It could so easily have been Eoin’s Army

Eoin Hand Ireland's World Cup qualifying campaign
The goal that never was against Belgium in the 1982 World Cup qualifiers on 25 March 1981. The Irish players protest against referee Fernandes Nazaré’s inexplicable decision to disallow Frank Stapleton’s goal. Photo: Sportsfile

In his new book former manager Eoin Hand relives the Republic of Ireland’s heart-breaking 1982 World Cup campaign

By Damian Dolan

There are those of a certain age for whom the sight of the Republic of Ireland gracing World Cups and European Championships is, if not quite the norm, an occurrence of ill frequent regularly.

That Irish tricolour, so proudly draped from a bedroom window in June, will be needed again in the future for sure, albeit hard to pinpoint exactly when.

They can be forgiven for thinking it was always thus. Of course, it was not. While those of an older generation will still carry the heartache of Ireland’s 1966 World Cup play-off defeat to Spain, a game the FAI inexplicably agreed to being played in Paris rather than at Wembley for financial benefit, for others it’s Ireland’s 1982 World Cup qualifying campaign that still rankles.

For Ireland’s then manager, Eoin Hand, in his first campaign after landing the job on the back of his League of Ireland winning exploits with Limerick United, it came down to one night in Brussels.

A controversially disallowed Frank Stapleton goal and an equally contentious Belgium winner ensured Ireland’s crop of ’82, boasting the likes of Liam Brady, Frank Stapleton, Steve Heighway, Mark Lawrenson, David O’Leary, Michael Robinson, Chris Hughton and Tony Grealish, took their place in Irish footballing folklore as arguably the best Ireland team never to qualify for a World Cup.

Eoin Hand Ireland's World Cup qualifying campaign

It’s a subject Hand revisits in his book, First Hand My Life and Irish Football, and for whom missing out was a travesty, as reaching Spain in 1982 would have changed the face of the national team and dragged it kicking and screaming into the modern era.

“I’ve no doubt we would have had a great tournament – we had the players,” Hand told the Irish World.

“If we’d qualified the whole thing would have changed, we would have had a training camp for the first time ever. That would have been a huge advantage to us. Frustration is too weak a word.”

Ireland arrived in Brussels with hopes still high, having beaten 1978 finalists Holland and Cyprus (home and away), although they’d been held to a draw in Dublin by Belgium and lost 2-0 to a Michel Platini inspired France team on the cusp of greatness.

However, a draw in Belgium, or indeed more, would leave Ireland in very fine shape indeed.

“We knew that was a vital game not to lose. We approached the game in our usual way – we didn’t park the bus, we didn’t have the players to play that way. We went out to create chances.”

Eoin Hand Ireland's World Cup qualifying campaign
Eoin after taking over as Republic of Ireland manager. Photo: Sportsfile

One of those resulted in the game’s first controversial moment. Orchestrated by the Arsenal duo of Brady and Stapleton, Brady feigned to chip the ball towards Stapleton, who had made a dummy run, only to turn away in pantomime disgust when the ball didn’t arrive. It was all an elaborate rouse, hoping to catch out the Belgium defence.

Brady immediately did chip it in and Stapleton span off his marker to score. The move worked perfectly, only for referee Raul Nazare to disallow it.

“It was a perfect goal probably about five yards onside,” says Hand, who believes darker forces may have been at work to ensure victory for Belgium.

“Paul Howard, a journalist in Dublin, borrowed the video of the game from me about ten years ago and he went out and confronted Raul with it, and asked him to justify his decision.

“He actually gave three different reasons which each time Paul was able to dispel with the video.”

Further controversy was to surround Belgium’s 88th minute winner, which denied Ireland a deserved draw, a result which ultimately would have taken them to the World Cup.

Eoin Hand Ireland's World Cup qualifying campaign
The Ireland team line up before the World Cup qualifying match away to France, 28 October 1980. The Irish players are (l–r): Liam Brady, Gerry Peyton, Michael Robinson, Steve Heighway, Chris Hughton, Tony Grealish, Mick Martin, Dave Langan, Frank Stapleton, Mark Lawrenson and Kevin Moran. Photo: Sportsfile

It came from a free kick won by an Eric Geret’s dive, which came back off the crossbar, and was forced home by Jan Ceulemans.

“It wasn’t a free kick; it was given against Steve Heighway who never fouled anyone in his life. Our goalkeeper Seamus McDonagh was then blatantly fouled going up to catch the ball – pushed down with both hands,” says Hand vehemently.

The Ireland manager couldn’t stop himself from confronting the referee after the game, and he didn’t hold back.

“We’d played so well and to finish up with nothing, I went to the referee and called him a cheat. He just walked off,” he said. “We knew that was a huge turning point – it was a massive downer. A draw would have put us through.”

Ireland went on to beat France 3-2 in Dublin in front of more than 54,000, but France made sure of second place behind Belgium by beating Holland and Cyprus in their remaining two home fixtures to pip the Irish on goal difference.

Tragedy

Ireland would have to wait until Euro ’88 to reach a first-ever tournament. The real tragedy of ’82 for Hand, however, was that it came too late for some.

“Some of them did make it under Jack [Charlton], but they were coming to the end of their careers,” said Hand, who staunchly rebuffs any suggestion that he was envious of Jack Charlton having delivered what he had come so agonisingly close to, a first-ever qualification.

“It was absolutely fantastic, it really was,” he said. “I was delighted for the players who I’d had under me, who were still playing under Jack.

“I’m an Irish guy first and I love Irish football. It didn’t happen for me, move on. It happened for Jack, great.”

Eoin Hand Ireland's World Cup qualifying campaign
Eoin with Robbie Keane at the 2017 Soccer Writers’ Association of Ireland annual dinner

Qualification for Euro 88 for Jack’s boys was achieved thanks to Scotland’s unlikely win in Bulgaria, when the home side needed just a draw to reach the finals. The slice of good fortune that Hand didn’t enjoy in ‘82, but he’s pragmatic about such things. That’s football.

“Jack was not going to be kept on (after Euro 1988 qualifying) because there were a lot of complaints about the style of football – the long ball game – and press guys rang me when I was in Saudi Arabia to ask if I was putting myself forward,” he recalls.

“But then Scotland beat Bulgaria. That’s how close things can be. We all know what happened then, Ireland beat England in Stuttgart.”

And, with that, Jack’s Army were on the march, but it could so easily have been different.

• First Hand: My Life And Irish Football by Eoin Hand with Jared Browne is published by Collins Press and is available now.


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