World Cup Football: Charlton's green fingers bring the dream to fruition: Ken Jones in Belfast witnesses scenes of celebration by the men from the Republic after a famous result

ON A NIGHT when there were enough relevant possibilities to justify taking a calculator to the press box, it was always going to be difficult to concentrate fully on the activity at Windsor Park.

You didn't have to look far for evidence of tension, not only on the pitch where the Republic struggled for a long while to achieve control of the proceedings, but on the face of every visitor from the south.

When news filtered through that Spain's goalkeeper had been sent off in Seville hopes rose among the supporters of Jack Charlton's team, but the drama would take more twists and turns before the Republic qualified for a place in the World Cup finals next summer.

News of England's flagging efforts and the defeat Wales suffered in Cardiff made it likely that the only British-based footballers on view in the finals next summer would be wearing the Republic colours, and even that possibility looked grim when Northern Ireland took the lead with 17 minutes left to play.

On the touchline, substitutes held their heads in horror and Charlton turned miserably away from what could have been the collapse of an Irish dream. If that was to be their fate, a team that had only lost once in the qualifying competition did not yield to the pressure.

Jimmy Quinn's goal, struck powerfully from just outside the penalty area, was a cruel blow for players who had settled down to establish the rhythm in the second half, coherent patterns that might have resulted in the Republic taking the lead had their finishing been more certain.

It is at such times that managers are expected to introduce changes, some of which can work well enough to embellish their reputations. Charlton's trick was to introduce Alan McLoughlin of Portsmouth, who had not previously scored for the Republic in 14 appearances. Time was running out when McLoughlin struck the equaliser that is worth millions of pounds to the Irish Football Association, a feat that will establish him in the lore of the game down south.

The match never rose beyond the level of perspiring mediocrity and Northern Ireland, with nothing to play for but their pride, were for a long while the more composed team.

There was, understandably, a great deal of anxiety evident in the Republic's defence, but this was a night when one of their great heroes, Paul McGrath, coped mightily with the task, as did Roy Keane whose strength on the ball and enormous energy frequently carried play into the Northern Ireland half.

There was nothing pretty about the action but with so much on the match the Republic could be excused the lack of refinement that some people believe to be characteristic of their style.

At the final whistle Charlton's players celebrated on the field, although the game in Seville was still going on and nobody could be sure. When Spain's victory was confirmed, the news spread quickly to the Republic's players and a great celebration could begin.

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