Aidan Power recalls the end of the Charlton era: Figo, Kennedy, and Mark Lawrenson's rapier wit.
Mark Kennedy was incongruous. Appearing out of the gloaming of the Republic of Ireland’s miserable Euro 96 qualification campaign, Kennedy took full backs on and at times threatened to inject a sliver of excitement into proceedings, as Jack Charlton’s charges struggled for momentum in a group containing a fluid Portuguese side, one of the last truly functional Austrian elevens and our ever resilient neighbours from across the border.
Better days had come and gone and where the Italy of Baggio and half of the Champion’s League winning A.C. Milan were put to the sword only twelve months prior, we were now struggling in the words of one journalist, to get the better of a mountaintop. After drawing 0-0 away to Liechtenstein, the Republic of Ireland’s long-ball game, as Mark Lawrenson memorably opined, had become somewhat stale (“if plan A fails, they revert to plan A”) and the promise shown in the group’s opening fixtures (Latvia, Liechtenstein at home and Northern Ireland all soundly beaten) was quickly beginning to drain away.
It was as if having come down from the mountaintop, Charlton’s side had never readjusted to the air on terra firma. A troubling few months lay in store and while across the pond, England giddily basked in the glow of “football coming home” and the attendant rises of Brit-pop and New Labour, we could but look on in bemusement and ponder the implications of spending the following summer with our noses pressed against the sun-streaked windows of Euro 96.
In fairness, it wasn’t all that bad initially. In addition to dismantling the supposed lesser lights of the group (oh, how that phrase would haunt us…) we had overcome a Portugal side brimming with technical excellence and top-heavy with creative menace. A cursory glance at the statistics of that game show that the Iberians enjoyed ninety four per cent of possession, although it didn’t matter because Vítor Baía (who was always too good-looking to be a feasible option as a goalkeeper) hesitated and John Aldridge pounced, as Aldridge was ever wont to do. It was a runny trickle of a goal that slid apologetically under the keeper’s body by way of a dubious touch from Aldridge, but it was enough to set us on our way.
In hindsight, that day in Landsdowne Road was to be the last bugle call of a glorious generation. It signalled also, the enervation of Charlton’s once robust ideals—the familiar maxims of “pump it long” and put “em under pressure” were beginning to ring hollow around the rickety old ground on that blustery April evening. The visitors; with their own bespoke array of talent coming to prominence, dazzled on the lunar-like surface, with Luis Figo continually running from deep and cutting in on his right much to Gary Kelly’s bewilderment, while Fernando Couto added some substance to the cult theory that he could do more than look like Brian May. Rui Costa’s languid brilliance meanwhile, strengthened the impression that the best playmakers leave their socks hang loosely around their ankles.
And yet, and yet! Ray Houghton hit the post from close range as only Houghton could (although fondly remembered for iconic goals against England in Stuttgart at Euro 88 and in the aforementioned game against Italy in Giant’s Stadium, for many the enduring image of Houghton was his startlingly consistent ability to get into prime goalscoring areas, an unerring talent matched only by an equally consistent propensity to then miss from eight yards out), Steve Staunton tested Baía’s resolve with a long-range free kick while Niall Quinn introduced Couto to the immutable rule that if a centre half is going to mark a seven foot striker then it is of paramount import that he possess the ability to head the ball.
As cheers drained away with the fading Dublin light and fans began to drift back down toward the city centre via Lower Baggot Street and the capillary of roads and side streets that pockmark the vicinity of Landsdowne Road, an air of uneasy contentment festered. The mid-nineties seemed an unlikely staging post for the epochal shifts that were to follow as the country accrued mass wealth courtesy of the ludicrously monikered “Celtic Tiger”, before blowing it all again in an effete era of squandermania and ill-judged complacency. Rugby was to capture the hearts and minds of a new generation eager for sporting success commensurate with the country’s newly inflated view of itself. Landsdowne (the oldest venue of its kind in the world) was demolished and rebuilt in the manner of any number of all-seater dens of homogeneity, replete with corporate naming rights and the ubiquitous black boxes that divide the have’s from the have not’s in contemporary sport.
Prominent amongst the pitch-side advertising hoardings at Landsdowne that night in April 1995, however, was that of “Pat the Baker”, boldly painted in large red lettering. It is unknown what Pat, whose claim to fame was that his bread was “so fresh it’s famous”, thought of the following game in Vaduz, where the local groundsman-turned goalkeeper Martin Heeb kept Ireland’s attacking hordes at bay, pulling off a string of top class saves and pilfering the promise of Ireland’s early season form. Aping their journey back from the Alps, Ireland’s aspirations quickly spiralled downwards. Austria, spearheaded by the annoyingly pony-tailed Toni Polster, exposed the creaks in an Irish game plan where aging legs rendered a high pressure approach aspirational at best, and again in a rain-soaked Vienna, where Kennedy made his bow—running boldly at the home defence only to go down 3-1 for the second time in succession.
The landscape was changing and in Lisbon that November Figo and co. ran riot: hitting an injury depleted Irish side for three without response. Undaunted by the evidence put before them, the fates conspired to pit two eras against one another in a play-off at Anfield the following month, but in truth it felt like a purgatorial stay of execution. A brilliant young Dutch side ended Ireland’s hopes; Patrick Kluivert putting the coup de grâce on Charlton’s regime with a goal in either half. A teary-eyed Big Jack pulled ruefully on a cigarette and took the applause of the Kop at game's end, while the injured Kennedy never did quite maintain the luminescence of that damp evening in Vienna.