25 years ago today, Ray Houghton scored *that* goal for the Republic of Ireland against Italy at the Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey to give the Republic of Ireland its first ever win at the finals of a World Cup.
To put that into context, since then, the Republic of Ireland has only ever won one further match at the World Cup, that a 3-0 win over minnows Saudi Arabia back in 2002.
In 1994, it was becoming something of a habit for Houghton to score an early huge goal for his country in major tournaments with him having scored the only goal of the game against England at the Republic of Ireland’s first ever appearance at a major senior international football tournament, that being the 1988 UEFA European Championships.
Houghton’s goal against Italy was, like the one against England, opportunistic, coming when an unusually misplaced Franco Baresi header fell into his path and he shinned the ball perfectly over the head of Azzurri goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca and into the back of the net after 11 minutes of play.
What was to follow was to be a masterclass of a display from Aston Villa centre-back Paul McGrath, The Black Pearl of Inchicore.
1993 FIFA World Player of the Year Roberto Baggio – who would go on to drag Italy to the final of that 1994 World Cup – hardly got a kick on the night. Lazio star Pepe Signori also saw very little of the ball on that hot and humid evening, despite him having been Serie A’s leading goalscorer that (and the previous) season, again, largely thank to Paul McGrath, though players such as Roy Keane and Steve Staunton also deserves credit for stellar performances on the evening. A frustrated Signori ended up being substituted late on that evening.
Serie A was comfortably the strongest league in the world at that time, with AC Milan having hammered Barcelona 4-0 in the 1994 UEFA Champions League final just a few weeks earlier and of course that Italian team comprised of a plethora of Milan stars.
The Irish had been apprehensive going into the match, as New York is very much an Italian/American stronghold and it was expected that the vast majority of the 75,000+ crowd would be wearing Azzurri blue, but when the teams walked out into the heat of that East Rutherford early evening (with the pale Steve Staunton famously wearing a baseball cap and copious quantities of sunscreen and dousing his head with a wet towel during the match), they were greeted with almost wall-to-wall green and very loud chants of “Low Lie The Fields of Athenry…”
That first match of the 1994 World Cup was to prove to be the high point of that tournament for the Republic of Ireland (and indeed, the nation hasn’t quite reached that level of heights at major tournaments since, albeit draws against Germany and Spain in 2002 come close) as the midday Orlando heat which two of Ireland’s next three matches back in 1994 were played in was to prove difficult for Irish legs.
Netherlands would eventually knock the Irish out in the Round of 16 in the Orlando heat, the Oranje winning by two goals to nil, albeit Packie Bonner dropped an awful clanger for the second Dutch goal and Paul McGrath scored a fantastic late goal for Ireland which was wrongly disallowed.
Finally, it should not be forgotten that June 18th 1994 was the day of the Loughlinisland massacre in Co. Down, when six men who were watching the Republic of Ireland v Italy match in a pub were shot dead in cold blood by the UVF, just a couple of months before the IRA ceasefire. Nobody has ever been convicted of those murders. May those six men rest in peace.