Remembering Ireland’s Euro ’96 play-off at Anfield

In the history of the Republic of Ireland football team we have qualified for six international tournaments, three World Cups and three European Championships.

In order to qualify for three of these tournaments Ireland have had to go through a play-off round to secure their participation in these tournaments.

With the World Cup play-off against Denmark coming up in a couple of days, Ireland are about to take part in their ninth tournament play-off in the hopes of securing qualification to the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
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Some of Ireland’s play-offs down through the years have been particularly memorable, France in 2009 with Thierry Henry and the handball, Bosnia in 2015 in the blinding fog and Tony Cascarino fighting Turkish defenders after the final whistle in 1999.

Yes, the Irish team have many battle scars from play-offs down through the years.

Ireland’s first ever play-off was in November 1965 when they faced off against Spain for a spot in the 1966 World Cup after both teams had beaten each other in the group stage, so a play-off was needed to decide who would compete at the World Cup in England

Ireland came out on the losing end of that one-legged play-off and it would be another 30 years until they found themselves in another one.

It was now December 1995 and the Irish team had just managed to secure a play-off for a spot in Euro ’96 in England once again.

Facing Big Jack’s Army that night would be a side that Charlton and Ireland had become familiar with facing down through the years, the Netherlands.

So how did this Ireland team and a youthful Dutch side find themselves in this one-legged play-off, how did the match itself unfold and what happened to both sides in the years afterwards, let’s take a look.

How Ireland found themselves in this play-off

Ireland began their qualifying campaign for Euro 96 in high spirits; a successful World Cup in America with a famous victory over Italy in Giants Stadium had been achieved and the Irish team were big favourites to qualify for Euro 96.

Ireland started off life in qualifying group six on a role and at the half-way point in the group they had secured 13 points in the group with four wins and one draw, including a win over Portugal at Lansdowne Road.

Ireland sat atop group six with 13 points with Portugal in second on 12 points as Ireland went into two games in June 1995 against Liechtenstein and Austria.

Next up for Ireland was a visit to the Sportpark Stadium which had a capacity of 500 in Eschen, Liechtenstein and suffered one of the most embarrassing moments in Irish football as they drew with what a full of teachers, doctors and a postman.

The shock of this draw derailed the Irish team who had gone about this qualifying campaign so far as ruthless men on a mission, to an aged team not knowing what to do.

Eight days later, Ireland played Austria at Lansdowne Road and lost 3-1 to the Austrians. The path to Euro 96 was beginning to become a little clouded.

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In September 1995 Ireland played Austria in the return fixture in Vienna, again Ireland underperformed and again lost 3-1, instead of finishing top of group six Ireland now had a job on their hands to even secure second place in the group.

A 2-1 victory at home to Latvia set Ireland up for a showdown with Portugal in Lisbon. While Portugal were guaranteed top spot on goal difference, if Ireland were to come out on top they stood a slim chance of going through as one of the best placed second teams.

Ireland could not overcome Portugal in Lisbon and lost the match 3-0, and thanks to Northern Ireland beating Austria earlier that night Ireland had secured second place in Group 6.

However, as only certain results carried any weight in the ranking of second placed teams Ireland found themselves bottom of the group of second placed teams and would have to face off against the team who finished second bottom, the Netherlands.

The opposition that night

Ireland had faced the Netherlands quite a lot over the previous few years; they faced off against one another at Euro 88 and the World Cup in 1990 and 1994.

While the Dutch team that played Ireland in Euro ’88 and Italia ’90 was exceptionally talented, by the 1994 World Cup in America they had become injury prone in the case of Marco Van Basten and some had fallouts with the manager like Ruud Gullit.

However, this mattered very little as new Dutch superstars burst on the scene with Dennis Bergkamp and Marc Overmars tearing Ireland apart during the last 16 of the World Cup in Orlando.

The Dutch team would lose in the next round to eventual champions Brazil and manager Dick Advocaat would leave his role as Dutch manager midway through the qualifying campaign for Euro 96 and would be replaced by Guus Hiddink.

The Netherlands were in Group 5 for qualifying for Euro ’96 along with Norway and the newly formed Czech Republic.

After an indifferent start to qualifying under Advocaat, the Dutch picked up a bit of momentum and began to blood young new players who were making a name for themselves at Ajax in particular Patrick Kluivert and Clarence Seedorf.

However, a defeat to the Czechs in April 1995 followed up a defeat to Belarus two months later derailed the Netherlands push for automatic qualification.

After securing wins in their final three games the Dutch finished the group one point behind the Czech Republic and level on points with Norway and ultimately securing second place on goal difference.

Due to poor performances against the other top sides in their group the Dutch found themselves second bottom in the group for second placed teams and would have to take part in a play-off against old adversaries Ireland to secure a place in Euro 96.

So the match was set Ireland would face off against the Netherlands on December 13th in the neutral venue of Anfield to decide who would play at Euro 96.

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The match itself

Ireland, without the likes of Roy Keane and Steve Staunton through injury and Niall Quinn through suspension, lined up in a traditional 4-4-2 with Alan Kelly in goal, Gary Kelly, Paul McGrath, Phil Babb and Denis Irwin in defence.

In midfield that night were Jeff Kenna, Andy Townsend, John Sheridan and Terry Phelan, and up front were John Aldridge and Tony Cascarino.

The Netherlands lined up playing a 4-3-3 with a young Edwin Van de Saar in goal, Michael Reiziger, Danny Blind, Clarence Seedorf and Winston Bogarde in defence.

In midfield they had Ronald de Boer, Dennis Bergkamp and Edgar Davids and up front were the trio of Marc Overmars, Patrick Kluivert and Glenn Helder    .

On a cold winter’s night at Anfield this youthful Netherlands team completely dominated a jaded Irish side that seemed to be a yard or two off the pace of The 10 Flying and 1 Non-Flying Dutchmen.

With incisive passing the Dutch opened up the Irish defence inside half an hour thanks to a Patrick Kluivert strike.

Ireland offered very little going forward on this night and the long ball tactic that Charlton made famous was reaping no rewards.

Eventually Netherlands scored their second goal two minutes from time putting to bed any hope Ireland had of bringing the match to extra time.

In what has become somewhat familiar in the past few years, the Irish fans who knew their side were beat before the Dutch scored their second goal began singing from Anfield’s Kop end, as they realised they were witnessing the end of Charlton era.

The Dutch fans were bemused by the fact that the Irish fans were singing so loudly despite their teams defeat.

After the match ended and the Dutch players celebrated with their fans and the Irish players thanked their fans both sets of players left the field.

As the Dutch fans left the Irish fans remained in the ground as Jack Charlton came back out onto the field to wave goodbye to the Irish fans who he had given so many great memories to over the previous decade.

Jack Charlton’s last game in charge

In February 1986, Jack Charlton beat ex-Liverpool manager Bob Paisley by ten votes to eight to become the manager of the Republic of Ireland.

The appointment of England’s 1966 World Cup winning centre half was met with much skepticism by the Irish public and people from within the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) who voted for Paisley, feeling that Charlton wouldn’t bring anything new to the role; little did they know.

Charlton went on to become the most successful and popular Irish manager of all time; he took charge of the Irish team 93 times bringing football right to the front of people’s minds in Ireland.

While pundits then and now say Charlton’s Ireland weren’t much of a team and resorted to playing the long ball to their strikers most of the time, it didn’t stop more and more people attending matches to witness the success of the Irish team.

As Ireland’s qualifying campaign for Euro 96 hit the skids it looked more and more likely that Charlton would walk away from the Irish job and a month after the defeat to the Dutch Charlton left the role in January 1996.

He had said his goodbyes that night at Anfield as the Irish supporters thanked him for everything he had done.

Charlton would later comment about leaving the Ireland job in his autobiography saying:

In my heart of hearts, I knew I’d wrung as much as I could out of the squad I’d got – that some of my older players had given me all they had to give.

The success that Big Jack brought to Irish football team may very well seen again someday, but if that is to ever happen it is very doubtful that there will be millions of people on the streets celebrating as the team bus parades through, nor will the country standstill like it did to watch the Irish team in major competitions under Jack Charlton.

In a somewhat ironic twist, Jack Charlton took charge of the Irish team for the final time at Anfield the ground that Bob Paisley made a fortress for that great Liverpool team of the 70s/80s and the man whom Charlton beat out to become Ireland manager a decade earlier. What are the chances.

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What happened to both teams in the following few years

Now both teams had a mix of contrasting fortunes in the years following that play-off at Anfield.

The Dutch team went to Euro ’96 as big favourites due to new youthful players at their disposal who were beginning to make their mark in the Champions League.

They under performed at the Euros and were lucky to scrape through their group on goals scored and would meet France in the quarter finals.

Ironically for the Netherlands they found themselves back at the ground where they qualified for the Euros six months previous, Anfield, this time they lost on penalties and were out of the tournament.

Having safely qualified for the 1998 World Cup, the Dutch became one of the favourites for the tournament due to the raft of talented players they had at their disposal.

After stuttering through the group stage and the round of 16 they found themselves in a quarter-final against Argentina.

This match produced one of the greatest World Cup moments of all time, as Dennis Bergkamp picked the ball out of the air with one touch, placed onto his left with his second touch and rifled it into the net with his third winning the match and sending the Dutch to the semi-finals, where they ultimately lost on penalties to Brazil.

For the Irish team they were on the lookout for a new manager for the first time in a decade.

In February 1996, the FAI appointed Charlton’s former captain Mick McCarthy as the team’s new manager.

Under McCarthy the Irish team improved greatly as McCarthy blooded youngsters from the successful under age campaigns and the likes of Robbie Keane and Damien Duff would become big leaders in the Irish side.

McCarthy also continued Charlton’s policy of bringing in players with Irish heritage and the likes of Gary Breen and Matt Holland became big players for Ireland.

Despite a squad overhaul after Charlton left qualifying for tournaments became much harder for the Irish team to achieve. Two play-off defeats for the 1998 World Cup and the Euro 2000 where hard to swallow for the Irish faithful.

McCarthy finally achieved his greatest success as Irish manager as Ireland defeated Iran in a play-off to go the 2002 World Cup in Korea/Japan (and nothing significant or newsworthy happened for Mick McCarthy in the run up to that tournament).

The Author

Evan Coughlan

I bloody love football

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