25 JUNE 1994, Page 47


Going for gold

Frank Keating

IRELAND'S resplendent defeat of Italy in the soccer World Cup's pipe-opener fur- ther emphasised the sad absence of Eng- land in the competition. What a waste. Graham Taylor, England's dithering old maid of a former manager, will go to the grave with a lot to answer for. He had the pick of the Football League, and wantonly blew it. Ireland's manager, Jack Charlton, was left with the also-rans who happened to have a dog called Paddy.

Or, as the case may be, Jock. The appeal- ingly relentless little buzz-saw of an Aston Villa reserve, Ray Houghton, who scored Ireland's voluptuous winning goal on Sun- day in New York, was born and brought up in Glasgow. In 1986, soon after he had taken the job, Charlton saw Houghton playing for the Cinderellas of Fulham, whither the boy had arrived on a free trans- fer. Charlton asked him, matter-of-fact, `Wasn't your grandad born in Donegal?' I don't think so, but I'll ring home and check,' said Houghton. It was true. One more for the bag. Jack in those days used to joke that FAI (the Football Association of Ireland, which inspiredly appointed him) stood for 'find another Irishman'.

There can be no remote doubt that had Charlton been manager of England (or Scotland or Wales, come to that) his team would have been dominating the headlines in America this month. In 1982, when Ron Greenwood retired as the England manag- er, Charlton replied to the FA's advertise- ment of the vacancy. The FA did not pven reply to his letter. Bobby Robson was appointed. Charlton recalls, 'That's when I thought, "OK, bugger them, then, I'll get on enjoying the rest of my life."' Just before the team left earlier this month, Charlton brought them over to the Café Royal to attend a banquet thrown by the London Irish business community. There was a twinkle in the eye all right, but no trace of blarney in the Geordie exile's certainty: 'Sure we can beat Italy if we con- centrate and if we can get them to worry about us and forget their own strength and skills and style. And when we do beat them, I'Il tell you something for nothing — we'll be on such a high that I wouldn't put it past our boys to go right on to the very end and lift the little gold bugger itself.' He drained his glass of stout, stubbed out his cheroot, and explained his simple game. All the grandest saints preached simple ser- mons.

`As a player, I was a defender, and the teams I used to hate were those which would stretch you, have you haring back- wards to the corner-flags and then hassling and harrying you up your backside. Since the first day I got this job I said to the boys, "That's going to be our game — get the buggers turning, and then get the ball behind them enough times to start getting them crazy with the annoyance of it."

`That's the simple secret of soccer as a team game. All you press guys will talk a load of crap — possibly right up to the final itself — saying we have no imagination or skills. But, listen, all the fanciest and classi- est "possession football" in the world you know, little "keep-ball" passing trian- gles getting nowhere slowly — is no substi- tute for getting the ball behind the defence as quickly and as regularly as possible and then playing merry hell with them when they're facing the wrong way.'

The waiter approached with refills of stout. No thanks, said Jack: he had to keep a clear head. 'But keep it on ice for the end of next month when we bring back the little gold bugger itself.' Some of the grandest of saints were also great prophets.