The Dugout - Lord of Gdansk: McCarthy remembers Euro '88

Thu, 07 Jun 12:20:00 2012

As Ireland prepare to end an absence of 24 years at the European Championship, former player and manager Mick McCarthy recalls their only previous visit back in 1988 and sizes up their chances in Poland and Ukraine.

Euro 88 Ireland Mick McCarthy England Bryan Robson - 0

Pretty much Ireland's entire history has been documented through its folk music.

Some songs are political, some are about the country's beautiful landscape and many, unsurprisingly, are about drink.

However, if you were to take a guess at any contemporary folk song written in the past 25 years that is sure to still be an Irish standard a century from now, then you might be best plumping for a song about football.

Christy Moore's song 'Joxer Goes To Stuttgart' is as well known on the island as the national anthem and it tells the story of a group of fans leaving the country, many for the first time, for a very important occasion.

It was 1988, in the lovely month of June, and with "rosary beads and sandwiches" Irish fans were travelling en masse to Stuttgart for the European Championship – the first game up? A familiar foe called England.

"It was a completely brand new experience for everyone in '88," Mick McCarthy, who played alongside Kevin Moran in the centre of the Irish defence that day, told Eurosport-Yahoo!

"We went there with a completely open mind. It was the first time Ireland had qualified for a major tournament, there were no expectations. Just going there was a celebration of Irish football.

"Don't get me wrong, all the players wanted to perform well. But nobody had ever been and we didn't know anything about it. It was only our manager Jack (Charlton) who had major tournament experience and his last tournament was in 1970, so I don't know if he remembered too much 18 years on."

Much like Joxer and his mates, it was a step into the unknown for McCarthy and his team-mates, but on a baking hot day, a stunning football upset was about to occur.

As Moore himself would sing: "What happened next is history brought tears to many eyes. That day will be the highlight of many peoples' lives."

Ireland won the game 1-0. Ray Houghton put Ireland in front with a header in the sixth minute and thanks to McCarthy and Moran's efforts at the back, along with a superb performance from goalkeeper Packie Bonner, England could not find an equaliser as Irish completed a remarkable upset that made instant legends of their players.

"We were getting battered by the English media saying we'd got no chance, and of course we won," reveals McCarthy.

"To beat England…was a little bit special to say the least. It was fabulous, and we did wonderfully well in the tournament."

Ireland's best performance actually came in their next game when they had to settle for a 1-1 draw against a superb Soviet Union team despite dominating the match, before they were then unluckily knocked out by eventual winners Netherlands 1-0.

"We just went out and played, took on whoever was in front of us and didn't worry too much about the outcome," says McCarthy.

"I know that sounds a bit amateurish but Jack did have us prepared. We had a certain way of playing, we had a great group of players and a fantastic team spirit - that's something that has to be built from within, and it was."

McCarthy is the last man to lead Ireland to a major championship, the 2002 World Cup, an experience that he says is "very different" from competing in the tournament as a player.

However, he believes that the current Irish squad have the perfect man in Giovanni Trapattoni to help cause shocks in Poland and Ukraine on a similar scale to the one he helped execute in Stuttgart 24 years ago.

"He's been terrific. It's a pragmatic style, he gets results, he doesn't get beaten. You can't fault him for that," says McCarthy of Trapattoni.

"Some people have been critical of him for not being more cavalier and scoring more goals, but I thought it was about winning. I'm on the same page as him. Win games, and be pragmatic if you have to be. They've fought and scrapped.

"They had eight clean sheets in a row, and still Giovanni was getting pelted, but anyone who criticises him should just look at his list of achievements, it's longer than my arm.

"He doesn't have many players but he doesn't half get the best out of them. And they've got that Irish bloody-minded, defiant, belligerent team spirit that they've had for as long as I can remember.

"The players have been busting a gut to get to a major tournament, and they will be full of it."

McCarthy still talks about Ireland with the same passion and drive he showed as a player and then later on the sideline as a manager.

If the Irish players in Poland and Ukraine can replicate that level of desire and turn it into results then they can expect to have songs written in their honour.

Eurosport Yahoo! supervising editor Seán Fay is throwing his professional hat out the window and travelling to Euro 2012 as an Irish supporter. He'll be blogging throughout the tournament.

Seán Fay / Eurosport