Big Jack’s Army

on June 27 | by

In the latest look back on historic moments in Irish football, Noel Spillane remembers the 1988 European Championships and the Republic of Ireland’s first major tournament.


Flashback by Noel Spillane (Evening Echo)


It’s rare that one man can inspire a nation and unite them in sporting passion and pride. It’s even more unusual when an Englishman can do it for the Republic of Ireland.

But when big Jack Charlton took over the reins of the national football team in early 1986 he did just that – and far more. He qualified Ireland for their first major tournament at Euro ’88 in Germany and then followed that up with even more outrageous success at ‘Italia Noventa’ and, four years later, at USA ’94 – two World Cup finals appearances back to back.

Big Jack was a World Cup winner with England at Wembley in 1966 and voted the English Football Writers’ Player of the Year in ’67, yet he took everything with Ireland in his stride in what turned out to a truly glorious decade that is unlikely to be repeated anything soon.

The man inspired by Don Revie was his own man with a strong yet endearing personality and by his own admission he was ‘not always right, but never wrong’. It took a phone call from the FAI’s Des Casey to set the ball in motion and while Jack got a mere three votes in the first ballot (won by former Liverpool boss Bob Paisley) amongst FAI board members, the second ballot had Jack in the job by a margin of 10-8 and the rest is history.

We have ex-Hearts midfielder Gary Mackay to thank as well for getting us to Euro ’88 as it was his golden goal against Bulgaria in Sofia for Scotland that sealed our place. I remember ringing Jack at his home in Ashington, near Newcastle in England, to relate the news and he thought it was a ball hop.

Irish football was never the same again after that night in Sofia, where Bulgaria rarely if ever lost a home game. They hadn’t been beaten there for five years up to that memorable goal. So thank you Mr Mackay for your strike.

It was then onto the European Championships, where we were pitted against England in Stuttgart, the then USSR in Hannover, and the Netherlands in Gelsenkirchen; we were based at Marl for the Dutch match with a place in the semi-finals up for grabs.

Ray Houghton’s first international goal against England on June 12 in the Neckar Stadion (since totally revamped) caused bedlam at home and abroad and when Ronnie Whelan’s shin gained us a 1-1 draw with the mighty USSR, we were on our way to a third big game in a week against the tournament’s hot favourites, the Netherlands.

It was the signal for my long-time Dutch pal, Jan van der Ham, to hit the road and head for the Irish base camp. It all came down to Wim Kieft’s late mis-hit goal from a Ronald Koeman mis-hit further up the pitch. But the ball seemed to change direction when it bounced past Packie Bonner’s finger-tips and suddenly the stadium was a sea of orange.

The Irish and the Dutch have a special football bond since Euro ’88 that was strengthened and expanded at the World Cup finals in both Italy and the United States. But in Gelsenkirchen, we were eight minutes away from making the semi-finals and the funny thing was the FAI hadn’t budgeted getting to the last four or being away in Germany for so long.

Big Jack was a national hero on the team’s return home and to see the Dutch beat the USSR in the final only heightened our expectations for the 1990 World Cup in Italy. Jack started off on a country-wide tour of after-dinner speaking engagements, fishing trips and cutting the tapes to a variety of enterprises.

He was speaking at the old Capitol cinema in Cork on one occasion and I picked him up in my old ’96 reg Mazda 323 coupe – the one with the excruciatingly low seats. Well you’d want to see the lanky, six-foot plus Ireland manager there in the passenger seat all crammed up and his knees almost touching the roof. And when we pulled up outside the cinema that quiet Sunday morning, he couldn’t get out of the car.

‘Why the feck don’t you feck off and buy yourself a decent bloody car before I come back to Cork,’ he growled as he flatly declined my invitation of a lift back up to the airport.

Another memory from that time with Jack happened in the Irish dressing room at the Olympic Stadium in Rome after Italy and Salvatore ‘Toto’ Schillaci’s goal ended our World Cup dream. Gloom and depression hung in the air when the late Charlie Haughney darkened the dressing room door and he addressed the players and tried to console them.

‘Who the feck is he then?’ Tony Cascarino asked of fellow striker Niall Quinn.

Quinny replied: ‘It’s the Taoiseach…now shut up and listen.’

With that Andy Townsend asked big Cas the same question and the reply came back: ‘Quinny says he owns a tea shop’.





Check out previous Flashbacks from SWAI members…
Gareth Maher on Ireland Under 19’s reaching the European semi-finals
Noel Spillane on Brian Kerr’s youngsters at the FIFA World Youth Cup
Arthur Duffy on Derry City’s memorable UEFA Cup run
Philip Quinn on the night Ireland qualified for Italia ’90



*Image courtesy of Sportsfile

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