“We’re all off to Italy…..”
This week Ireland will play Malta in Ta Qali the scene of a historic occasion for the boys in green.
The year was 1989 and Jack Charlton had guided Ireland to the edge of qualifying for the World Cup in Italy.
A travelling Irish support of over 6000 had run into travel chaos in the proceeding days. Heavy Fog throughout the country had prevented many flights from taking off or landing, leaving many stuck in Dublin airport.
Even attempts at ferrying to the UK and flying from there were scuppered due to the same weather resulting in some fans entering the stadium midway through the match with their suitcases.
Ireland had never qualified for a World Cup and recent campaigns brought both heartache and disillusionment. Jack Charlton had been appointed manager after the last failed qualification attempt.
He then guided Ireland to their first major tournament in Euro 88 and now had them within one result of reaching international footballs highest stage.
Qualification had started with three away fixtures and results didn’t inspire confidence. Nil nil in Windsor Park was followed by a 2-0 defeat to Spain and another 0-0 away to Hungary.
However all changed on a cold but sunny afternoon in April 1989 when Spain visited Dublin. Charlton’s signature style of continuous pressure lead to 1-0 victory courtesy of an OG by Michel.
This would begin a run of results that brought Ireland right back into the hunt for qualification. A month after the Spanish game a 2-0 victory over Malta was followed a few days later by a the same scoreline over one of the main group rivals Hungary.
That result would put Italia 90 within Ireland’s sight as two more victories in the final two games would assure qualification.
In October Ireland saw their fellow islanders Northern Ireland come to Lansdowne Road and a classic Charlton era performance gave Ireland a 3-0 win. They now stood one win away.
The game in Malta in November 1989 brought an excitement to long suffering fans who felt they were about to witness history. Which in turn made the travel chaos feel all the more bitter.
However thousands did make the journey adding colour and noise as they filled the terrace behind Irelands goalkeeper Packie Bonnar.
To add to Malta’s difficulties they were missing their captain and starting goalkeeper through injury when Dutch referee Jup Uilenberg blew the whistle to start the game.
Irish chances were limited in the opening quarter with Tony Cascarino’s attempted header cleared off his head by the young stand in goalkeeper Cini and Andy Townsends piledriver was sorely stopped by Kevin Moran’s face.
It was immediately clear from the off Malta were going to use the risky tactic of the offside trap and they were nearly caught out after 20 mins when Ray Houghton broke through only for his pass to be swiped off the the foot of Kevin Sheedy when a goal seemed certain.
Then 3 quick chances in 3 minutes. First Malta’s keeper Cini was fouled by John Aldridge in the air close to goal. He then managed to stop a shot from an unmarked Cascarino after Ronnie Whelans quick free kick. Moments later the keeper produced a quality one handed save from another Cascarino header.
Finally the pressure paid off. A Ray Houghton corner was flicked on by Dave OLeary at the near post as Aldrige arrived unchallenged to head home the opener. His first goal for Ireland in 28 appearances. It wouldn’t be his last.
The start of the second half saw Maltas best period. Carabotts header went just over the crossbar. Moments later Busuttill found a clear chance but the ball got caught under his feet allowing OLeary to knock it out for a corner. Then Scerri’s first time volley was held by Bonnar just under the bar.
The game was finally decided when Whelan’s pass set Townsend free on goal. However just as he was about to take his chance he was tackled from behind and the referee immediately pointed to the spot. (Despite replays indicating he was outside the area.)
John Aldridge’s stuttered run up confused the keeper as the ball hit the back of the net to make it 2-0.
Aldridge nearly got his hat trick in the closing minutes but his firm header was cleared off the line by DeGriorgio.
The final whistle saw scenes of joy between the team and the travel weary fans. Results elsewhere saw Spain beating Hungary to top the group a score that meant a win wasn’t necessary for Ireland in the end. However Ireland made sure themselves of a ticket to their first ever World Cup Finals.
Malta manager Horst Heese said the difference was both the physical and confidence of both teams. On Irelands prospects in the World Cup he said ” I think they will do well in Italy. Any team which underestimates them will do so to their cost.”
Meanwhile Jack Charlton said “I have done the job that I was paid to do; It’s as simple as that. My main aim when I took the job was to qualify the Republic of Ireland for the finals and that’s what we have achieved here.”
None could imagine how magical the next part of their football journey would turn out to be.