25 years on from Italia 90, where did it all go wrong for Irish football?

The Boys in Green have never quite hit the heights of that wonderful summer since.

An Ageing team

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ITALIA 90 WAS undoubtedly the high point for Jack Charlton’s Irish side. From then on, the team suffered a gradual decline. Granted, they still managed to reach the 1994 World Cup, but despite a famous 1-0 victory over Italy, the team failed to live up to expectations thereafter, exiting the tournament after a meek 2-0 loss to Holland.

By the time USA 94 arrived, Ireland were an ageing squad. 22-year-old Roy Keane aside, there was concern about a lack of top-quality young players coming through. Key members of the side, including Packie Bonner, John Aldridge, Ray Houghton, Andy Townsend, Paul McGrath and Tony Cascarino were all in their 30s by this stage.

Eamon Dunphy believed Jack Charlton made a mistake staying on after the 1994 World Cup, and perhaps he was right. The subsequent Euro 96 qualifying campaign was more than a little problematic.

Charlton’s last campaign actually begun quite brightly, though, as four wins and a draw in their opening five games saw Ireland top the group. However, it was then that it all started to unravel. The humiliating 0-0 draw with Liechtenstein was a blow from which Ireland never really recovered. It was followed by back-to-back losses against Austria, coupled with the defeat of Latvia and a 3-0 loss against Portugal.

The Anfield playoff defeat by Holland was the final nail in the coffin in relation to their Euro 96 dreams, but in reality, Ireland had looked well short of the standards needed to qualify long before then, with many of the Italia 90 heroes still around but well past their best.

Bad luck

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There were some immediate sceptics when it was confirmed that Ireland had prised Mick McCarthy away from Millwall to appoint him as the successor to Jack Charlton.

There were occasional ill-fated experiments thereafter — playing three at the back and Roy Keane in defence spring to mind — but overall, McCarthy proved a steady pair of hands despite having a tough act to follow.

The former Ireland captain didn’t have the number of quality players that Charlton benefited from during his time as manager, but he did have Roy Keane nearing his prime, as well as the exciting early years of Robbie Keane, Shay Given and Damien Duff. Moreover, the squad also included a number of unspectacular but reliable players such as Kenny Cunningham, Mark Kinsella and Matt Holland, while Niall Quinn and Steve Staunton provided the experience to complement what was, by and large, a relatively young side.

So why did they only qualify for one tournament? Transitions are often difficult and the more attractive, passing style that McCarthy was trying to implement took the players time to fully adjust to. It also took a while for the likes of Keane and Duff to really blossom and there weren’t many others to fill the void or compensate while they were in the process of learning the demands of international football.

Furthermore, the Irish side were also very unlucky on more than one occasion — two consecutive playoff defeats during the McCarthy era suggests as much.

The Euro 2000 campaign, in particular, caused plenty of angst. Victories at home to Croatia and Yugoslavia — both of whom had impressed at the 1998 World Cup — suggested Ireland were good enough to qualify top of their group. However, a last-minute goal in Macedonia in the final match denied Ireland automatic qualification, and a demoralised team were subsequently beaten in the playoffs by Turkey.


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The 2002 World Cup, in many ways, emphasised the good and the bad of Irish football in microcosm.

Difficult as it is to fathom, imagine for a moment if the McCarthy/Keane falling out in Saipan had not happened. Ireland may well have gone further than the already impressive last-16 spot they managed, and Keane surely would have consolidated his legendary status. They would have had the Man United skipper for the following campaign too, and the team generally would likely have been in a far healthier position.

Instead, while Keane’s absence appeared to galvanise the side to an extent in the short term, as they performed above expectations in a difficult group, in the long-term, the Saipan incident proved immensely harmful, and cast a shadow over Irish football for years to come.

Saipan simultaneously served as a reminder that for all the team had achieved, there was still a distinct lack of professionalism within the Irish set-up, prompting the establishment of the Genesis report and other initiatives that attempted to address the many concerns that formed part of Keane’s countless frustrations.

Kerr’s conservatism

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Much was expected of the Brian Kerr era after all the manager had achieved with Irish underage sides. However, for the most part, the former Pat’s boss’ stint in charge was underwhelming.

Kerr was criticised for his conservatism and a reliance on the distinctly ordinary Gary Doherty up front at times during this period.

Back-to-back draws against Israel, where Ireland took the lead only to ill-advisedly sit back and concede, owing to defensive lapses, stand out as particularly lamentable moments.

Nevertheless, some believe the Dubliner was treated harshly and dismissed prematurely from his role, particularly given that he had to make do with a side that was patently devoid of quality in some key areas.

Kerr was ultimately afforded just one full campaign (and a little over half another) to make a mark, and he still earned the highest win ratio of any full-time manager in the history of the Irish national side (54.5%). In his 33 games in charge, he won 18, drew 11 and lost just four, yet the FAI regardless decided to dispense with his services after successive qualification failures.

Cyprus proves a watershed

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Towards the end of the Brian Kerr era, the Irish team were heavily criticised for scraping a 1-0 win over Cyprus in Nicosia.

Therefore, you can only imagine the reaction from the media and sporting public when, in just Steve Staunton’s second competitive match in charge, they were beaten 5-2 by Cyprus. To make matters worse, it was a Cyprus side that had lost their opening fixture 6-1 against Slovakia.

Further embarrassments followed, as Ireland needed last-minute goals to beat San Marino and draw with Cyprus, before Staunton was promptly dismissed from his role once the team’s failure to qualify was confirmed.

Brief as it was, the former Liverpool player’s reign arguably did more damage than any other in terms of affecting the confidence and perception of the Irish team.

No longer could the side’s failure to qualify for major tournaments be put down to fine margins — a moment of magic from Thierry Henry (not the handball, the other pivotal goal he was involved with in the lead up to the 2006 World Cup) or last-minute heartache in Macedonia. The team consequently had reached the point where the euphoria of the Charlton era had long since worn off and confidence was as low as it had been when the Englishman took over in 1986.

The Trap years

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A popular choice when appointed, Trapattoni quickly set about ensuring that Ireland would never suffer a 5-2 defeat by Cyprus on his watch. Indeed, when criticised for his approach, the Italian would often bring up that Cyprus game and justifiably suggest the situation could be much worse.

An innate pragmatist, even at their most successful under Trap, Ireland were hard to love. The persistent reliance on 4-4-2 frustrated many, as did the continual dependence on the rather uninspiring midfield pairing of Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews.

That said, however, there is no doubting that Trap’s formula yielded a certain level of success. Considering the state that the Italian found Irish football in, to get the team as far as the 2010 World Cup qualification playoffs and to go out in such unfortunate circumstances was a pretty impressive achievement, as was his overseeing of the Irish team’s qualification for their first Euros since 1988 two years later.

Yet in stark contrast to the three previous tournaments Ireland had reached, the 2012 Euros were an unmitigated disaster, with the side losing all three matches easily.

If that unfortunate summer was a low ebb, the 6-1 World Cup qualifying home defeat to Germany constituted rock bottom, and while Ireland and Trap soldiered on thereafter, the confidence and organisation the veteran Italian boss originally implemented had been shattered and his impending departure felt inevitable when it did eventually come.

Player development

Ireland huddle James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

(The current Ireland side have failed to emulate the success of the Charlton era)

The Martin O’Neill era has been a definite disappointment so far, even six competitive games into his tenure. Despite playing numerous friendly matches since taking over, the Derry native has still yet to settle on a consistent starting XI.

The players have undoubtedly underperformed as well — group rivals Scotland are no better than the Irish in terms of quality, yet O’Neill’s men have still managed to take just one point from a possible six off Gordon Strachan’s side.

But the Irish team consistently delivering sub-par performances, and failing to win more than two games against sides ranked above them in the last 14 years, has caused considerable concern on a deeper level among football lovers in this country.

The lack of talented players coming through is startling, and it’s telling that two of Ireland’s main men — James McCarthy and Aiden McGeady — are products of the Scottish underage structure.

Consequently, it’s clear there are serious issues with player development in this country and it remains to be seen whether initiatives such as the Emerging Talent Programme and the U17 and u19 domestic leagues can resolve the obvious problems that exist, as indicated by the national side’s struggles of late.

In the short term at least, the situation looks bleak, with Ireland likely having to rely on a Gary Mackay-esque miracle to qualify for the upcoming Euros and kick-start O’Neill’s reign in a manner akin to the boost Charlton received during his first campaign in charge.

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