Although one was inclined to fault the Republic team for fitfully failing to rise to the sporting challenge of the occasion, especially in the opening 45 minutes of the game, on reflection it seems more appropriate to acknowledge the deep well of courage from which Jack Charlton's team drew to find a response to Jimmy Quinn's superb volley 16 minutes from time which seemed to herald the end of the Republic's World Cup dreams.
Against a background of ugly sectarian baying, whipped up, unforgivably, by the Northern Ireland manager, Billy Bingham, and a couple of his players (the disgraceful racist taunting of Terry Phelan was another un-Irish feature of this night) the Republic's team went in search of an equaliser with determination. When it came, Alan McLoughlin's goal was sublime. Dennis Irwin's free- kick was cleared to the Portsmouth forward, who had entered the battle a mere seven minutes earlier. Twenty-three yards from goal, in front of the posts, before him a crowded penalty area, McLoughlin took one touch to control the ball before striking it with unswerving conviction to the corner of the Northern Irish net.
This moment will long be savoured by all of us who witnessed it. It was a goal worthy of the precious prize at stake, a place among the world's footballing elite in the United States next summer. The most important thing to be said is that the Republic of Ireland fully deserve to be in the World Cup finals. The road to qualification has been long and arduous, 12 matches in a group which included the European champions, Denmark, a powerfully rejuvenated Spanish team and of course the troublesome men from the North. The most demanding examinations were successfully completed with draws in Seville and Copenhagen and maximum points from the visits to Albania, Lithuania and Latvia. Qualification was, it seemed, a formality. Then Spain came to Lansdowne Road last month to deliver a reminder that when the prize is coveted mistakes are magnified and punished severely.
The mission in Belfast last week was to redeem the error of judgement Jack Charlton made when deciding to play for the draw needed in the home game against Spain. That error was compounded by Charlton's accompanying decision to push Paul McGrath into midfield in the belief that Andy Kernaghan was big enough to fill the
centre-half's shirt. Kernaghan is all heart but defending, especially at the highest level, is more about guile and judgement, virtues Kernaghan does not possess in sufficient measure, and Blackburn's Kevin Moran does.
Charlton's stubbornness in relation to the Moran- Kernaghan question will have a significant bearing on how his team fare in the US. Ireland have struggled through the last lap of qualification, causing some to raise questions about the team's enduring ability. The most persistent doubt concerns the fitness of some of the veterans in the side, the names of Packie Bonner, Moran, McGrath, Ray Houghton and John Aldridge being most often referred to.
No, I don't believe we should conclude that recent experience points to a deterioration in this Irish team. It is, perhaps, more reasonable to allow that manager, players, critics (including this one) and fans were guilty of premature celebration, a conviction which acquired a debilitating life of its own, that they had only to turn up for the last three games to ensure qualification. They were thus psychologically weakened, mentally wrong for the final decisive battles. If this explanation seems a touch whimsical, consider the effect similar calculations had on the French who, needing just one point from their last two home games to qualify, failed even to draw with Israel and Bulgaria in Paris.
Italy only guaranteed their place in the finals with a Dino Baggio goal seven minutes from the end of last Wednesday's game against Portugal in Milan. Argentina, with Diego Maradonna restored to fitness, required an Australian own goal to scrape through their ordeal in Buenos Aires.
It is against that international perspective that the courage and discipline of Ireland's second-half performance in Belfast should be measured. Although never fluent, the Republic set about imposing themselves on this game when the gods appeared to turn against them.
The final thought for now must address the question of the team which, conventional wisdom suggests, has lost its edge. The evidence for this assertion is less than compelling. McGrath was as majestic as ever in Belfast. There is no reason to believe that Aldridge has lost his gift for scoring goals. Until he was substituted on Wednesday Houghton had made a substantial contribution to Ireland's valiant performance. The indications from Blackburn Rovers are that Moran is still a very special footballer. None of those players is too old.
Of Bonner the news is less encouraging. Ireland owe Bonner much for service rendered in the first five years of the Charlton era. Sadly, it has been all too evident for some time now that Bonner has lost his decisiveness and confidence, and that this has taken its toll on the morale of the defenders in front of him. Charlton should have blooded Alan Kelly in the less demanding games of the past 18 months. The Irish manager must now decide whether Bonner should make way before the World Cup finals. Ireland will suffer if the wrong decision is made.
A final point should be made: the facile assertions of English commentators that this is a sub-standard team, few of whose players would be selected for England, must be firmly rebutted as the nonsense it is. England would be fortunate indeed to possess players of the quality of McGrath, Irwin, Phelan, Roy Keane and Niall Quinn. Charlton's team is a compound of vigorous youth and experience, of technical ability and resilience when the chips are down. Those who would question the Republic of Ireland's place in the United States next summer might do well to reflect that football is a team game, the art of management being about arranging that the whole be greater than the sum of the parts.
Englishmen might remember that this was Sir Alf Ramsey's core value. It is no coincidence that Charlton was a member of Ramsey's World Cup-winning squad. The team Charlton will take to next summer's finals bears testimony to one of football's fundamental laws: the team matters more than any individual. No other team in the United States next summer will relish facing them.
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