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Remembering Ireland's long pursuit of one of the Premier League's leading strikers

25 years ago, considerable efforts were being made to get Chris Armstrong into a green shirt.

chris armstrong (3)

FOR THOSE WHO have managed to retain vivid memories of Premier League football from the 1990s, the struggle to cling to the last morsels of youth won’t be aided by learning that Chris Armstrong turns 50 this month.

Best known for his time at Tottenham Hotspur, Armstrong’s most productive season for the club was his first. He was in elite company in 1995-96, with his tally of 15 Premier League goals bettered only by Alan Shearer, Robbie Fowler, Les Ferdinand, Dwight Yorke and Teddy Sheringham.

It was at Crystal Palace where Armstrong initially made his name as a goalscorer of top-flight renown. A three-year spell at Selhurst Park began in 1992, when one of Mick McCarthy’s first acts as Millwall manager was to reluctantly accept a £1million bid for the 21-year-old striker.

Four years later, securing Armstrong’s services was near the top of McCarthy’s agenda following his appointment as successor to Jack Charlton in the Republic of Ireland job.

In the first squad of the McCarthy era, 29-year-old Niall Quinn was the youngest of the four strikers selected. Tommy Coyne and Tony Cascarino were both 33, while 37-year-old John Aldridge was in the deep winter of his career.

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The early chapters of McCarthy’s reign accentuated Ireland’s need for fresh options in attack. In their failure to find the net during defeats to Russia, Czech Republic and Portugal, the Boys in Green extended their run of games without a win – or even a goal – to five.

“Everybody agrees that we need new strikers,” said McCarthy, as he explained his decision to hand debuts to Watford’s David Connolly and Keith O’Neill of Norwich City in the 1-0 loss to the Portuguese at Lansdowne Road. 

Aged 18 and 20 respectively, McCarthy reckoned the young duo had potential to be harvested for the future. With the beginning of a World Cup qualification campaign on the horizon, Ireland needed a proven goalscorer for the present.  

“If Chris Armstrong is eligible to play for us, he’s obviously one of the players I want to consider,” McCarthy had said after his unveiling in February 1996.

mick-mccarthy Mick McCarthy in the Ireland dug-out before his first game as manager – a March 1996 friendly against Russia. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“We need new, young players – there’s no doubt about that. We want to be able to compete again with the top nations, like we did over most of the last 10 years. I intend to be actively involved in looking at all new players that could be available to us.”

McCarthy made the pursuit of Armstrong a priority, but it was his predecessor who set the wheels in motion 12 months earlier. Having a nose for Irish ancestry in useful players who had yet to pledge their allegiance elsewhere was a major contributor to Jack Charlton’s unprecedented success.

After attempts to snare Stan Collymore, Dean Holdsworth, Mark Stein and Ashley Ward quickly came to nothing, Charlton turned his attention to Armstrong. The first hint of Irish blood in the veins of the Crystal Palace star came in February 1995, as Ireland were preparing for an infamous and ill-fated game against England in Dublin. 

“We have known about the possibility of Armstrong being eligible for the Republic for some 18 months. Unfortunately there have been problems ascertaining his background and birth certificates,” Charlton said of his latest plan to use ‘The Granny Rule’ to his advantage.

“I am not entirely happy that news of Armstrong’s possibility as being eligible for Ireland is coming out at the moment. England will probably go and attempt to have him qualified for them, but we will just have to wait and see.

“Our biggest need now is for quality front players. We are not breaking the rules – just using them.”

Ireland weren’t the first nation to attempt to open the door to international football for Armstrong. Bobby Gould failed to have him declare for Wales, before he rebuffed an opportunity to play for Nigeria – from where his mother hailed – at the World Cup. 

For the African Cup of Nations that took place a couple of months prior to USA 94, Armstrong was named in the Super Eagles squad by head coach Clemens Westerhof. However, the invitation to play alongside the likes of Sunday Oliseh, Finidi George and Jay-Jay Okocha was politely declined.

Expressing a preference for representing the country of his birth, Armstrong said: “Everyone wants to play for England and I’m no exception.”

PA-152115 (1) Chris Armstrong celebrates after his FA Cup semi-final goal against Manchester United in April 1995. Source: Laurence Griffiths/EMPICS Sport

While Nigeria were preparing to face Diego Maradona, Hristo Stoichkov and Roberto Baggio at the World Cup, Armstrong moved a step closer to an England cap in May 1994 by coming off the bench to replace Chris Sutton in a ‘B’ fixture against Northern Ireland.

Nevertheless, Jack Charlton and the Football Association of Ireland weren’t deterred. Until he played for the England senior side, Armstrong remained a free agent on the international market. 

“I am satisfied that Chris Armstrong is eligible to play for us and I understand from his club that the player is anxious to join us,” said Ireland assistant manager Maurice Setters.

Born in Newcastle, Armstrong spent most of his childhood in Wales after being adopted by a couple from Wrexham. Although aware of his mother’s Nigerian roots, he was less acquainted with the background of his estranged father, with the ambiguity described as “a sensitive issue” by FAI chief executive Sean Connolly.

Initial reports in several newspapers suggested that the connection to Ireland stemmed from his paternal grandparents, while others claimed that Armstrong’s father was indeed Irish-born.

When news of Ireland’s interest in Armstrong first emerged, he was preparing for an FA Cup fifth-round tie against Watford, whose manager Glenn Roeder tipped the Crystal Palace striker to earn full international honours with England.

“Armstrong is a player with enough ability to play for his country one day,” Roeder said, “although I see Jack Charlton might want him to play for another one instead.” 

A few weeks later, Charlton was working as a panellist on ITV’s coverage of Crystal Palace’s Coca-Cola Cup semi-final against Liverpool. Armstrong was absent as he served a four-match ban for smoking cannabis, but the Ireland manager did use the opportunity to liaise with Palace boss Alan Smith.

“Jack wants Chris to play for Ireland and I will be discussing the matter with the lad in the next couple of days,” Smith told the press after his side’s 1-0 defeat.

soccer Armstrong on duty with the England 'B' team. Source: EMPICS Sport

When Ray Houghton completed a transfer to Palace from Aston Villa, Maurice Setters was keen for the veteran Ireland midfielder to broach the topic with his new team-mate.

“It’s a good move for Ray and I’m certain he will be having a chat with Chris Armstrong as soon as he gets settled in at Selhurst Park,” Charlton’s right-hand man said.

While the story played out in the media, no one was more surprised than Armstrong to learn that Ireland could provide him with another avenue into international football.

In May 1995, as Palace sought to put one last heave behind their bid to stave off relegation from the Premier League, he finally spoke publicly about the Ireland links.

“I keep reading that I qualify to play for the Republic but I haven’t a clue how,” he said. “I have thought long and hard about the situation but I’ll leave any decision I make until my club football is out of the way. Crystal Palace need my undivided attention because of the position we’re in and they will get it.”

The South London club’s relegation was confirmed on the final day of the 1994-95 season. Armstrong and Houghton both scored at St James’ Park, but a 3-2 defeat to Newcastle United sent Palace back to the First Division.

As the Ireland squad assembled a fortnight later for a double-header of European Championship qualifiers, Armstrong arrived in Dublin – not to link up with the Boys in Green, but to play in Chris Hughton’s testimonial.

At Lansdowne Road, an Ireland side took on a Premier League XI that included players such as Armstrong, Ian Wright, John Barnes, Chris Waddle and Neville Southall.  

With Armstrong in town, the FAI went on a charm offensive spearheaded by treasurer Joe Delaney and former Ireland defender Kevin Moran. After the game, Armstrong told the press that he’d be in contact with the Irish set-up “in due course”, with the morning newspapers reporting that a commitment to Charlton’s side was imminent.

republic-of-ireland-training-in-liechtenstein-international-soccer Jack Charlton in discussions with Ireland captain Andy Townsend and assistant manager Maurice Setters. Source: EMPICS Sport

In the meantime, Big Jack’s search for a new goalscorer was expedited by the following weekend’s embarrassing 0-0 draw away to Liechtenstein.

During the summer of the 1995, Armstrong was also being courted at club level. Several Premier League sides were linked with a player who had already been the subject of a rejected bid from Newcastle United boss Kevin Keegan.

After Palace’s £4.5million valuation was met by Tottenham Hotspur and Everton, the chance to stay in London was favoured. Within 24 hours of Arsenal making Dennis Bergkamp the most expensive signing in their history, their bitter rivals broke their own transfer record to replace Bayern Munich-bound Jurgen Klinsmann with Chris Armstrong.  

“After meeting with the FAI and having spoken to Mr Charlton, I have certainly not been put off by the idea [of playing for Ireland],” Armstrong said when questioned about his international future at his unveiling as Spurs’ newest recruit. “When I make up my mind, Mr Charlton will be the first to know.”

As Tottenham’s opening game of the 1995-96 Premier League season against Manchester City loomed, murmurings in the media hinted that Armstrong was being coerced by his new club into spurning Ireland’s advances.

That appeared to tally with comments that were then made to the Evening Herald by Sean Connolly, as the FAI boss revealed that Armstrong had been in touch to advise that his search for an Irish family connection had yet to yield a positive result.

For Jack Charlton, that was the end of the matter. Having delayed announcing his squad for a vital game away to Austria in the hope that Armstrong’s eligibility might finally be authorised, the Ireland manager had run out of patience.

However, the man who replaced him – after Ireland’s hopes of reaching Euro 96 were ended by a play-off defeat to the Netherlands – wasn’t quite ready to throw in the towel.

“People have been telling me different stories about Chris Armstrong’s Irish qualifications; now I want to hear the true position from the man himself,” Mick McCarthy said in February 1996, as he outlined his plans to travel to White Hart Lane to speak to the Tottenham striker at their game against West Ham United.

PA-1010889 Armstrong with manager Gerry Francis after completing his move to Tottenham. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

“I think it’s time that the issue was put to bed. If Chris is qualified and wishes to pursue an international career, we will be delighted to bring him into the Irish squad. If he is ineligible, we should put the saga to bed. It is possibly upsetting other members of our squad and it can’t be doing Armstrong any good either.”

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Tottenham manager Gerry Francis reckoned that McCarthy was wasting his time, however, as he insisted: “Chris will soon be playing for England. He’s already played for the ‘B’ team and wants to play for the senior side.”

Despite an inauspicious start, Armstrong eventually found form for Tottenham. His performances strengthened McCarthy’s desire to confirm his eligibility, but they also shortened his odds as an outside bet for England’s squad for Euro 96.  

When he opened his Tottenham account to earn them a draw at Everton, it was the first of four goals he scored in the space of five games. The most significant of those was a brilliant winning strike against Arsenal in the North London derby.

For the 24-year-old, the highlight of the campaign came on New Year’s Day. Although Manchester United went on to be crowned champions, their biggest setback en route to the title was dealt by Tottenham, for whom Armstrong scored twice in a 4-1 win.

A discussion was had with McCarthy after the West Ham game, but the new Ireland boss was no closer to discovering if he could call upon one of the Premier League’s leading strikers.

“He’s still got an open mind on whether it’s England or the Republic,” said McCarthy. “The thing is we still have to prove he qualifies.” 

By late March, the likelihood of seeing Armstrong in a green shirt appeared to increase, as McCarthy – speaking after his first game in charge ended in a 2-0 defeat to Russia – promised a conclusion to the episode “within the next week”. 

Irish newspapers then carried quotes from a Tottenham source, who said: “Chris will declare for Ireland very shortly. That’s the word within the club. He’s had a good think about it and the documentation is almost ready.”

Detecting an opportunity to generate publicity from the story, Harp brought Armstrong to Dublin, signing up a potential Irish import to advertise their Export Lager. 

wimbledon-v-tottenham-hotspur-1995 Armstrong is tackled by Wimbledon's Kenny Cunningham. Source: PA

“The problem is that no one seems to be able to sort out whether I am qualified to play for the Republic or not under the current Fifa laws,” he told a gathering of journalists at the promotional event, held at Lansdowne Road.

“Kevin Moran and Joe Delaney were the first people to speak to me officially about the possibility after the Chris Hughton testimonial, but we have made no further progress.

“It’s still all up in the air. I am just waiting to hear from the FAI about my future, then I can sit down and seriously study all the options.”

For the European Championship held on home soil, the four strikers selected in the England squad – Shearer, Fowler, Ferdinand and Sheringham – had amassed 100 goals between them in the 1995-96 Premier League season. Armstrong was the highest-scoring English player during the campaign to miss out.

His omission may have been interpreted as a boost to Mick McCarthy, but the Ireland manager was soon resigned to defeat in his efforts to unearth Armstrong’s qualifications.

“I am satisfied that he is not eligible to play for the Republic of Ireland now,” he said. “Neither of his parents, nor his grandparents, were born in Ireland and he cannot hold an Irish passport either.  

“We did a thorough job in checking into his background and actually made several enquiries abroad as well to try and prove his Irishness. But we got nowhere and that’s where the matter lies now. We have given up on Chris at this stage.”

Well over a year after it began, the pursuit of Armstrong finally reached a dead end. Moreover, even if an Irish connection existed, the terms of his Tottenham contract would have prevented it from being utilised, as Gerry Francis later confirmed.

Although it was abolished after the Bosman case, the rule that prohibited clubs from fielding more than three foreign players in European competitions was still in place when Armstrong made the move from Crystal Palace to Spurs.

“When Chris became our record signing we felt it was a very important clause to put in his contract that he could only play for England, not Ireland,” Francis said. “If we had qualified for Europe we would have been restricted at that time to the number of non-English players we could use.”

For Armstrong, an England call-up came three years later. With Michael Owen, Robbie Fowler and Chris Sutton unavailable, he was summoned by Kevin Keegan for a Euro 2000 qualifier but remained an unused substitute as a Paul Scholes hat-trick sealed a 3-1 win against Poland. 

england-training-bisham-abbey Armstrong training with England at Wembley in March 1999. Source: EMPICS Sport

After abandoning any hope of capping the Tottenham striker, Mick McCarthy had to make do with what we had. Keith O’Neill scored the first goal of his tenure in a 2-2 draw with Croatia, David Connolly hit a hat-trick against Liechtenstein, and Tony Cascarino showed that he still had plenty to offer by scoring seven goals in the World Cup qualifiers.

During that campaign, however, the hankering for a clinical finisher surfaced again amid goalless draws at home to Iceland and Lithuania.

A play-off defeat to Belgium ultimately denied his side a place at France 98, but fortunately for McCarthy, a 17-year-old Dubliner in Wolverhampton was already laying the foundations to become the greatest goalscorer in the history of Irish football.

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Paul Dollery

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