Saturday 22 July 2017

Jack's Wales opener not just like watching Brazil

Liam Brady tackles Ian Rush during Ireland’s friendly against Wales in 1986. Photo: Getty
Liam Brady tackles Ian Rush during Ireland’s friendly against Wales in 1986. Photo: Getty
Liam Kelly

Liam Kelly

Irish fans were promised Brazil as the opposition for Jack Charlton's first game in charge of the Republic of Ireland on March 26, 1986.

The samba superstars, including Socrates, Junior and Falcao, were on tour in Europe preparing for the World Cup that summer.

Once Charlton was appointed in February, FAI treasurer Charlie Walsh said the association was prepared to "do anything and everything necessary" to persuade the Brazilians to extend their tour by a fortnight to play in Dublin.

If not, then Walsh promised "we will certainly have a match against top-class European opposition...one of the World Cup qualifiers."

God rest the late Charlie.

No doubt he and the FAI tried hard to live up to their promise, but how did that work out? We got Wales.

Ireland manager Jack Charlton looks on from the stands during his first game. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland manager Jack Charlton looks on from the stands during his first game. Photo: Sportsfile

No Brazil, no "top-class" European opposition.

Just lowly Wales, who like ourselves would not be loading up on the sun block for Mexico '86.

In many ways, it was appropriate.

The Irish World Cup qualifying bid had ended the previous November in the fiasco of a 4-1 home defeat to Denmark and a parting of ways with manager Eoin Hand.

Then came the tumultuous farce of the voting for the new boss, on February 7.

Ballots

That was the night when votes were cast and re-cast and re-counted through four ballots at the crucial FAI selection meeting before it ended with 'no' to Bob Paisley, 'no' to John Giles and 'yes' to shock outsider Big Jack.

On February 12, he had his first formal press conference, during which he offered Eamon Dunphy the chance to come outside for a fight. This was new.

Prior to the prosaic Wales fixture, Jack named a 26-man panel, which by the day before the match had been reduced to 19 by injuries and withdrawals.

Among those called up as a replacement was Pat Byrne, the celebrated Shamrock Rovers and ex-Leicester City midfielder.

Byrne, then aged 30, had by then played five times for the Republic, and was to earn three more caps, all in 1986, including the Wales match.

He played for Rovers against Athlone Town on the Sunday of that week, scoring the last goal in a 3-2 victory and then reported to the team hotel.

There, he shook hands with the new manager and looked forward to the next day's training session, the first squad workout under the Charlton reign.

Except it didn't happen as planned. Overnight snowfall ruled out training on a pitch, so the players had to make use of the gym at the ALSAA facility beside Dublin Airport.

Charlton's fall-back name for any Irish-born players he did not know was "Mick", so on a number of occasions Pat Byrne was "Mick". It became a joke among the players, but any dissent from the direct style the manager mandated was no laughing matter.

"He wouldn't remember anybody's name. That's the way he was," said Byrne. "But he knew exactly how he wanted to play and if you did the job he wanted, you were OK. If you didn't, you were out. There was nothing in between, no grey area."

Looking back 31 years later, Byrne remembers a few aspects of the occasion which stand out.

First, the welcome accorded to newcomers John Aldridge and Ray Houghton, a Liverpudlian and Glasgow native respectively.

Wales manager Mike England had a cut at their inclusion. "The rest of the football world thinks this business is a huge joke. If you've been in Dublin for a fortnight's holiday, you get called up," said England.

Quintessential Dubliner and proud Irishman Liam Brady had no time for that view, as Byrne recalls.

"I don't think they (Aldridge and Houghton) could believe the set-up we had, it was so relaxed. Everybody bonded with each other. I must say Liam Brady was one of the best ones for it. He was brilliant. He was great for welcoming people into the camp.

"As far as he was concerned, if you were playing for the country, that was it, and he would go out of his way to welcome people," said Byrne.

The match, watched by 16,500 people on a grey, cold day on a bumpy pitch, was a drab affair.

Ian Rush scored what proved to be the winner for Wales in the 17th minute. Their goalkeeper Neville Southall fell awkwardly when catching a high ball in the 66th minute and was carried off on a stretcher with a bad ankle injury.

Byrne replaced Mike Robinson at that time in the game and forced a superb save from replacement goalkeeper Tony Norman in the 78th minute.

It was an earnest, hard-working performance. Nothing to get excited about. Little did we know that this was the start of an historic period in Irish soccer history. Thanks, Jack.

Irish Independent

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