Republic of Ireland. . .1
SO it was in the early hours of yesterday morning that the Irish squad finally arrived in Orlando from New Jersey. The purveyors of fantasy football were back in the land of the magic kingdom and how appropriate that was on this particular day. Hot and tired, they were utterly jubilant.
In an emotional sense the players were already as high as it was possible to get. After the defeat of Italy in the Meadowlands Stadium that is home usually to the New York Giants rather than the Green Giants, Ireland's supporters, having sung themselves hoarse, were forced to ask in whispers just how much better it can get.
After just 90 minutes' World Cup football Jack Charlton's admirable assortment of sporting ambassadors had become the favourites to finish top of Group E. And a football-crazy nation that has known the delight of winning the trophy on three occasions was beside itself with disappointment and despair.
Stunning was the left-foot volley from Ray Houghton, a gutsy midfielder whose powers have been revived at the end of a disappointing season with Aston Villa that had given little pointer to this golden finale. Sensational was the impact of a victory over the aristocratic Latins who were widely expected to go far in this competition. And delirious was the reaction from the fans who had outnumbered the Italians by probably two to one in this huge concrete bowl 20 miles west of the side of New York where two ethnic groups had come to live generations before.
Afterwards all and sundry, from the Prime Minister to Eric Cantona, there working for French TV, and beyond joined in to pile praise on the team who continue to defy logic. But why should logic continue to be against them? Ireland have outstanding individuals in Paul McGrath, Andy Townsend and Roy Keane.
Italy, sublime technicians, with the craft to draw beautiful patterns of play were not driven by the same committment and determination to win. They were a collection of fragile hearts who, having been unsettled by the worries and confusion of their manager, Arrigo Sacchi, beforehand, could summon neither the wit nor the willingness to draw level having fallen behind.
Indeed Italy's should have been a heavier defeat. John Sheridan pinged a shot off the crossbar, Townsend was denied by Gianluca Pagliuca at the near post and Houghton forced a decent save with a half-volley chance.
The victory - Ireland's first in the World Cup finals in normal time - was supplied in the 12th minute, immediately after the Italians had missed a great opportunity. Roberto Baggio, so adept at finding space before exploiting a tiny opening with the sharpness of his distribution, slipped the ball to Giuseppe Signori and Pat Bonner would have had serious cause for alarm if the Lazio forward had not completely missed his shot.
Having just taken stock of the let-off the Irish were no sooner celebrating a superb goal. Italy, which is to say Milan, are reputed to have one of the most secure defences anywhere but now they lamentably failed to cut out Denis Irwin's searching right-wing cross. Alessandro Costacurta claimed the first header and, when the ball dropped, Franco Baresi attempted with his header to reach a colleague just outside the area.
Very much alive to the possibility was Houghton who cut out the intended pass and instantly brought the ball under control with his chest and on to his weaker, left side.
'We had been working the ball up to Tommy Coyne and going from there,' said the goalscorer as he retraced his moment of glory. 'Kevin Moran had told me only just before that I should gamble a bit more and arrive in those situations. My first thought was to put the ball wide to Steve Staunton but the full-back was cutting him off so I lashed it with my left, not my strongest foot, and it appeared to dip over the goalkeeper.'
'It was important for me to do well because I had been out of the team and there were questions about whether I would play. I had put a lot of hard work in over the last two weeks and it really paid off. When the lads jumped on top of me I felt a bit faint. It all felt like I was in a dream.' Although other chances came and went that goal was enough because, true to their cultured heritage, Italy remained patient and probing and made it easy for Ireland to bring their midfielders back and enhance the smothering operation. Tackles - McGrath on Signori, Babb on Dino Baggio and Denis Irwin on the same player - were timed to perfection and they needed to be because referees have been ordered here to keep the penalty tally high.
On 65 minutes Signori, now shifted to the left and more effective for it as was his team with the central role going to the muscular Danielle Massaro, cut inside Irwin. Bonner was equal to the moment, diving left to pull off the save.
When they have their breath back and their heads in order, Charlton's squad will begin preparations at their Florida training base for Friday's midday match with Mexico. They return to New Jersey to face Norway on 28 June. What had looked one of the most difficult groups suddenly, in Irish eyes at least, looks a lot easier.
ITALY (4-4-2): Pagliuca (Sampdoria); Tassotti, Costacurta, Baresi, Maldini; Donadoni, Albertini (Milan), D Baggio (Juventus), Evani (Sampdoria); R Baggio (Juventus), Signori (Lazio). Substitutes: Massaro (Milan for Evani, h-t; Berti (Internazionale) for Signori, 84.
IRELAND (4-5-1): Bonner (Celtic); Irwin (Manchester United), McGrath (Aston Villa), Babb (Coventry), Phelan (Manchester City); Houghton, Townsend (Aston Villa), Keane (Manchester United), Sheridan (Sheffield Wednesday), Staunton (Aston Villa); Coyne (Motherwell. Substitutes: McAteer (Bolton) for Houghton, 68; Aldridge (Tranmere) for Coyne.
Referee: M van der Ende (Netherlands).
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