RAY Houghton’s goal against England in 1988 lit the fuse on a great period for Irish soccer, with the win over the old enemy really getting the whole country behind the national team.
It was a famous win for Ireland, perhaps the sweetest there has been, but it could have been very different. After Houghton’s strike, England dominated the next 84 minutes, laying siege to the Irish goal for long spells.
Packie Bonner was outstanding on the day and his string of saves helped Ireland hang on for a highly improbable win.
The goalscorer was at the Clare Inn last Friday night for a function organised by the Ennis Town Club and he reflected on that triumph.
“He (Bonner) made a lot of saves but that’s what he’s supposed to do! It wasn’t as one sided as you might think but certainly England had chances. When we went 1-0, up we didn’t know what to do really, so we sat back and we allowed England to come onto us, but we hung on.”
Houghton was a big part of the glory days, scoring again against Italy at Giant Stadium six years later, when Ireland stunned another Goliath in their opening game.
“That was the first time we’d beaten a major team at the World Cup. They were great times and hopefully we’ll have more,” he says.
For several years Jack Charlton was easily the most loved Englishman in Ireland and Houghton said he was always able to get the best from what was available to him.
“He treated us like men. He knew he couldn’t change us much in the few days that he had us so he just tried to get us in the right frame of mind to play football and that’s what he did time and time again. Ireland always had good players but had never managed to get over the line in terms of qualification. For Jack to achieve it in his first campaign was tremendous.”
Getting to next summer’s World Cup would have given the country a lift that’s as badly needed as the win over England was 21 years ago. While Houghton was obviously disappointed with the manner of the defeat to France, he is realistic about the chances of getting another crack at them. “The only way there would have been a replay would have been if the French Football Federation had agreed to it. There was no way FIFA were going to overturn the decision. That would have opened all sorts of problems.”
Some feel that the extent of the criticism levelled at Thierry Henry has been unfair, but Houghton doesn’t have much sympathy for him.
“Not really, he made the decision to handle it, the first one was inadvertent, the second wasn’t. We all make decisions. He has been a fantastic footballer. It’s sad that he’ll be remembered for this incident rather than all the quality he’s shown over the years. That’s very, very sad for him and he’ll probably look back on it with regret. But France are going to the World Cup and that’s it.”
In his club career Houghton captured two FA cups and two leagues with Liverpool. Since the second of those League triumphs in 1989/90, the club has failed to add another, and Houghton acknowledges that the gap won’t be closed this season.
He feels that the Reds are now playing for a Champions League slot and, while he refuses to be drawn on Rafa Benitez, he feels the Spaniard must be judged by the highest standards.
“The question that has to be asked is can he win the league? If the answer is no then he’s got to go. If the answer is yes, he stays. We can say what we want about whether he’s a good manager or not. The people at Liverpool have to ask if he can win the title. If the answer is no, they have to change.”
The function at the Clare Inn was to mark some new developments at the Ennis Town club, according to its secretary Clare Howard.
“Tonight is a relaunch, because we have a new logo and a new website. We have over 200 kids here, 100 from the academy (four to eight-year-olds). They train every Sunday from 10.30 to 2pm.”
The club play most of their games at Ennis National School, also using Lees Road from time to time.
Bringing in children at such a young age gives them a great grounding, she says. “They start off and they’ve all the proper skills by the time they’re eight. They’re taught it in a fun way.”