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The last time Ireland played Belgium it ended in very controversial circumstances

There was yet more play-off heartache for Ireland in 1997.

Ireland's play-off with Belgium  ended in controversial circumstances.
Ireland's play-off with Belgium ended in controversial circumstances.
Image: © INPHO/Billy Stickland

FOR IRISH FANS old enough to remember the 1998 World Cup play-off against Belgium, the name of referee Gunter Benko is as synonymous with play-off heartache as Swedish referee Martin Hansson, who failed to spot Thierry Henry’s handball in 2009.

It’s nearly 19 years since Ireland last faced the Belgians, as Ireland entered a new post-Jack Charlton era.

In early 1996, former national team captain Mick McCarthy was hired as Ireland’s new manager, replacing Charlton, after the nation’s most successful manager resigned from his post when Ireland lost to the Netherlands in the play-offs for Euro ’96.

McCarthy, who managed Millwall for four years prior to taking the Ireland job, had a difficult task in qualifying for the World Cup with a host of players such as Denis Irwin, Andy Townsend, Ray Houghton, Tony Cascarino and David Kelly all the wrong side of 30 at the start of the campaign.

Although the friendlies prior to qualifying didn’t go to plan for McCarthy, and the side in a transitional phase, Ireland still went into the qualifying campaign with hopes high of qualifying for France after the Boys in Green were drawn in a group with Romania, Lithuania, Macedonia, Iceland and Liechtenstein.

But it was far from plain sailing for Ireland. It never is.

Easy victories over Liechtenstein were mixed with disappointing home goalless draws with Iceland and Lithuania while away defeats to Macedonia and Romania left the Irish on the verge of elimination.

But Ireland finished the campaign strongly with away wins at Iceland and Lithuania and a home draw to Romania to edge out the Lithuanians by a single point in second place, but a massive 10 points behind automatic qualifiers Romania.

Second place meant Ireland were relying on their first victory in a play-off to make it to the World Cup. Previously, Ireland lost to Spain in Paris in 1965 and then to the Dutch in Liverpool just two years prior to the play-off against Belgium. But for the first time Ireland were to compete in a two-legged tie, with home and away fixtures.

Ireland went into the first-leg against Belgium at Lansdowne Road in October 1997 without Manchester United midfielder Roy Keane who missed the two games through injury, but it was his club teammate Denis Irwin that gave Ireland an early lead with a superb right-footed free-kick, in what was only his second goal for his country.

Current Belgium manager Marc Wilmots started in midfield for the Belgians, but it was Luuc Nilis, who had his career ended prematurely when he suffered a broken leg for Aston Villa against Ipswich Town in 2000, that drew the Belgians level with a superb individual goal after some lax defending from Ireland. The away goal meant it was advantage Belgium.

Source: sp1873/YouTube

First-leg starting teams:

Ireland: Shay Given, Gary Kelly, Kenny Cunningham, Steve Staunton, Ian Harte, Denis Irwin, Ray Houghton, Andy Townsend,  Mark Kennedy, David Connolly, Tony Cascarino.

Belgium: Filip De Wilde, Regis Genaux, Michael Verstraeten,  Eric Van Meir, Gordan Vidovic, Franky Van der Elst, Marc Wilmots, Danny Boffin, Nico Van Kerckhoven, Luc Nilis, Michael Goossens.

Nilis’ goal in Dublin meant that Ireland travelled to Heysel knowing that they must score to stand any chance of qualifying. McCarthy made three changes to the Irish side with Jeff Kenna, Alan McLoughlin and Lee Carsley coming into the starting XI.

However, it was The Red Devils that got the first goal as Brazil-born striker Luis Oliveira skipped by the onrushing Shay Given to coolly give Belgium the lead on the night and an aggregate.

Although Ireland were down, they were not yet out.

Ray Houghton, who has scored two of Ireland’s most famous goals – against England in Euro ’88 and against Italy in USA ’94, came off the bench to pop up one more time for Ireland to pull his side level with a perfectly-placed header from an Andy Townsend cross.

But as is the case with Ireland in play-offs, controversy is never too far away.

With 20 minutes remaining and the two sides level on aggregate, referee Benko incorrectly over-ruled his assistant to award Belgium a throw-in deep in the Irish half.

With Ireland caught off guard, Nilis latched onto the end of a Belgium cross to send Belgium to the World Cup and to leave Ireland to rue the controversial decision of the officials (the referee overruling his linesman is not included in the YouTube highlights).

David Connolly was later sent off to round off a miserable night for Mick McCarthy’s men.

Source: 1986soccerman/YouTube

Second-leg starting teams:

Belgium: Filip De Wilde, Eric Deflandre,  Michael Verstraeten, Glen De Boeck, Gordan Vidovic,  Gert Verheyen,  Franky Van der Elst, Gert Claessens, Danny Boffin, Luis Oliveira, Luc Nilis.

Ireland: Shay Given, Gary Kelly, Jeff Kenna, Kenny Cunningham, Steve Staunton, Ian Harte, Lee Carsley, Andy Townsend,  Mark Kennedy, Alan McLoughlin, Tony Cascarino.

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About the author:

Shane Costello

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