Lawrenson goal in Hampden the catalyst for tournament qualification and heady days
Ireland’s win in Glasgow in 1987 was not just the first competitive away win in four years, it was also the victory that proved a turning point for the Jack Charlton’s Republic of Ireland. Here’s how the day unfolded.
Whatever about the Irish public, among the football media in Ireland the jury was still out on Charlton as manager when the team headed to Hampden to face the Scots. The start of the Euro ‘88 campaign saw the good (a brave 2-2 draw away to Belgium) and the bad (a dreadful 0-0 draw at home to the Scots), and then the dull (a 1-0 friendly defeat in Poland).
That run of two games without a goal for Ireland before the Glasgow trip lowered expectations. “The Irish can hardly boast of their net-bursting qualities. A win for the Irish seems too much to hope for, but is a draw too much to ask for?” the Irish Independent wondered, aware that the team had not won a competitive game away from home in four years.
In the lead-up, Charlton had a series of squad issues. With Chris Hughton, Jim Beglin and Kevin Sheedy all ruled out through injury, the left side of the team was very bare. Two days before the game, Charlton was unsure if captain Frank Stapleton would be able to travel for family reasons (Stapleton’s wife was ill), while a bout of ’flu afflicting Liam Brady was being kept secret.
A lot of focus was on Ray Houghton, the Scottish-born player ignored by his native country but recruited by Charlton. For Houghton, it was a chance to play in front of Scotland manager Andy Roxburgh, who had given a young Houghton a trial with the Scots as a young man but passed up the chance to call him up.
“I don’t think he’d be too pleased if I ran out with a goal,” Houghton said of Roxburgh. “It’d be fantastic if we could win at Hampden. The lads certainly are on a high and there’s a lot of optimism in the squad. Scotland came to Dublin to do a job and went home with a point. If the match at Lansdowne was a boxing match it would have been stopped. The roles will be reversed at Hampden but I think we will create more chances than Scotland did in Dublin.”
When it emerged that Charlton planned to play Ronnie Whelan and Paul McGrath at full-back and place Mark Lawrenson in midfield, the media were sceptical. “Charlton appears to have strayed far beyond the flexible bounds of football convention in the selection of his team to play Scotland,” the Irish Independent said in a piece headlined ‘Full-back strategy an enigma in Jack’s plans’.
McGrath said he was ready for a man-marking job. “The manager had a chat with me about the situation, and if the side can walk off Hampden at the end of the game with a good result, and if I have handled a guy like Davie Cooper effectively, then I will be well satisfied,” McGrath said.
Gordon Strachan was poised for a battle with his three Manchester United team-mates (McGrath, Stapleton and Kevin Moran). “I hope I can find weaknesses in the three lads. They’re certainly talented players but this is a game we must win. It is the most crucial game we’ve played in quite some time and if we lose we can forget about qualifying for the finals,” Strachan said.
Off the field, the country’s attention was on a general election on the eve of the game, Fianna Fáil warning: “Don’t risk coalition, vote Fianna Fáil”. In the courts, a dispute between the Wolfe Tones and the Dublin City Ramblers, over the rights to sing Flight Of Earls, was settled.
The health service was about to change, with the prospect of female nurses to be allowed wear trousers. One piece in the Irish Independent asked: “Do you think wearing trousers would take away from the traditional image of a nurse and lose her credibility among colleagues and patients?”
Rivalries abounded on the field, with clashes of four United players (Strachan against the three Irish) and Packie Bonner up against Celtic teammates Roy Aitken, Paul McStay, Brian McClair and Mo Johnston. Doubts remained about the Irish line-up – Stapleton later recalled: “The Irish press thought that Jack had lost his marbles.”
Ireland’s unorthodox formation seemed to catch Scotland off guard and the Republic started well, with two early chances for John Aldridge before a key moment seven minutes in. Stapleton was caught in the middle of a three-way tussle for the ball in the air, along with Maurice Malpas and Alan Hansen. The Scots looked for a free out but the Dutch referee awarded the free to Ireland. An alert Aldridge found Lawrenson and he fired home.
“It was quick thinking by John to take the free. When I got to the ball I just ran through and closed my eyes as it went in. I believe the ref was right not to blow up, it was our free after all,” Lawrenson later said.
The teams traded blows in terms of chances but Bonner kept a clean sheet – sub John Byrne almost nicked a second late on. “Inspiration, born out of desperation on their part, made it a literally nail-biting finish for the large contingent of Irish fans in the attendance of 45,000, but in the end justice was done,” said the Irish Independent.
“This was supposedly a better Scottish side than the one that was let off so leniently at Lansdowne Road but they were never given a chance to confirm that opinion. By no means was it football for the purists but it was certainly effective from the Irish point of view,” added the Indo, claiming that Whelan had delivered “the best game he has played for his country” and Liam Brady “answered his critics with an effective contribution.”
The implications of the win would only become clear at the end of the campaign but in the immediate aftermath, a smiling Ireland camp were straight out of the blocks with humour.
“I expect Kenny Dalglish will cancel all our days off until May after this. It will be fun when Ronnie, John and myself get back to Anfield,” joked Lawrenson of the welcome he’d get at Liverpool from their manager.
“There was a chance that Scotland might come back but I never thought they’d beat us. The pleasing thing was that we created so many chances and there are not many better places to go and win. But let’s not get carried away as we have tended to do in the past.”
In the dressing room after, the Irish camp bellowed out a few bars of Flower of Scotland.
The Scots were in a dour mood. Roxburgh said just five sentences in his press conference and told the media that anyone who wanted to hear more could come to his office the next morning.
“We started nervously, while Ireland began with an explosion, from then on it was uphill,” he would later say, the Scottish boss still upset with the decision to award a free to Ireland in the build-up to the decisive goal.
Former Scotland man Paddy Crerand, who had Irish parents, was impressed. “Ray Houghton was outstanding, the Irish never let Scotland play,” he said, which was also Charlton’s take. “We didn’t let the Scottish settle down to play. Scotland will scarcely have a tougher physical examination like that again, in effect we have won against the head, to borrow a term from rugby,” Jack said.
The media were handing out praise. “I do not think in the modern context that there has been a display of such significance by an Irish team on foreign soil. This was an important triumph, contrived by Jack Charlton but executed by the players,” the Irish Independent said.
For Bonner, the Hampden success showed the team could do it. “That proved we could get results on the road,” Bonner said.
There was also a sign that the bluster and what seemed like chaos from Charlton was in fact a solid tactic: his plan for McGrath to shackle the dangerous Cooper worked, as Cooper was hauled off at half time.
“The press had to swallow their pride and admit that Jack had done his homework on the Scotland team, and the press began to look at Jack and listen to him in a new way,” captain Stapleton recalled.
“They played right into Jack’s hands, three lightweight, talented front-runners against our four at the back, they were never going to match us physically, and they didn’t,” McCarthy would later say. “The game was probably the turning point for the Irish team.”