Sport Soccer

Monday 19 March 2018

The sublime and the ridiculous moments of Ireland’s journeys across the pond

From errant barflies to sunburned hotheads and souring relationships

Ray Houghton shone brightest in New York with his match-winner against Italy in 1994
Ray Houghton shone brightest in New York with his match-winner against Italy in 1994
David Kelly

David Kelly

It is the land of opportunity. For the Ireland football team, the United States of America has housed hope and disappointment, joy and despair, often on the same afternoon.

It is the land of opportunity. For the Ireland football team, the United States of America has housed hope and disappointment, joy and despair, often on the same afternoon.

A soccer relationship that ostensibly began merely to fill a few empty weeks of nothingness in 1991 soon culminated in an extraordinary consummation of global belonging at a second World Cup appearance three years later.

In the 22 years since then, Ireland have travelled as regularly as has been feasible to reawaken the ties that bind so many thousands of Irish emigrants to their home country from Boston or the Bronx, New Jersey or New York City.

It has spawned legendary feats like Houghton's looping volley and McGrath's remorseless defence and given birth to the 'Three Amigos' of Kelly, Babb and McAteer.

Yet even when the football hasn't been of primary interest, there has been enough off the field to fuel even more legends, not all of them mirthful for here, indeed, were sown the seeds of a generation of enmity between McCarthy and Keane.

Like many Irish tales, it all started, as Frank Gillespie recalls in any event, with a drink.

After Ireland arrived for their inaugural 1991 US Cup in Boston, irrepressible Tyrrellspass publican Gillespie had collared Jack Charlton at Logan Airport and shoved a handful of business cards in the Irish manager's hands.

On the first evening, nobody darkened his door. On the second evening, ditto.

On the third evening, Kevin Moran pushed the door open and pulled a bar stool from the counter and perched atop it. "Well, I promised you that I would come down for a pint."

From that day forth, Irish players would spill in and out of Stateside bars, so too some of the most astonishing tales of Irish sporting endeavour on the field and outlandish behaviour off it.

In a Giants Stadium of green, Roberto Baggio turned to Italy strike partner Beppe Signori as they emerged from the Giants Stadium tunnel. "Where are our supporters?" asked the ponytailed one. It would not be the first time he would express utter befuddlement at the pluck of the Irish.

For the opening game of their second World Cup, Ireland had been allocated officially 8,000 of the 71,000 seats. In this, their third major tournament in six years, the FAI were now dab hands at the loaves and fishes racket of procuring extra tickets.

Ultimately, more than 30,000 green-clad folk from all corners of the globe thronged the stadium, cheering to the rafters Ray Houghton's early volleyed lead that Ireland desperately clung to for nigh on 80 minutes to record another famous tournament victory.

But the real hero for many was Paul McGrath; his hat-trick of rebuffs to frustrated Italians on the edge of his box now adorns the intros to any DVD explaining the art of tackling.

For us, the highlight was the interception moments before Houghton's goal, to stave off the speedy Signori, McGrath conceding three yards, a damaged shoulder and a decimated knee yet still managing to usher the ball safely into Packie Bonner's arms.

It was the perfect start to Ireland's World Cup adventure. Or, if you're Roy Keane, the day it ended.


The 1994 World Cup was dogged by concerns about humidity; fair-headed and pale-faced Steve Staunton began the tournament as a healthy specimen but all that remained of him at its end was a sweat-stained white baseball cap and a pool of perspiration.

Before Ireland travelled, FIFA had sent the FAI a letter outlining the procedure of water breaks at 15-minute intervals, indicating the severe dangers to players' health.

However, teams were forbidden to give water to players except in designated areas in front of the dugout.

Ironically, Tommy Coyne, Ireland's lone striker against Italy, was forced to drink so much water during a post-match drugs test that his kidneys were flooded and he was taken gravely ill.

Charlton's repeated haranguing of FIFA at daily press conferences forced a minor compromise: Ireland could throw water bags on to the baking Orlando pitch for the second game against Mexico, where the ground temperature was 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

Charlton further harassed officials into allowing Ireland to throw the water bags on from any area of the field; hence his son Peter and an FAI official went to the other side of the field near the Irish fans for emergency hydration relief. To compound the farce, Houghton would be booked by the referee for deigning to catch an offending waterbag.


That same Mexico game illustrated visibly that the onfield temperatures were little match for the combustible infernos that raged within the heat-addled Irish camp as the pressure reached boiling point.

With the tiring, ailing Irish 2-0 down in the broiling heat, Charlton attempted a double substitution.

But he was foiled by a pernickety busybody from FIFA who somehow managed to temporarily thieve kitman Charlie O'Leary's obligatory slip of paper destined for the fourth official.

As Aldridge, literally, turned the red hot air blue; "Ya f***in' cheat!" he intoned in venom-filled Scouse, the hapless Coyne removed himself to the dugout and Ireland temporarily toiled with 10 men.

Charlton was embroiled in a shoving match with the FIFA man, whose lurid costume of light blue suit and a yellow baseball cap that topped a cartoonish face rendered him akin to either an extra in a Coen Brothers movie or a 7-Eleven shelf-stacker.

"The bloody Egyptian!" – as per Charlton – would report to his superiors and ensure Charlton received a €15,000 fine and a touchline ban from the final group game.

Aldo would score a late header, and the one-goal deficit later ensured Ireland's passage into the second round, although their return to Orlando would end in a teary exit.


After Ireland beat Portugal 2-0 in the final game of the 1992 US Cup, a leisurely game of golf was arranged by some of the senior players to conclude the relatively gentle summer assignment, a tentative dry-run for USA 94.

A number of those senior players, including Kevin Moran, had craftily ascertained that conditions in the US in June were hardly co-existent with excessive exercise on the football field, never mind the golf course.

And hence the reluctant golfers retreated to the hostelry with the wish to detain themselves with merely one for the road. Little did Charlton know the road was Route 66.

As day wound into evening, FAI officials tried in vain to recruit the errant players to catch their Dublin-bound flight; their inevitably failed attempts forced Charlton's assistant Maurice Setters to take charge.

Charlton dropped Moran for the next two World Cup qualification squads but, when Mick McCarthy was forced to retire and Paul McGrath injured, the Dubliner was recalled after missing just one game to play Denmark.

Typically, he starred in an away draw and Moran won the battle.


For 2002, we must return to 1991. The scene? Where else, a bar. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the team bus is destined for Logan Airport but the bodies of Roy Keane and Steve Staunton are not on it.

Mick McCarthy, team captain and Charlton's proxy, is tasked with rounding up the boozing leftovers.

He packs their bags and guides the team bus to a familiar haunt en route to the airport. Keane sheepishly boards. Charlton is not amused and issues an expletive-filled tirade. Keane shoots a withering stare that would soon enrage and entrance millions in equal measure. "Why didn't you go without me? I didn't ask you to wait!"

McCarthy launches his own fusillade in defence of his manager and his team. "Go f*** yourself," Keane replies calmly. Packie Bonner intervenes to prevent the verbals becoming physicals.

On Thursday, May 23, 2002 in Saipan, that day in Boston would be recalled as Ireland's World Cup imploded. "A two-week p***-up," Keane called the US Cup. In this instance, its effects would last a football lifetime.


Yankee yarns wouldn't be complete without a Cascarino special. He scored on Ireland's first visit to the US in '91 with a cracking left-foot volley and with a cracking blonde three years later during the World Cup training camp in Orlando.

As the team rooms were securely off limits, Cascarino had to struggle his 'friend' to his room, which he thought he had done successfully until a police officer rapped on his door. "Seen anyone suspicious, sir?" asked the officer. Cascarino demurred.

But the next day, Charlton interrogated every member of his squad and uncovered nothing. Later, at training, Cascarino confessed and Charlton thundered a volley of expletives in his direction and, worryingly, towards a lingering group of Irish hacks.

"I should f***ing send you home," he trilled but, before the journalists could race for the phone boxes, he added, "Well, I hope she was f***ing worth it!"


Mick McCarthy returned to the US Cup as a manager in 1996 – Roy Keane, appointed captain before abandoning all contact, was attending cricket, among other things, as the fledgling fraught relationship between this pair maintained its unerring frostiness.

McCarthy's depleted side faced into the second game against Mexico on a run of five defeats in six matches under his watch and still seeking their first win, and the miserable sequence was extended thanks to some farcical refereeing.

Cuban referee Raul Dominguez sent off Liam Daish for time-wasting and also dismissed Niall Quinn, who had run from the substitutes' bench to protest at this decision.

Later, when McCarthy tossed a ball away from a Mexican player looking to play a free-kick, the referee also sent him off.

The manager's sending-off was later expunged and Dominguez was demoted from the list of referees at the competition.

But Dominguez had the final say, awarding a controversial late penalty to deny Ireland the victory.


Steve Staunton was clearly still suffering the effects of his 1994 sunstroke when, before the 2007 US Cup, he launched into Google and plucked a kid called Joey Lapira – Hermann Trophy winner, no less – from a university campus and handed him a cap against Ecuador.

Staunton, still struggling to convince in his impersonation of an international soccer manager, decided that allying himself with a player seeking to impersonate an international footballer might be a smart career move.

Like most turns of this former playing great turned managerial hack, it was a wrong 'un; Lapira didn't even get 15 minutes of fame as he only came on in the 1-1 draw for five minutes.

Last seen flogging himself around India (or Norway), if anyone summed up the America dream, it was Joey Lapira.

Irish Independent

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