INPHO/Billy Stickland John Aldridge emphatically celebrates Vitor Baia's own-goal that gave Ireland a 1-0 win over Portugal in April 1995. The result ensured Charlton's side took 13 points from their first five games of qualification for Euro '96.
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Goodnight, Vienna: How Austria cost Ireland Euro ’96 qualification
Back in 1995, Ireland looked in great shape to qualify automatically for Euro ’96. But then, successive defeats to Austria put paid to those hopes.

AFTER FIVE GAMES, qualification for Euro ’96 looked assured. Jack Charlton’s side, still buzzing from reaching the knock-out stages of another World Cup, had taken 13 points from a possible 15.

The usual minnows, Latvia and Liechtenstein, were easily dispatched. A tricky trip to Belfast was navigated in uproarious style with the visitors romping to a 4-0 win. Portugal, their ‘Golden Generation’ in its pomp, left Lansdowne Road goalless and pointless.

On the horizon, a visit to the Sportpark Eschen-Mauren and then home and away assignments against Austria. There was a genuine belief that this Irish team could go unbeaten for the rest of the campaign. And then, in the summer of 1995, the journey seemed to veer off course.

The scoreless draw in Vaduz has gone down in Irish football as the national team’s worst result in history. Liechtenstein, best known for lax tax rather than fancy footy, were making their competitive debut in the qualifiers. Inevitably, they were the group’s whipping boys, conceding 28 goals in their first five games.

There was a whimsical absurdity to the occasion — stadium groundsman/international goalkeeper Martin Heeb making a string of saves, a collection of fold-out chairs neatly arranged along the sideline that served as a dugout, Ireland’s 37 attempts on goal.

Charlton summed it up best by referring to the game as ‘90 minutes of madness’. Though the dropped points were a humiliation, the Irish side were still unbeaten. It would be the successive defeats to Austria that derailed the campaign.

YouTube: sp1873·

The Irish squad needed a pick-me-up and their antics ahead of the clash with Austria in Dublin eight days later have since gone down in Charlton-era folklore. Ronnie Whelan captained the side in Liechtenstein and at Lansdowne.

“The preparation was absolutely atrocious. We were taken to Limerick for a few days. Jack went off to either look at a game or go fishing or whatever and left us unsupervised for three or four days and we took advantage. There was a lot of alcohol involved. We weren’t ready.”

An understatement. The night before the game, the Irish squad were taken to a Harry Ramsden’s on the Naas Road and tucked into a big fish dinner. Some of the squad attempted Harry’s Challenge — a mass of batter and chips, dessert complimentary. Half an hour later, the group was in Lansdowne for a final training session.

Ray Houghton missed the trip to Vaduz through injury but returned for the Austrian game, scoring the opener after 67 minutes.

“It was June. We had a long, hard campaign. Having had so many attempts against Liechtenstein and not scoring, it did put a dampener on things.

“The Austrian game had 0-0 written all over it. Neither team looked like they were going to do anything probably because we were both jaded from the season. But in the end, the 3-1 scoreline didn’t really flatter them — they were that much better in the last half an hour of the match.”

Taking the lead with 20 minutes to go, Ireland should’ve been energised. Instead, they faded. Fast. Within three minutes, Austria were level. Within 15, they were 3-1 up.

The powerful, pony-tailed poacher, Toni Polster, inspiring his side with a brilliant free-kick and later, a thumping header from close-range. Ireland were ragged, lifeless and in trouble.

YouTube: sp1873·

According to Houghton, the squad needed fine-tuning with younger players given more first-team opportunities.

“We were an ageing team. Back in ’95, I would’ve been 33. There were a couple of us around the same age. There was a feeling that we needed some younger players to freshen things up and give everyone a kick-start”.

Beginning of the end

In September, Ireland headed to Vienna for the return fixture. Charlton decided to pack midfield — the returning Keane and Townsend assisted by John Sheridan. He also took some advice and gave youth its chance — 19-year-old left winger Mark Kennedy was handed a debut.

But the visitors were stunned inside three minutes — a quick counter-attack, a cross from the right, a Peter Stoger special.

Austria’s energy and urgency had cut Ireland to shreds. They grabbed a second with 25 minutes to go. Another blistering break, Stoger in behind Gary Kelly, across the area, inside Kernaghan, a delicate finish.

Charlton responded typically. Houghton off, Cascarino on. Go long. Though Paul McGrath’s header gave Ireland hope, they conceded a third just three minutes later — Stoger having one of those games, drilling a well-controlled half volley to the bottom corner. Goodnight, Vienna. It was over.

“When you look back now, those results were the beginning of the end,” Houghton added.

“You could sense something wasn’t right. Whether Jack was fully in control, like the way he was before, is up for discussion.”

There was an inevitable end, the side limping over the finish line. A 2-1 win at home to Latvia fooled no-one.

An ominous-looking trip to Lisbon would wrap up the group stage and Ireland’s participation in a play-off was now in jeopardy.

That night, in what’s now the Estadio da Luz, a jaded Irish side gamely held on for the opening half before succumbing.

The mercurial Rui Costa grabbed a sublime opening goal on the hour mark, Helder added a second with 15 minutes left with soon-to-be Celtic star Jorge Cadete scoring the third.

Having withstood a barrage of body shots, Ireland now clung desperately to the ropes. The knock-out wasn’t far away.

“We still went on to make the play-offs so we couldn’t have been that bad but I think that was the turning point because from then on, we ended up getting through against Holland in the November and we got well turned over against them.

“June through to November — that was when everything went the wrong way as far as we were concerned.”

YouTube: sp1873·

The final Group 6 table showed both the Republic and Northern Ireland finishing on 17 points. But Charlton’s side had the better head-to-head record so were through.

Their punishment was already decided. A play-off against Guus Hiddink’s Holland set for Anfield in December.

With their starting XI featuring eight of Ajax’s Champions League-winning side from the previous May, the Dutch represented the antithesis of Charlton’s Ireland.

Free-flowing, clever, quick, fresh, they had been pipped to top spot in qualifying by a Czech Republic side who’d go all the way to the Euro ’96 final.

The Irish team, by way of contrast,  had two full-backs playing in wide midfield and an attacking partnership of 37-year-old John Aldridge and 33-year-old Tony Cascarino.

“It wasn’t working anymore. We didn’t have anywhere to go — there was no other way Jack would’ve played international football,” Houghton added.

Holland enjoyed themselves that night, toying with the Irish, effortlessly creating chances.

Denis Bergkamp had already smacked the upright before they finally took the lead, a goal perfectly showcasing the gap between the sides.

Ireland, huffing and puffing, cheaply surrendered possession in midfield. Clarence Seedorf dropped back in the pocket before guiding a superb through ball for Davids to run on to. The touch inside for Kluivert, the expert finish. Masterful.

The TV cameras picked up Charlton on the touchline. In his flat-cap and coat, he looked tired. The players were tired. This was the end. There was to be no miracle finale, no great gusto, no fightback.

Instead, Ireland fans began to sing…‘When you walk through a storm/Hold your head up high/And don’t be afraid of the dark…’

Youtube: GloryOfOranje

A version of this article was originally published in September 2013.

‘I suppose the plus was he didn’t get injured on our watch’

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