steve Heighway in one of the least convincing dives ever witnessed on a football pitch. As far as dives go, it's a golden raspberry contender.

Nazare concedes that Gerets is 'clowning' and made 'a spectacle of himself' but he is adamant it was a foul.

You can't see it on the tape, but you could see it where I was, from the ground.

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In the game's aftermath, Nazare recalled that Mickey Walsh told him, in suspiciously poetic phraseology for a footballer who had just a lost a match 1-0 to a late and very controversial goal;

Raul, I am very sad. The hearts of all the Irish nation are crying.

Walsh's recollection of the conversation doesn't quite tally with Nazare's version. He called him a cheat. He then gave Liam Brady the Portuguese word for 'thief' on request, which the midfielder then used liberally in his brief 'conversation' with Nazare.

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Eoin Hand wasn't any more diplomatic.

To me, it was blatant and I accused him of it after the game. 'You have taken money, it's a disgrace...' and really I should have been reported for that... but nothing happened.

Ireland rallied to earn a rousing 2-2 draw away in Holland and then beat the French 3-2 in a superb performance in Lansdowne Road.

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With their programme finished, Ireland still had a shot at qualification. Indeed, on the face of it, the opportunity seemed far less remote than it did six years later when Scotland travelled to Sofia.

France had two games remaining. They needed full points at home to both Holland and Cyprus or else Ireland would qualify for Spain.

Hand flew out for the Dutch game but found out that Gary Mackays were thin on the ground.

They were going to get two points against Cyprus, for sure. I was half hoping that Holland would do something. I went over to Paris for that game. And Holland didn't put up a fight at all. Because, at that time there was a lot of in-fighting about bonuses. There was all sorts of rumours that their players were unhappy with their fees... But anyway, France beat them and we were left with the goal difference thing.

Ireland's absence from the carnival in Spain was made worse by Northern Ireland's exploits the following summer. In terms of personnel, Ireland were probably superior to the Nordies but a slightly more amenable group (Scotland finished top of it) enabled them to get a runner spot and entry into the expanded tournament.

It's acknowledged within the game that that team deserved to go to Spain. At the same time as Northern Ireland made it to Spain, which didn't help us because their success magnifies your lack of success. We'd a better team than the North, as far as I was concerned we'd a much better team than the North.

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Until Thierry Henry knocked it off its 'fucking perch' in 2009, the Belgian game was commonly acclaimed as the most wrenching injustice in Irish football history.

A quick perusal of the details of that campaign reveals it should retain its title still. At least there was general unanimity that the Henry handball was an honest mistake.

Six days after the Belgium match, FIFA wrote to the FAI turning down their request that the assessor's official report on Nazare's performance be made public.

But the world body did send a letter to the FAI giving a brief summation of what assessor Anton Bucheli had to say about Nazare's refereeing.

Bucheli rated the Nazare's refereeing display as 'good to excellent' and FIFA made a point of noting that 'especially mentioned was the decision to disallow the goal by your team. This decision was correct.'

Read more: Balls Remembers The Time A Dublin Club Almost Ended Up In The Scottish League

Conor Neville
Article written by
Perennial finalist in stand-up comedy competitions and former Contract Lawyer/ Coal Salesman with Corless, Corless and Sweeney

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