Sunday 22 October 2017

A rivalry primed to catch fire after years of phony war

Jack Charlton's first game in charge was a low-key friendly against Wales, setting the tone for the next three decades... but this time, the stakes are higher

Jack Charlton pictured during his first match in charge of Republic of Ireland in 1986. Photo: Ray McManus / Sportsfile
Jack Charlton pictured during his first match in charge of Republic of Ireland in 1986. Photo: Ray McManus / Sportsfile

Colin Young

As we approach the most significant clash ever between Ireland and Wales, the expectations and preparations for Martin O'Neill's team are very different to the set-up Jack Charlton walked into for his first game as Ireland manager 31 years ago this week.

That opening game of the Charlton era was a low-key friendly against Wales, witnessed by some 16,500 in Lansdowne Road - curious rather than convinced that Big Jack was the man who would change everything and lead the team to European Championship and World Cup qualification for the first time in history.

There were certainly no signs that night that the new boss - Protestant, English and, most importantly, a World Cup winner - would go on to achieve cult status in Ireland and take the whole country on an adventure they would never forget.

Appointed in chaotic scenes at the turn of 1986, Big Jack named a big squad for his first game, initially and controversially leaving out Mick McCarthy - "because I know him" - and including an Englishman and a Scotsman who were to become two of the most influential players in his unforgettable near-ten-year reign.

Wales won the game 1-0. Apart from a typically predatory goal from Liverpool's Ian Rush, the only incident of note was a serious ankle injury suffered by Everton goalkeeper Neville Southall.

Charlton claimed physio Mick Byrne picked the team for the Welsh visit but the manager had a clear vision of how he wanted his team to play and who would play where.

David O'Leary partnered John Anderson at centre-half, while McCarthy started on the bench for the first and last time and Paul McGrath was played in a deep central midfield role, with Liam Brady more advanced. Ray Houghton and John Aldridge both started.

Charlton watched Aldridge at Oxford United within days of accepting the Ireland job. The Liverpool-born striker, who scored twice that night from two Houghton assists, actually tipped Jack off about the Glaswegian's Irish roots.

Aldridge said at the time: "Jack spoke to me in the tunnel and asked if I wanted to play for Ireland and of course I said yes. And I said 'you need to speak to Ray Houghton, he's got Irish ancestry,' so he did. He signed us both up that night."

Charlton gambled on naming the pair in his original 26-man squad, even though they still didn't have Irish passports by the time of the game. He managed to sweet-talk Wales manager Mike England, who reluctantly allowed them to play.

And Ireland played Jack's way that night, as he set out his stall for the style of football which would put the country on the world map and leave a lasting imprint for smaller nations for years to come.

Charlton had already told the FAI who was boss when he surprised them all, including himself, and accepted the job they all thought Bob Paisley would get.

When the blazers told him physio Mick Byrne was leaving the post before he had even started, Charlton stepped in. He didn't know the man, but that didn't matter, he made the decisions from now on. Byrne, kitman Charlie O'Leary and assistant manager Maurice Setters were to be by his side throughout his decade in charge.

When the team gathered at the Airport Hotel for his inaugural match, he stood back and observed and was appalled that some players were allowed to come and go to visit their families. It was to be the last time.

Before his Ipswich side played at Middlesbrough last season, McCarthy told me: "Jack took one look at it for the Wales game and stopped it immediately. Everybody had to be in Dublin on the Saturday night, everybody went out together on Sunday, we trained at 10 on Monday morning, went to the pictures on Monday night together and we all had a drink together after the match on the Wednesday.

"It needed it. There were too many people who liked to have an opinion and an influence, and he took all that away. He was the star of the show. He wasn't bothered about what anybody thought, fans, media, players. . . he did it his way. Reputations meant nothing. From day one there was a structure to everything. And it was clear what you did and what you didn't do. Well, it wasn't what you didn't do . . . it was just . . . this is what you do. End of story."

Charlton had left Newcastle United in the summer of 1985, and had his eye on international management. By the time of the Wales game, he was ready to implement a plan which would tip world football on its head.

The style was simple and eventually effective. Full-backs hoofed the ball into the corners and advanced spaces, and the forwards and midfielders ran after it. And when the opposition had the ball, they ran some more and got the ball back. It might not have worked against the Welsh, but it came alive a few months later in Iceland when Ireland won their first ever tournament.

John Anderson had played under Charlton at Newcastle. His style there was similar but, despite his own roots, a Geordie public which had just said farewell to Kevin Keegan was not in the mood for Big Jack and his long balls. He left after one season.

International management, and Ireland, suited Charlton. Anderson had told his Irish team-mates what to expect. He later recalled: "They used to say to me 'what is this fella all about?' I mean, you know Jack, he was different. And he could be strict and full-on in training, and then he'd do something daft like shout 'when I shout aubergine, you run to the nearest tree'.

"He wanted to create a club atmosphere so that the lads wanted to come over and play for Ireland. He wanted it to mean something to play for Ireland, but also for the lads to enjoy it when they did it. And he was brilliant at it and the people loved him.

"He told us from day one what he wanted. If the ball is there to be shifted, get it shifted; and we re-organise. Do that, keep it tight and you'll get chances. And everybody dug in and chased.

"I was usually right-back and my job was to knock it down the line, get the ball in behind their back four and then we'd all squeeze up the pitch. He said to us, 'all these international footballers, especially in the top nations, think they can play. And if you watch them, they like to get the ball off the keeper, and they have time to pick their pass and play".

"If you look at the foreign sides, not so much the British sides . . . but the Dutch, Belgium, Italy, Spain . . . they'd all jog back together when they lose possession; they wouldn't sprint back together with urgency because they all had the time.

"Suddenly, when they came up against us, they were getting the ball off the keeper or in easy areas of the pitch and we were in their faces, and you could see them going 'what the f*** are you doing?' They were used to messing about, playing it between them, messing on, and all of a sudden they're surrounded by a sea of green.

"And the penny started to drop with the lads, because it worked. We started getting results and the lads were looking at each other and thinking 'he's right'. Once we started winning games, we realised we were on to something."

So while Charlton's first game as Ireland boss was a non-event, like so many of the encounters against Wales since, the ramifications for Irish football were considerable. For one player, Michael Robinson, it was to be the end of his Ireland career. He mocked the new manager in a newspaper article afterwards and never played for him again.

And it would be a while before Ireland played Wales again. The next meeting between the two countries was not for another four years, and even then it was only by accident. After the actress Sophia Loren put Ireland and England in the same Italia 90 World Cup finals group with Holland and Egypt, a friendly game against England was cancelled and Wales stepped in at the last minute.

The friendly in March 1990 was Ireland's first game since they had clinched World Cup qualification for the first time with a resounding win in Malta in November 1989. The 40,000-plus who turned out that night were more interested in the post-match party and lap of honour than the game itself, which Ireland this time won 1-0.

The winning goal was scored by Bernie Slaven, another Scot who had been overlooked by Scotland coach Andy Roxburgh, who was also assembling a team for the finals in Italy.

Slaven was scoring goals regularly for Middlesbrough and bumped into Charlton, a former Boro boss, when he was collecting tickets to watch his former team-mate Stuart Ripley playing for Blackburn at Newcastle. "You hang fire," Charlton told him. "I can get you a cap."

His debut came against Wales on March 28, 1990. Slaven told the BBC: "There were some good players in that Wales side, like Southall, Hughes, Rush, and we won 1-0. I scored when Big Nev spilled Kevin Sheedy's penalty and I tucked it away.

"I had four or five games to get in that World Cup squad and it was a great night for me. Jack stuck by me and took me to the World Cup, and obviously the highlight for me was meeting the Pope."

Ireland played Wales in a February friendly for the next three years under Charlton, managing two wins and a defeat in front of crowds which, even combined, were considerably lower than the Lansdowne Road party night of 1990.

After a 3-0 win in Wrexham, featuring a Niall Quinn brace and a goal from John Byrne, which was played in front of fewer than 10,000, the games in Dublin were moved to the RDS and Tolka Park. Mark Pembridge scored the winner in a 1-0 victory for Wales in 1992 before Sheedy and Tommy Coyne gained revenge a year later, with Mark Hughes scoring for the visitors.

But interest in the Wales friendlies was fading. The FAI knew they were preaching to the devoted, so reached out to the wider world for their friendlies in the McCarthy era. A year after the former captain took over, they played Wales in a dreary goalless draw at Ninian Park, Cardiff in front of just 7,000 in February 1997, and didn't meet again for another 10 years.

The stakes for that next meeting were raised considerably, but then there were 2008 European Championship points at stake when they lined up for their first competitive game at Croke Park in March 2007.

This was another historic occasion, the first soccer game at the home of the GAA but the match, with Stephen Staunton in charge, failed to live up to the billing. Ireland sneaked a dreadful encounter thanks to Stephen Ireland's winner.

Eight months later, unable to shake off the awful results and performances against Cyprus, Staunton was gone and caretaker Don Givens was in charge for the return leg in front of a third-full Millennium Stadium. Wales were already out of the group and Ireland were denied third place, and the play-offs for a place in Germany, thanks to a last-minute Jason Koumas penalty to make it 2-2 following Paul McShane's untidy challenge on David Cotterill. An untidy end to an untidy campaign.

In 2011, the FAs of Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland put their collective brains together to conjure up the Carling Nations Cup. The tournament, a series of 'derby' friendlies played over a few months, still failed to entice the Irish crowds and has since disappeared.

Less than 20,000 were in the new-look Aviva for Gary Speed's first game in charge of an under-strength Welsh side which was missing the likes of Gareth Bale, Craig Bellamy and Aaron Ramsey. There were no such difficulties for Ireland coach Giovanni Trapattoni, who secured a 3-0 win thanks to goals from Damien Duff, Darron Gibson and Keith Fahey, who scored a lovely free-kick.

And the last meeting? Inevitably, perhaps, it was a goalless draw and a friendly in the Cardiff City Stadium, in front of a reasonably healthy crowd of 20,000. It was also the night Bellamy won his 74th cap, to surpass Peter Nicholas and Rush.

Other than that, once again, in an Ireland-Wales fixture, very little happened, although Ireland should have won but were denied a penalty. Bale even missed that game too, through injury, and watched from the stands, so Friday's clash in Dublin will be his first against Ireland.

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