Republic school

Ireland may not be Britain, but the downfall of of Jack Charlton's team against Holland in his last match in charge spoke volumes for the limitations of a certain British style, says Cris Freddi

Both sides had known for some time that the play-off was their only real chance of reaching the finals of Euro 96, but recent results left them with very different expectations. While Holland were winning their last three qualifiers without conceding a goal, the Republic had won only one of their last five, drawing in Liechtenstein and losing 3-1 home and away to Austria and 3-0 to group winners Portugal. Austria’s 5-3 defeat in Belfast gave them the play-off chance, but Big Jack’s reign seemed to be coming to an untidy end.

Even so, his team had virtual home advantage at Anfield and would have believed they had a fighting chance against this new crop of talented Dutchmen – until injuries robbed them of Roy Keane and Steve Staunton, irreplaceable components in Charlton’s plan of stifling the opposition. His reaction was predictable: pack the midfield with even more defenders and hope for a goal on the break or a shoot-out.

It was probably his only chance, but looking at the team sheet you wondered if he hadn’t overdone it a bit. Use Kenna and Phelan as wide midfielders if you have to, but in that case why not three at the back? Four looked like overkill against a team who kept only one player permanently up front, especially when that player was Glenn Helder – and Mark Lawrenson wasn’t the only one to think “Helder doesn’t frighten anybody when he plays for Arsenal”. You wondered if the Irish had enough creativity in the middle. No you didn’t; you knew they didn’t. The main question was whether Holland would make the most of all the possession they were going to have.

The answer didn’t take long, and nor does the story of the match, though it took them almost the full 90 minutes to finish it. The headline in the Irish Times (Ninety Minutes Chasing Shadows) was echoed by Tony Cascarino (“I spent 90 minutes chasing ar­ound”) and Big Jack himself: “Our back four stood too deep, our midfield stood there… and everybody else stood where they were, and then we got run to death.”

Most of the running was done by Overmars, who gave Irwin “some of the most uncomfortable mom­ents he has known in international football”⇣and Berg­kamp, who hit a post after seven minutes and gen­er­ally had an almost casually brilliant first half. Even when they faded, Holland were always in control. The Rep­ublic made only two chances: McGrath, their one great player, had a shot deflected wide by a team-mate, and Cascarino missed a header from McAteer’s cross.

Meanwhile the 19-year-old Kluivert, whose smart low shot had provided the opening goal, headed ag­ainst the bar and Kelly made the save of the match from Over­mars, then used his feet to keep out Davids. It wasn’t until two minutes from time that Kluivert chip­ped the goalkeeper after running on to De Boer’s through ball.

Shades of Holland’s great team of 1974, who had announced themselves in much the same way against Uruguay in the World Cup, dominating a defensive team but taking their time to complete a 2-0 win with two goals from a talented young striker (Johnny Rep). This play-off looked as significant as that, the start of something new and exciting.

Naturally, you marvelled at the latest batch rolling off the Dutch production line, six of whom had helped Ajax win the European Cup final in May. They were physically strong, said Cascarino, and technically very good. “The No 4, the black lad in midfield [Davids], I tried to get the ball off him a few times but I couldn’t.” The other black lads gave you hope, for various reas­ons: Seedorf in the middle, Reiziger at right back, Bogarde showing real authority on his debut.

More than anything, it looked like a team establishing a style of its own, without the same outward swagger and ag­gression of Cruyff’s lot. I can’t remember a side keeping the ball so well. You would see one of them hemmed in by the touchline and, instead of driving it up the line or looking for a throw-in off his marker, he’d play an inside pass to a team-mate, who would do the same, and so on, for however many passes it took to make space. The over-riding memory was how careful it all looked, tidying things up before moving on. Bergkamp apart, they rare­ly tried to beat a man, but you could see the confidence in their ball control and eventual superiority. We are allowed to make comparisons with matadors.

It was less of a fair fight than some. The bull was crippled, before and during. Sheridan, some of whose distribution was “un­commonly slipshod”, had played only 15 min­­utes the previous weekend, and Towns­end, not fully fit, had to go off injured. Jack had seen it coming: “In a way I expected it. We had too many people missing, especially in midfield…We invented the terminology of pressure, but that was because we did it as a team. Tonight we did it individually.”

It’s hard to reach a firm conclusion about this game. On the surface it looks clear-cut: one style of football overcoming another, new young players put­ting an end to Charlton’s term. I want it to be as simple as that. I could never match the general enthusiasm for little Ireland’s glorious march, a country of three million reaching major finals for the first time. For a start, they picked from rather more than three million (ten of the team who played against Hol­land were born in Eng­land) – and they won only one of their nine matches in the World Cup finals while scoring a total of four goals.

All right, call me biased. Their two wins in major finals were against England and Italy (bloody Ray Houghton). But I’m not the only one who thought they might have gone further if Jack had allowed his pool of creative players to play creatively: Sheridan, Whelan, Sheedy, Houghton, the ageing Brady. And Aldridge could only have scored more goals if he hadn’t been chasing long balls towards the corner flag.

Yes, but. Who knows more about football, Jack Charl­ton or me? Exactly. So once injury had ruled out Brady and Jack decided his other playmakers weren’t world class and Aldo was too slow, who’s to argue, es­pecially with the results? In 93 matches under Charlton, Ireland won 46, drew 30 and lost 17, keeping 32 clean sheets while conceding only 41 goals. With no new players coming through, it’s possible he’d given up on the Holland match before it was played, but he’d earned his dues by then. His methods were legit because they were successful.

Yes, but. You don’t necessarily have to like them. In those 93 matches Ireland scored only 75 goals, and in the World Cup there wasn’t much to admire about them except their fans. Even for them it all seemed to wear a bit thin in the end: witness the team’s muted reception after USA 94. No one has to apologise for wanting Holland to win that play-off.

The shame is they didn’t go on from there. Davids was sent home from the Euro 96 finals, claiming a split along racial lines, and England beat them 4-1. In France 98 and Euro 2000 they lost their semi-finals on penalties. Instead of being the start of a new era, we’re talking about what might have been.

As for the Republic, things got worse be­fore they got better. They didn’t win any of their first seven games under Mick McCarthy but look in much better shape now. Their recent 2-2 draw in Amsterdam may seem a measure of revenge for Anfield 95, but it can’t wipe the memory of a match that showed you football at its best. Or, to put it another way, “the disturbing sight of Terry Phelan attempting to run the ball past Michael Reiziger”.

From WSC 166 December 2000. What was happening this month