Monday, March 15, 2010
87-Ray Houghton and Paul McGrath, the Kings of New York! (1994)
Coming in to USA 94 both Italy and Ireland had failed to qualify for Euro 92 and had some kind of point to prove but for different reasons since their quarter final clash at Italia 90. Italy had brought in AC Milan super coach Arrigo Sacchi following the failure of Euro 92 but the bald one had got 99% of the Italian press offside and the fans were soon on his back too even despite the fact they had cruised through qualifying. One of the Azzuri that could do no wrong in the eyes of the press and the fans was the devine ponytail himself Roberto Baggio who would go in to the tournament as one of the deadliest strikers in the world and the FIFA World player of the year.
The Republic of Ireland still had most of their ageing players from the heroic 1990 squad (Mick McCarthy and David O’Leary an exception) and had added new stars such as Roy Keane, Dennis Irwin and Jamie McAteer yet only snuck through to USA 94 through a head to head record against an unlucky Denmark who were the European champions at the time. The side was still the long ball hit and hope chancer side and it was still lead by ‘Saint’ Jack Charlton, the Englishman who made the Irish more tolerant to the English more than any peace accord or Good Friday agreement ever could.
When the two were drawn to play each other in Group E the anticipation was high. There was sooking from the FAI that the game wouldn’t be played in Foxboro, Massachusetts (Boston being the home of the plastic Irish) and that Italy would have the majority of fans by playing the match at the massive Giants Stadium in New York. Despite these misgivings tens of thousands of Irish outnumbered the Italians when they descended on to the 80,000 capacity stadium on a cloudy, hot and very humid June day. The teams couldn't have looked more different, Italy looking the model professionals as the teams lined up while half the Irish side wore stupid looking white trucker caps because of sun, the caps making them look like tourists from Waterford who were off down to Coney Island and to go see the Statue of Liberty before visiting cousin Searlais in Queens.
Charlton decided to try and choke the Italian midfield by having 5 in the middle and veteran striker Tommy Coyne playing as a loan striker. Italy lined up with Baggio and fellow Serie A goal machine Giuseppe Signori up front of a 4-4-2 formation. From the start Italy tried hammering the Irish defence but Villa defender Paul McGrath repelled the passes intended for Baggio even with an infected shoulder that would have kept him out of lesser games. Another McGrath moment was his toe poke to keeper Packie Bonner. A long ball saw Signori running on to the pass but McGrath managed to lumber and back and get his foot to the ball in desperate fashion to the keeper which was the least likely outcome.
Some 11 minutes in to the game it was Ireland who took an unlikely lead with their first meaningful attack of the match (an earlier Steve Staunton shot from way out not really counting) and it was their hero from Euro 88 that was there again. Glasgow born Ray Houghton had taken the ball on the edge of the area after a long ball from the Irish half by Sheridan. The ball from Sheridan had been headed back from a central defender and then headed again by Italian legend Franco Baresi just on the edge of the area in an attempt to clear the ball. The ball was intended for an Italian midfielder the boot up field but Houghton incepted the ball with his head and headed down to his feet with his sweet left footed shot floating over the Italian keeper’s head and in to the net. Roly poly time from Houghton and celebration time for the underdogs.
The problem was that Ireland had probably scored too early and the Italians now tried to turn up the attack factor a notch and get an equaliser. What they didn't count on is Ireland getting on top in the midfield and having two more chances the half. The first being a tame shot from Coyne that was smothered by the keeper and another being header from Coyne again that went wide.
Italy finally turned it on after half time with Dino Baggio having a shot tamely saved after Italy had done some good build up work to have a shot from winger Donadoni fly just wide of the upright. Italy kept the pressure up but the Irish back four was up to the task with McGrath playing the game of his life and Dennis Irwin coming to lend a hand to McGrath and Phil Babb when the midfield led by future captain Keane failed to shut down.
Baggio was limited to shots from outside the box and as the Italians wilted Ireland started to find gaps on the break. First Ray Houghton tried a left foot shot just on the edge of the area low and to the keeper's near post but was saved. Sheridan then had an excellent shot from inside the area hit the crossbar after a ball came in from the byline and was dummied by Coyle.
Still the Irish held on and every time McGrath headed the ball out or cleared the ball in to the stratosphere with a colossal boot the chants of 'Oooh ahh Paul McGrath' came up from the Irish fans finding more and more of a voice. At the end of what must have seemed like an eternity of injury time the referee blew full time and Ireland had won. Jack Charlton ran on to the pitch with his stupid white trucker cap on to embrace his players while the fans were joyous in the massive stands of Giants Stadium. McGrath's celebrations were muted as per usual following but that was also perhaps down the inner demons of alcoholism that plagued his life then and up until this day.
A memorable moment as an upset but also a fitting game in USA94 to have in New York with the history of Italian and Irish immigrants coming to the city over the past 200 years or so. Not quite gangs of New York but something like that. Ireland would crawl in to the second round after a loss to Mexico and draw with Norway before they were put to the sword by Dennis Bergkamp and the Dutch. Italy would of course go on to the final after a very slow start but that's a moment for another time.