World Cup Football: McLoughlin provides the final touch for Republic: Charlton's men qualify on goals scored as Spain tame Danes

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FINALLY, and with sublime drama, Jack Charlton was one Englishman who could walk tall last night when an equaliser from Alan McLoughlin 13 minutes before the end rescued his American dream and sent the Republic of Ireland to the World Cup finals for the second time in succession.

Of course, Charlton's adopted country has known all along that he can turn water to wine and it was his second-half substitution that will go down in history as another act of the master manager.

McLoughlin had been thrown into the increasingly nerve-wracked Belfast occasion for just seven minutes when to him fell the decisive strike that sparked the mother of all celebrations back in Dublin.

Yet the Portsmouth midfielder, like the rest of his team, had stared dumbfounded when, in the 73rd minute, a rare breakaway ended with a Second Division centre-forward, Jimmy Quinn, who reaches the ripe old age of 34 today, clubbing the home side in front with a volley of such force that Pat Bonner did well to see let alone have any chance of stopping.

At that moment the Big Prize receded further away from England's World Cup-winning centre-half of 1966, but he has nurtured a heart and a spirit among his players which once again was to take them to the heights that has proved beyond every one of the British challengers aiming for a '94 summer in the United States.

Dennis Irwin's free-kick was cleared beyond the 18-yard line where McLoughlin was positioned to send it back through all the bodies barring his way to goal and into the net. Never before had he scored in 14 appearances for his country.

Not in their two previous attempts had the visitors from the South managed to breach the Windsor Park barricades, and it was a moment no Irishman domiciled in America and craving the chance to welcome their heroes there will let him forget when Charlton takes them back to world football's top table.

With Spain pushing Denmark out of the picture in Seville a draw was all the Republic - branded a 'bunch of mercenaries' by Billy Bingham before the game - required to qualify on more goals scored. They had left it late, but at the end of a campaign which had witnessed only a single abberration, that defeat in Dublin by Spain last month, they deserved this reward.

It was a mightily relieved Charlton who emerged afterwards to say: 'I am sorry England did not make it, I am sorry Terry Yorath didn't make it with Wales but we will go out there next summer and do our best.'

Bingham, the North's manager, could not have chosen a more dramatic night on which to depart the international stage after 43 years, firstly as a player and then in two managerial terms. 'I congratulate the Republic on getting through,' he said, 'but I take nothing back from my reference about the mercenaries.'

Inevitably the pressure which was all the Republic's at the start told and with only their pride and Bingham's pride at stake the home side were able to take up the running. Several times they tested Bonner's composure but as the tie wore on it was the Republic who seized control, leaving the North to hold out amid rising tension and anxious clock-watching while ears were kept closely tuned to events in Seville.

Jimmy Nicholl, Billy Bingham's assistant, is the favourite to take over as Northern Ireland's manager, but he has said he will not walk out on Raith Rovers, where he has another season remaining on his contract. 'I would love the job and hopefully a compromise can be reached with my club,' he said.

NORTHERN IRELAND (4-4-2): Wright (Nottingham Forest); Fleming (Barnsley), McDonald (Queen's Park Rangers), Taggart (Barnsley), Worthington (Sheffield Wednesday); Wilson (Notts County), Magilton (Oxford), Donaghy (Chelsea), Hughes (Strasbourg); J Quinn (Reading), Gray (Sunderland). Substitute: Dowie (Southampton) for Gray, 72.

REPUBLIC OF IRELAND (4-4-2): Bonner (Celtic); Irwin (Manchester United), McGrath (Aston Villa), Kernaghan, Phelan (both Manchester City); Houghton, Townsend (Aston Villa), Keane (Manchester United), McGoldrick (Arsenal); Aldridge (Tranmere), N Quinn (Manchester City). Substitutes: McLoughlin (Porstmouth) for Houghton, 70; Cascarino (Chelsea) for Aldridge, 81.

Referee: A Caker (Turkey).

WALES fell at the final hurdle of the World Cup qualifiers yet again when they missed a penalty in a 2-1 defeat by Romania in Cardiff. The match ended in tragedy when a fan was killed by a firework.

Match report, page 43

----------------------------------------------------------------- FINAL GROUP THREE TABLE ----------------------------------------------------------------- P W D L F A Pts Spain 12 8 3 1 27 4 19 Rep of Ireland 12 7 4 1 19 6 18 Denmark 12 7 4 1 15 2 18 N Ireland 12 5 3 4 14 13 13 Lithuania 12 2 3 7 8 21 7 Latvia 12 0 5 7 4 21 5 Albania 12 1 2 9 6 26 4 -----------------------------------------------------------------