Monday 16 September 2019

Irishmen losing out as game moves on

Spurs and Liverpool's league of nations line-ups make 1987-88 clashes seem like bygone era

Mark Lawrenson: ‘It is very difficult for young Irish lads to get into academies now. The big teams look at them and if they don’t think they are quite good enough, they won’t take a gamble on them’. Photo: Getty Images
Mark Lawrenson: ‘It is very difficult for young Irish lads to get into academies now. The big teams look at them and if they don’t think they are quite good enough, they won’t take a gamble on them’. Photo: Getty Images

Colin Young

When Liverpool beat Tottenham Hotspur at Anfield 30 years ago in April, Peter Beardsley's winner clinched their 17th league title with five games to go. It was only 1-0 but it could have been seven. Liverpool destroyed teams for fun that season.

It was arguably Liverpool's greatest ever team. With Kenny Dalglish at the helm, bolstered by the summer additions of John Aldridge, Beardsley and John Barnes, with Ray Houghton following in the autumn, Liverpool were rampant that season, unbeaten until a derby defeat at Goodison in March, but missed out on the double with a shock FA Cup final defeat to Wimbledon.

He didn't lift the old championship trophy that April day, but captain Alan Hansen was interviewed by the morning papers.

"This could be the greatest team, but we're not there yet. We've done it in style this season, scoring lots of goals and not conceding many, but the Liverpool title-winning side of '78-79 turned on the style. That year we scored 85 goals and only let in 16 - and we played brilliant football.

"That was the great team. This one isn't there yet but I'm convinced it will compare with them one day. I think this team are going to go from strength to strength."

After the devastation of Hillsborough the following year, Liverpool finished second and won the Merseyside FA Cup final, before Dalglish lifted his third title as manager, and Liverpool's last, in 1990. Alex Ferguson's Manchester United, who had been runners-up in '88, won the FA Cup that 1989-90 season, but finished 13th in the first division.

Two years later, along came the Premier League and since then United have won 13 titles, five FA Cups and two Champions Leagues to Liverpool's zero, two and one respectively.

As for Tottenham, Terry Venables was at the start of a successful reign which led to their record-breaking eighth FA Cup triumph in 1991, the last time they lifted the trophy. He had just taken over from David Pleat when the teams first met, with Spurs on a run of nine without a win.

Spurs have always sold their best players - Waddle, Gascoigne, Lineker, Modric, Bale. So what next for Kane, Delle Alli and Eriksen?

Since the Premier League inception, Spurs have qualified three times for the Champions League and won two League Cups, nine years apart, and for only the fourth time in their history 10 years ago. Over the same period, Arsenal have won three titles, eight FA Cups and one League Cup.

In the unlikely event that the two teams at Anfield today are unchanged from their midweek wins, the range of nationalities is interesting. For Liverpool, two Germans, a Croat, a Cameroonian, a Senegalese, an Egyptian and a Brazilian, while Tottenham have a French keeper, two Belgians, a South Korean, a Colombian and a devastating Dane. Between them, seven Englishmen a Welshman and a Scot started at Huddersfield's John Smith's Stadium and Wembley during the week. In addition, on the Spurs bench, there were two Englishmen, a Dutch keeper, plus Kenyan, French, Argentinian and Spanish outfield players and four Englishmen and two Dutchmen on Liverpool's. And not an Irishman in sight.

Thirty years ago, when Liverpool clinched that 17th league title with that 1-0 win over Spurs, Ireland was well represented, and the tip of the foreign explosion which would engulf top-flight English football had barely registered. Bruce Grobbelaar, Craig Johnston and Jonny Metgod were as exotic as you got then.

Colourful and capable of brilliance, Grobbelaar was the ex-soldier from Zimbabwe who guarded his net in a style which most of his Anfield predecessors have accidentally emulated since, but without the same success. He conceded 24 goals in 40 games to Gary Bailey's 38 for second-placed Manchester United in 1987-88.

Australian speed merchant Johnston arrived at Anfield straight from the harsh tutelage of Jack Charlton at Middlesbrough, not Bondi, although he nearly returned there after the big Geordie told him he was the worst player he had ever seen in his first trial. He tricked his way back into Big Jack's good books and went on to cost Bob Paisley £650,000.

Former Holland international Metgod was making a rare appearance in his single season with Spurs. Once another inspired Brian Clough signing from Real Madrid and an inspiration to balding midfield generals everywhere with his dynamic performances at Nottingham Forest, he was seeing out time before heading back to his homeland to join Feyenoord.

The rest were made up of the Home Nations and Ireland.

Paul Walsh played for Liverpool in November and lined out for Spurs in the spring, following a £500,000 move. "I remember coming back to Anfield," he said later. "It was the day Liverpool won the title. I didn't come out for the warm-up but when we came out on to the pitch I got a fantastic reception from the Kop. They were singing my name and it left me a bit emotional and I will never forget that."

In that earlier game at White Hart Lane, which Liverpool won 2-0, there were several Irishmen on show too, making life easier for new manager Jack Charlton as he plotted Ireland's first ever finals qualification for Euro 88. Chris Hughton was the only non-Englishman in the Spurs side, although little-known Irishman Tim O'Shea came off the bench, as did Belgian Nico Claesen. It was O'Shea's third and final appearance for the club.

Like Hughton, Mark Lawrenson and Ronnie Whelan were injured for the return at Anfield five months later, much to Charlton's chagrin. Liverpool, who were to welcome Welsh striker Ian Rush back from Juventus the following summer, fielded three Scots in both games, and player-manager Dalglish and future Ireland coach Kevin MacDonald made substitute appearances in the second game. They had three English players to Spurs' ten.

Mark Lawrenson was one of the four Irishmen who played in Liverpool's 2-0 victory at White Hart Lane in November 1987. Liverpool were top at the beginning and end of the afternoon and would stay there for the rest of the season. Spurs were 13th and also finished in that position.

Earlier that week, Lawrenson had played in what would be the last of his 39 games for Ireland. The elegant defender, who would have been such a useful and greatly experienced utility player for Charlton, suffered an Achilles injury which ultimately ended his career later that season. He was missing at Anfield but still played enough games to earn the last of his five league medals with Liverpool.

The discrepancy in nationalities over three decades in the two teams playing at Anfield today of course comes as no surprise to the 60-year-old BBC pundit. The Premier League's emergence as football's superior destination for the world's best, and average, has pushed Irish players down the leagues, he says. But opportunities have diminished at youth level at the bigger English clubs too, which finally moved the FAI into adopting a more hands-on approach to home-bred young players and keeping them in Ireland for longer.

"I did quite a lot of youth games for LFC TV and you never hear any of the teams talking about some kid they've found from Dublin or Cork," says Lawrenson.

"It is very difficult for young Irish lads to get into academies now. The big teams look at them and if they don't think they are quite good enough, they won't take a gamble on them because they can find a way to get the pick of young lads from across the world now.

"The route now seems to be through the Championship or the lower leagues because that is where they will play some football, gain experience and we'll discover if they are good enough.

"Most teams have one or two but at Preston North End we've got six Irish lads who are doing well and developing and gaining experience. They're there, let's face it, mainly because they have potential, but they're cheap as chips and we can sell them on at a profit, which is great for Preston, not so great for the Irish league clubs, although there will be add-ons, hopefully.

"I am a firm believer that it goes in cycles, like systems. [Antonio] Conte wins the league with three at the back, suddenly everyone is trying it. The game goes through a phase of finding players from different places. If young players are good enough and hungry enough nowadays, no matter where they come from, they will go against that and show that they have something."

Tim O'Shea never played for Tottenham again after his 17 minutes as the injured Neil Ruddock's replacement at White Hart Lane against the champions-elect. Ruddock was wiped out by Gary Gillespie and O'Shea was thrown to the wolves.

It was Venables' first game in charge of a Tottenham side in major need of surgery and rocked by the shock departure of Pleat following a dalliance in a red light district and an appalling run of results.

O'Shea had made two appearances under Pleat, including one league start, and only injuries forced Venables to name the Pimlico-born defender on the bench with striker Claesen as Spurs, down to 10 men following Steve Hodge's dismissal, were all over the place. Johnston added to Steve McMahon's opener after O'Shea's introduction and Liverpool won comfortably.

O'Shea, who was a member of the Republic of Ireland's 1985 World Youth Championship squad under Brian Kerr, started his English career with Niall Quinn at Arsenal before moving across north London in 1983. He went on to win two Ireland under 21 caps.

He joined Leyton Orient in the summer of 1988 and made just nine appearances there before moving to Gillingham, where he played more than 100 games. He played in Hong Kong for seven years before five seasons of non-league with Farnborough Town and Welling United.

Ten years ago, O'Shea, now 51, had his first stint at management with Grays Athletic before an ill-fated time with Croydon Athletic which led to the club folding following revelations that the club's owner, Mazhar Majeed, was involved in spot fixing in cricket matches involving Pakistan.

O'Shea returned briefly at Lewes in 2011 but apart from an appearance in a Spurs legends side for a charity game in Letchworth, alongside Tony Galvin and Chris Waddle, he does not appear to have been in notable football circles since, although he made an unsuccessful bid to buy Farnborough Town in 2013.


November 1987 at White Hart Lane, Spurs 0 Liverpool 2, Spurs: Parks, Hughton (Claesen), Thomas, Ruddock (O'Shea), Fairclough, Mabbutt, C Allen, P Allen, Waddle, Hodge, Stevens. Liverpool: Grobbelaar, Gillespie (Spackman), Lawrenson, Nicol, Whelan, Hansen, Walsh (Johnston), Aldridge, Houghton, Barnes, McMahon.

April 1988 at Anfield, Liverpool 1 Spurs 0, Liverpool: Grobbelaar, Gillespie, Ablett, Nicol, Spackman, Hansen, Beardsley, Aldridge, Houghton, Johnston, McMahon. Spurs: Mimms, Statham, Thomas, Metgod (C Allen), Fairclough, Mabbutt, Walsh, P Allen, Waddle, Samways, Hodge.

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