by Leighton Cullen
Euro ‘88 produced some of the greatest Irish football memories that still gets talked about to this very day. Roll on 24 years and the tournament dished out a harsh lesson we would be wise to similarly not forget for a while. Lessons must be learnt from this.
Ireland’s opening fixture has already – barring a miracle – put paid to any hopes of us qualifying beyond the group stage. Expectations were low and grounded in realism anyway but this still stings despite there being some consolation from it being a thoroughly watchable and decent game. What makes it so hard to take though is not so much the result but rather the uncharacteristic schoolboy defending that led to it with Croatia deserving huge credit for their ruthless punishing of the litany of errors. In between they got the ball down and passed it clinically, always looking to open us up.
Ireland got off to the worst start possible conceding inside the first few minutes when Mandzukic’s header beat Given to give Croatia the lead. It was a strange goal that resulted from some shocking marking but additionally owed a lot to the Villa keeper being unsighted. Lesser spirited sides would have crumbled at this juncture but it served to wake Ireland from their nerves and stupor and give them the kick up the arse they required. Roused from embarrassment they clawed their way back into contention and a whipped free-kick from McGeady found the head of St Ledger and sent the green army wild.
With half-time approaching they began to settle far too deep – a Trapattoni trait – and things began to look ominous once more. Even so Croatia’s second was contentious to say the least. Firstly Jelavic was standing offside as Croatia had a shot that pinballed around the players before Stephen Ward’s haphazard clearence fell to his feet and the Everton man did what seems to come so naturally to him. Replays of the goal also revealed that Ward was fouled during the attempted clearance.
Such fine margins were also in evidence for their clincher on 49 minutes. Mandzukic’s header struck the post before rebounding off Given’s forehead and spinning into the net. With our defence in organisational disarray and the sheer quality of the opposition this game was always going to be a uphill battle; with fate against the Irish it was insurmountable.
Further misfortune – and that’s being kind here when in reality it was an atrocious refereeing decision – struck when Keane was hauled down in the box yet nothing was given. It was a stonewall pen that – if converted – would surely have brought about a ferocious late rally for a point and though Ireland commendably persevered to the finish you could see a vestige of belief disappear with their unheard protests. Croatia meanwhile continued their slick possession, moving a visibly tiring Irish midfield around with ease.
The madness of Trap raised its ugly head with his strange substituions taking off both Doyle and McGeady far too early. Doyle in particular was so unlucky to be taken off and though admittedly McGeady wasn’t at the races at all the decision to replace him with Simon Cox prompted bafflement from those watching. When you consider McClean and Hunt were available on the bench it was nothing short of mind-boggling. With Trap’s Plan A clearly not working he switched his options and went for Plan B. Unfortunately it’s the same plan and with Italy and Spain next up things could potentially get embarrassing.
Irish fans knew we were there to essentially make up the numbers in an immensely difficult group but the lack of organisation and the absence of fight and passion for the most part was extremely concerning. The old guard’s experience was needed yet they were the poorest performers of all last night and it looks like it could be a long Euros ahead for the Irish.
Memories of ’88 linger but increasingly fade to a sepia-tinged other age.