USA ’94 was my first World Cup, and as for most football fans that means it probably remains my favourite. Though I’m English, I was young enough to look past England’s absence from the tournament as one might divorced parents or having a speech impediment; being young I simply didn’t know any better, so it all seemed normal enough. The flimsy merit of my pre-pubescent support went instead to the Republic of Ireland, due to my having an Irish grandfather. I had no idea at the time that this made me more eligible for Jack Charlton’s squad than many of the players he’d picked. That’s neither here nor there.
Ireland’s first game in the tournament was against Italy. We all know what happened next: the Irish celebrated a famous shock victory, Italy became the first country to ever lose a World Cup final on penalties, and I would eventually pass my Eleven Plus the following summer. Such dedication to my education came at a cost, as I was sent to bed before the game had even finished. I watched the first half with tiny, disbelieving eyes, as my nascent interest in the sport had not prevented me from learning that Italy were a force. I knew that the best players were in Italy, and that the best pubs were in Ireland (thanks, Grandad!). I knew enough to realise that Ireland surely couldn’t win. So it was that I shuffled off to bed reluctantly, hoping that the following day’s breaktime would involve joyous playground recreations of Ray Houghton’s winning goal with a sponge ball, as proper balls weren’t allowed at our school as a safety precaution (TRAUMATIC SIDENOTE – At school I once split my head open playing football by scuffing an attempted goal-line clearance, skidding on the soft ball which caught under my foot. I fell noggin-first on a concrete fence post, in the most ironic injury ever sustained by an eleven-year-old).
To this day I still haven’t seen the full game, although received wisdom and YouTube highlights have informed me that the game is remembered for two things: Houghton’s goal, and Paul McGrath. If, for some reason, you’re not aware of the magnitude of McGrath’s performance that day, the fact that an item of clothing has been designed in tribute will tell you all you need to know. I’d always wanted to see the game in its entirety to fully appreciate McGrath’s efforts that day, but there are other reasons too.
You remember your first World Cup the same way you might recall your first car, or your first trip to the bone zone; it may not have been very good, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t the best. That first time always retains a certain magic. I wanted to wallow in the warmth of nostalgia, and feel the magic of my first World Cup once more, redolent in its exotic NTSC footage. I wanted to see what else there was to this legendary game. But most of all I wanted to vanquish one of my life’s great lost second halves. So join me as I apply Tiger Balm to my knee in respectful homage to McGrath, and enjoy this famous game at last…
Roberto Baggio was the first man to introduce me to the idea that there was such a thing as The Best Player In The World. By the time USA ’94 rolled round, I had taken in roughly a season of English domestic football, largely through terrestrial television offerings and magazines paid for with my pocket money. Baggio was new to me, and with his ponytail he looked different to what I’d seen so far: physically a class apart, a being from another footballing planet. His name still retains a mythical lustre just as it did in the preamble to the World Cup, where it felt as if this whole, exciting event was arranged merely to provide a showcase for his talents.
The footage I’m watching features the original ITV commentary from Brian Moore, with analysis from Ron Atkinson, one of the game’s great forgotten racists. There is some remarkably prescient discussion about Houghton before kick-off, when Moore reveals how Charlton had publicly suggested that the Aston Villa man’s best days were behind him. Moore hails it as a “fantastic piece of man-management” in inspiring him to pull his socks up. He has no idea how right he’ll prove to be.
Atkinson talks of Franco Baresi as having “lost that zip”, in reference to the pre-tournament knee surgery that threatened his participation altogether. It’s a melancholy portent given how fantastic he was throughout the tournament, only to eventually miss a crucial penalty in the final. It’s just as sad to note that this is a young Roy Keane’s first and only World Cup, and that he wouldn’t return while at the peak of his powers (there was an incident).
Ireland immediately begin the match by refusing to let Italy have any time on the ball, doubling up on any movement in the attacking half. It is as if Ireland are protecting a lead from the very start.
Italian full-back Mauro Tassotti is wearing number nine, pre-dating the irritating vogue for self-consciously zany shirt numbers by at least a decade. The 25-year-old Paolo Maldini is a man you imagine smells nice all the time – you can practically see the fragrance emanating from him. Meanwhile, Roberto Donadoni plays for Italy, aged 30, at the peak of his physical resemblance to television gardener Monty Don.
After 10 minutes, Roberto Baggio flicks the ball over Ireland’s high-defensive line for Beppe Signori to chase. Only McGrath stands between him and the goal, and the two men sprint 30 yards to make the inevitable outcome, as the ball is sent safely back to Bonner. The Paul McGrath Block/Tackle/Interception tally (or, the BTI Index) currently stands at three. Atkinson sounds an ominous warning of what’s to come for Italy, when he suggests that the time to catch McGrath out is early on, when his knees are not yet fully warmed up. He will only become more obdurate as his tattered cartilage adjusts to the New York heat.
The game is twelve minutes old when Ray Houghton wallops in the ol’ career-definer: his OK Computer, his Colonel Kurtz, his first WWF Championship. A long-ball from the back, defensive header, another header, Houghton pounces. The most memorable thing in the immediate aftermath of the goal is his slightly fey roly-poly. He is a man whose modest agility fails to match the adrenaline rush that demands something more acrobatic for the occasion. The most compelling part of the celebration was the subdued reaction of Terry Phelan. He is the first to embrace Houghton as jubilant team-mates pile in to a celebratory huddle, but Phelan’s anxious face says everything you need to know – the game’s not won yet lads. In that brief moment where he’s caught by the camera’s gaze, you can see him inwardly wince at the titanic defensive effort Houghton’s goal has just demanded they all make for the next 80-odd minutes. Phelan is the gangster turning up late to the mugging, realising that the bodies need to be cleared before they can make off with the spoils.
Italy don’t have their first attempt on goal until the 18th minute, when Signori shanks a long-range shot well wide. After 20 minutes the Italians trouble the Irish area for the first time, and in the space of ten seconds McGrath connects with two headers, then blocks a shot by throwing himself in harm’s way. In a trice McGrath’s BTI Index has now doubled to six. They know what needs to be done, and McGrath leads the way by settling into the bunker, ready to repel wave after wave of enemy fire.
A few minutes later, Phil Babb nervously shepherds the ball away from an onrushing Signori after Bonner shows reluctance in coming out for the ball. After some frosty words with Babb, he responds to a similar line of discussion with Phelan by telling him to “FUCK OFF! FUCK OFF”, with a face like a volcano full of bubbling shit.
Gary Newbon reports from the touchline that Charlton, in a sign of technical area outbursts to come, is going “absolutely potty” at his inability to get water to his overheated players, raising the hackles of FIFA officials who demand that he remain seated in the dugout. Charlton and substitute Tony Cascarino battle the heat by wearing plain white baseball caps and staunchly refusing to curve the peaks, as per the fashion of the time. They both look utterly ridiculous of course, although Cascarino wears his at a slightly unconventional angle, retrieving the situation somewhat. GANGSTARINO!
Roberto Baggio is clattered in a tackle from not-quite-behind by Andy Townsend. It’s the sort of challenge that was perfectly acceptable at the time, but would probably be penalised today. As it was, the whole incident was so degrading for the Divine Ponytail that his then-wife cited it in divorce proceedings, which she began in earnest immediately after her husband had been dispossessed by the trundling journeyman.
Ireland are so wasteful with the ball, trying to rush things when all they need to do is hold on to it. They frequently overhit dead-balls straight off the pitch, rather than floating them in to the box where they could try and unsettle the AC Milan back four, unsettled by Baresi’s ring-rust. Ireland’s profligacy only escapes unpunished due to Italy’s inertia, as Arrigo Sacchi’s men stumble out of the blocks like some sort of Olympic drunkard.
We are only 35 minutes in to the game when Denis Irwin knocks the ball back fully 40 yards to Bonner. This display of long-ball catenaccio is roundly booed by the Italians, as the Irish ‘keeper has already received more balls than a particularly busy prostitute. Ireland are frustrating Italy, but it is a disciplined defensive performance, rather than just a matter of getting bodies behind the ball and flying into tackles. Atkinson points out that they haven’t given away many free-kicks around the box, as the Irish are simply working hard at keeping their shape, and refusing to allow Italy’s attack to make space. Signori’s face is as ruddy as a Cornish butcher when the half-time whistle blows.
The second half begins with some extraordinary insight from Atkinson, who says, upon seeing Daniele Massaro on the pitch: “It looks very much like Daniele Massaro has come on”. At least with the racism he was trying to make a point. He redeems himself by pointing out that Italy have switched Signori to the left-hand side, “which he occupies a lot for his club side”. A co-commentator showing some research and insight, while Moore does exactly what should be done, and allows him the space to speak; if only they could’ve passed this lesson on to Townsend, so that his future self might learn the lesson for his own benefit, and pass it on to Clive Tyldesley too.
It’s a pleasure to listen to Moore’s commentary, and yet a galling reminder of the dearth of quality commentators these days. One skill synonymous with the man is that wonderful change in vocal gear when something exciting might happen, something which so few commentators seem to get right. When either team attacks on the break, he’ll change the tone of his voice to suit, as if breathless from running to join the attack himself.
Immediately from the kick-off, Ireland are camped in their own half. An Irwin clearance is launched upfield, where Tommy Coyne ploughs a lone, futile furrow, like Boxer in Animal Farm. There are further boos for another 40-yard pass back to Bonner, this time from Keane.
Massaro is caught offside, and does the most Italian thing in the world: pinching his thumb to his fore and index fingers, turns his hand upside down and bounces it rhythmically, for the universally recognised gesture for Italian dissatisfaction.
Newbon brings us lots of information from Charlton’s team-talk: complaints about players not being able to get enough water, warning players to be careful around the edge of the penalty area, cut out the ball being laid back by Italian strikers in and around the box. When the ball is played up front for Coyne, Ireland players are to run at Italian defenders to distract them. Newbon has long since disappeared from ITV programming after Gabriel Clarke killed him and ate him so he could steal his job. The level of Newbon’s input is genuinely surprising, as we don’t get that much information from team-talks anymore. These days, such details are leaked via a phalanx of well-placed journalists on Twitter. Clarke’s bloody act of cannibalism was all in vain. He doesn’t even have a Twitter account.
In the space of five minutes, Babb cuts out two separate through-balls to Dino Baggio with immaculate last-ditch slide tackles in the box. While McGrath’s contribution has since been mythologised, Babb was immense too, doing the leg work so McGrath didn’t have to, freeing him up to use his uncanny perception of the game to cut out danger where possible. After an hour, another firm-but-fair Babb tackle prompts Roberto Baggio to lash out angrily, and you can see Italian composure beginning to crumble. The incident is barely acknowledged by anyone watching the game, but four years later a similar tangle between David Beckham and Diego Simeone will offer a very different outcome.
Moore: “This could be real edge of the seat stuff for the next 20 minutes or so”. He’s not wrong. A dangerous cross comes into Ireland’s box – “Massaro is in the middle…and thank goodness, so too is Roy Keane”. A subtle way of implying home nations bias, without beating the drum of jingoism too hard – another quality lacking from many of his present day counterparts.
Ireland make a substitution after 67 minutes – Houghton off, Jason McAteer on. Just as McAteer is ready, Houghton goes close with a great volley from a Coyne knockdown. Ireland’s second-best chance after the goal itself. A fine day’s work. Newbon informs us that it’s McAteer’s 23rd birthday, and he celebrates by running himself into the ground for the cause. At one point the Bolton Wanderers winger takes on four tiring Italians one after the other, in a bold cavalry charge. Moore implores him to “Go on, run at them“, said with such relish and enthusiasm, as an old man might say to a youngster during a park game.
With 20 minutes left the Irish nearly seal it after some great play on the left wing from Keane, who cuts it back to John Sheridan, who hits the crossbar. Even though he misses, it still comes at a valuable time, momentarily alleviating the mounting Italian pressure. Ireland are reminded that, tired though they are, their destiny is still in their hands. As if to prove the point, McAteer pressures Maldini off the ball after a mix-up with Gianluca Pagliuca. Italy have been staggered by Sheridan’s shot, allowing Ireland time to regain their composure. They then proceed to take more time on the ball, defying the tension by calmly passing it rather than hopefully knocking it long down the channels. This only seems to last for a few minutes though. Perhaps with this in mind, Moore and Atkinson offer praise for Coyne, who has worked tirelessly, and yet has only had about six touches of the ball.
With just eight minutes to go, Ireland’s fatigue stymies any effort to relieve the relentless pressure. Phelan cuts out a pass on the edge of the box before sprinting forward, covering sixty yards in around three seconds, taking the fight to Italy on his own to allow his team-mates the time to catch their breath. Townsend refuses to succumb to this moment of derring-do by refusing to pass to him. Phelan sprints back, shamefaced. At this point I only notice for the first time that there are corner flags placed at either end of the half-way line. Those crazy Americans!
As the clock finally reaches 90 minutes, Ireland fans rise to their feet in anticipation of the final whistle. Coyne is substituted for John Aldridge to eat up some precious seconds. Aldridge will not touch the ball once. Ireland keep soaking up pressure, until Townsend seizes on a loose ball and runs frantically into space. It’s cheered like a penalty has just been given. He runs the ball into the corner. A few green streamers are thrown onto the pitch.
There is still time for McGrath to cut out a final, hopeful ball into the box, and the BTI Index finishes on 21. He didn’t have very many touches beyond these blocks, tackles and interceptions, but when you think that he prevented 21 possible goalscoring opportunities, you see exactly how vital he was that day. His true influence can be measured in the authority of his composure. There was a crucial moment in the second half when McGrath, under pressure from both Roberto Baggio and Signori in his own box, takes a breath before calmly turning and passing the ball away from danger. It was the most remarkable example of the sangfroid that permeated throughout the team, settling Irish nerves while those of the Italians frayed.
And then the whistle blows, causing untold damage to millions of Irish livers. Nearly two decades later, and a lost second half has finally been found. If you wish to relive the match yourself, check out the WWF-tastic ESPN footage of the full match below: