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Friday 27 January 2023 Dublin: 0°C
John Anderson won 16 caps for Ireland between 1979 and 1988.
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'Jack knew I was knackered' - For one Ireland international, Euro '88 was the beginning of the end
John Anderson reflects on some of Irish football’s best days and his bittersweet memory of that period.

WHEN MOST IRELAND fans and players of the era look back 33 years ago to Euro ’88, euphoria is the overriding emotion that springs to mind, but for John Anderson, it was a bittersweet occasion.

The first major tournament the team reached under Jack Charlton is famously remembered as the time the Irish team won a game they should have lost, drew a game they should have won, and lost a game they should have drawn.

After a historic 1-0 victory over England and a creditable draw with the Soviet Union, the Boys in Green were eight minutes away from reaching the semi-finals before a fortuitous Wim Kieft goal led to Charlton’s side exiting the tournament in heartbreaking fashion.

The team were received as heroes regardless, with Ray Houghton’s winner against England still considered one of the most iconic goals in Irish sport to this day, while the squad under Charlton went on to achieve bigger and better things, most notably reaching the quarter-finals of the World Cup in 1990.

Anderson, however, did not play for Ireland again after 1988, nor did he feature in any of the games at the tournament.

The Dublin-born defender, who made over 300 appearances for Newcastle, had earned 16 caps and spent just under a decade playing with the team at that point.

The progress made by the Irish side in that period can partially be measured in microcosm by focusing on two matches they played against Brazil, with Anderson involved in both.

In May 1982, after narrowly and controversially missing out on qualification for that year’s World Cup, a depleted Ireland squad undertook a shambolic South American tour. It was organised just as the Falklands War was breaking out, and an originally scheduled match with Argentina had to be abandoned.

Then-manager Eoin Hand later told The Irish Times of how the team were perceived in England as “a laughing stock” owing to the decision to travel for this taxing end-of-season trip, with clubs including Man United, Liverpool and Arsenal refusing to release their Irish players.

Anderson did travel, though, and started as the Boys in Green suffered a humiliating 7-0 defeat in Brazil. Having done so well in the World Cup qualifiers, it was a reminder that Ireland still had a long way to go if they were to be considered a serious footballing nation.

The early momentum of the Hand era, which included victories over Holland and France, was gradually petering out, with qualification bids for Euro ’84 and the World Cup in ’86 falling frustratingly short.

Then, almost five years to the day since their previous encounter, Brazil and Ireland met again at Lansdowne Road. Anderson started once more, and by that point, the Charlton era was beginning to pick up steam, with a Liam Brady goal giving the hosts their first and still only win out of six attempts against the Brazilians.

It may have only been a friendly, but it was also a sign of how far the team had come and suggested they were well capable of competing with the top teams in the international game.

“They were an unbelievable side — Zico, Socrates, Junior, Falcao,” Anderson tells The42

“But that was one of the low points, losing so heavily to them [in '82] and then being part of the side that beat them in Lansdowne, revenge was a little bit sweet. I know it wasn’t a huge win, but to beat Brazil anytime is always nice.”

pedro nedved / YouTube

Anderson says a combination of Charlton’s influence and having better players available were key to the dramatic turnaround that, to some degree, paved the way for the highs of the Euros the following year.

“Jack coming in, he brought a togetherness. ‘Everybody is in it together, this is the way we’re going to do it. If you don’t want to do it this way, you’re not going to be part of it.’

“So everybody bought into it. Not straight away. It was tough at first, but then we started getting results. And at the end of the day, winning football matches is what it’s all about. And qualifying for ’88 was the catalyst for it really.

“Once you qualified for a major tournament, everybody jumped on board and went: ‘Woah, we’re doing something right.’

“And that was that. He had his own ways, he could be a little bit strange, Jack. But he knew what he wanted, and he knew how to get results, to be fair.”

Anderson is still an avid watcher of the current Irish team under Stephen Kenny and feels their approach should be more pragmatic, as the team so often were in the Charlton era.

“The squad of ’88 could [play attractive football], but Jack came in and said: ‘We’re not doing that. We’re going a little bit more direct. We’re going to press on because, in international football, they all think they’re players. They all want to play from the back, we’re not going to give them time.’ And international teams didn’t know what hit them when we played against them. It’s alright being tippy-tappy [and thinking] ‘we played some good stuff,’ but you’re losing football matches. Where are the green shoots if you’re losing games against the lesser sides in world football?

“When you come up against the top sides, they won’t give you a kick of the ball. And that’s a problem that we’ve [currently] got. Jack always had a plan to combat sides who were technically better than us, but I don’t see any plan to stop other sides from playing [now]. If you’re playing a side who are technically better than you and you let them play, 9/10 times, they’re going to beat you if you stand off and say: ‘We’re going to match you up and try to play against you.’”

frank-stapleton-john-anderson-and-paul-mcgrath Billy Stickland / INPHO Frank Stapleton, John Anderson and Paul McGrath at the Republic of Ireland European Championship Finals Squad Suit Fitting. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Aged 28 at the time, Anderson was one of 20 players to travel to West Germany as part of Ireland’s Euros squad. He did so against the odds, having suffered a serious ankle injury amid an end-of-season testimonial a couple of weeks prior to the tournament. And despite showing serious signs of struggle in a pre-tournament fitness test, he was given the nod.

“If I’m perfectly honest, I shouldn’t have gone,” he says. “I was never fit enough really, but it was what it was. But because of the occasion, you wanted to be part of it, enjoy it all and that was it.

“If I had have been younger, maybe [I would have pulled out]. But I suppose the sense of the occasion got to me as well. I was never 100% and Jack being Jack said: ‘If you say you’re fit and you want to come…’ That was it.

“Nowadays, there’s no way in the world I would have gone. I wouldn’t have passed anything. They’d have taken one look at the ankle and said ‘no chance’. But Jack being Jack [was satisfied].”

john-aldrige-john-byrne-paul-mcgrath-liam-obrien-liam-brady-and-john-anderson INPHO From left to right, John Aldridge, John Byrne, Paul McGrath, Liam O'Brien, Liam Brady and John Anderson celebrate after Brady's winning goal against Brazil. INPHO

Anderson was named on the bench for all three matches but didn’t play a minute of action. Did he ever worry about what might transpire had he been called upon?

“I was named on the bench, but there was never going to be an occasion where that was going to happen. I knew that and Jack knew that. He had other people there. There was never a real situation where I was going to be able to [play]. 

“Jack basically knew I was knackered, but he just named everybody on the bench.”

And was the experience enjoyable or frustrating, given that he was not directly involved in this unprecedented success?

“A little bit of both. The sense of the occasion and the atmosphere at the game and the colour of the occasion was brilliant. And part of you wanted to be playing and be part of it. Then there was another part of you that knew you were never going to be able to be. But being there alone was phenomenal. Everybody jumped on board because it was the first time we’d ever achieved anything like that.”

The fact that Ireland were minutes away from knocking out the eventual champions and qualifying for the semi-finals gives an indication of how strong the team were, despite being deprived of arguably their most gifted player, Liam Brady, who was both injured and serving a two-match suspension at the time. Does Anderson believe that, with a bit more luck, they could have won the tournament outright?

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“I don’t know whether we could have won it,” he says. “But we could have given it a great shot. A huge spin on the ball took it past Packie [for the Dutch winner].

“But it was brilliant. We gave it a go. For the first major tournament, we didn’t let anybody down.

“It would have been interesting to see if we could have held out, but I suppose it’s all hearsay, isn’t it? You can guess, though you’ll never know. But with the teams that were left in it, if we could have got through that extra 8-10 minutes, we would have given it a right go.”

Anderson did not officially retire from football until 1992, but he agrees when it is put to him that Euro ’88 and in particular that troublesome injury, was the beginning of the end. He did not play many matches at club level thereafter and would have five operations on the ankle before hanging up his boots.

“It was never really right,” he says. “And I probably knew at the time when I did the ankle initially that it was a bad one, hence, the reason that you wanted to go [to the Euros]. 

“I wouldn’t be able to train all the time, and if I was starting [in league games], it got to the stage where I was really struggling.”

anderson Anderson pictured playing in a Euro '88 qualifier.

With his career all but over as he entered into his 30s, Anderson believes he would have had a better chance of extending his time in the game had it been nowadays, given the array of advancements in sports science.

“The medical side, the way it is now, I don’t think there’s any doubt they would have [been better equipped to deal with it]. But back then, it was what it was. Many players would have played when they weren’t 100% fit. It was a totally different game.”

Yet the 61-year-old’s passion for football remains steadfast. After early stints at West Brom and Preston, in 1982, he joined Newcastle — the place he still calls home to this day, despite getting back to Dublin three to four times a year in pre-pandemic times.

“I would honestly say the Geordie people are the closest to the Irish in England that you’re ever going to get — a good sense of humour, friendly, they make you feel welcome.

“I was 15 when I went to West Brom and found it really difficult to settle. I had a couple of years at Preston, but Newcastle was unbelievable.

“I had 10 years [at the club as a player], it was great. I never expected that to happen

“Especially when you had the likes of Kevin Keegan, Chris Waddle, Peter Beardsley, Paul Gascoigne, phenomenal players 

“It’s not a huge city, but they’re very knowledgeable and love their football. They’ve got great pride in their team as well. And when it’s going well, it’s the best place in the world to play football, but when it’s not, it can be a little bit of a nightmare, really tough. They’re very passionate and they let their feelings be known, to be quite honest.”

And Anderson remains closely associated with the club to this day. He covers all their games for the local BBC radio station, and features on a sports phone-in show five nights a week, having made his tentative steps into punditry during those frustrating times when he was recovering from injury in his playing days.

“Kicking a ball around from knee-high is all I ever wanted to do and I’m still as passionate about it, still love it. I’ll be watching the Ireland-Andorra game today [the interview was conducted early on Thursday], and I’d love to see us do well. It’s a struggle at the moment. I know there are a lot of young boys coming through, but we haven’t got the quality that we once had.” 

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