Football Special Report #18 – Dark Days of the Irish National Team, 1958-1985

The following was originally published in issue #70 of the Shelbourne fanzine “Red Inc.” by Reds Independent in August 2020. Click here for other instalments in the Football Special Report series. (Banner image: Ireland having having conceded an 88 minute goal away to Belgium, 1981)


A while back on the POTP socials, we posted an image put together via Wikipedia of Ireland results from the end of the 1950s to the mid-80s, highlighting quite the negative record for the Boys in Green during that time period (see end of article). Before 1958, despite not qualifying for a World Cup (the first Euro finals weren’t until 1960) and a few losing streaks, the statistics weren’t terrible: 79 played since 1924 (excluding unofficial games), 31 wins, 13 draws, and 35 losses, so the Irish were undefeated more often than not. This included: three defeats of Belgium in a row in 1928 (a), 1929 (h) and 1930 (a; the only games played during these years); away wins over the Netherlands, Switzerland and France in the 30s, and home wins over Switzerland, Germany and Poland; home and away defeats of Spain in 1946 and 47, and Portugal at home in 49; becoming the first non-British side to beat England on home soil in Goodison Park that same year; and two more victories apiece over both the Dutch and Germans (of the Western variety this time) in the 50s. The only issue was that the above were all friendly games, with a slightly less-encouraging competitive record (World Cup qualifiers and Olympics) of 19 played, 6 wins (over Bulgaria, Finland, Luxembourg x2 and Denmark x2) 4 draws, and 9 losses.

For the period we’re focusing on though – staring with a 2-2 friendly draw away to Poland, watched by 100,000 in Silesian Stadium, Katowice, on 11/05/1958, and ending with a 1-4 World Cup qualifier defeat to Denmark at Lansdowne Road on 13/11/1985, Eoin Hand’s last game in charge – the record ended up as follows: 144 games played, 42 wins, 30 draws and 74 losses. This meant that even combining wins and draws, Ireland had still lost 2 more games. It would have been even worse had we continued into the start of 1986 and included Jack Charlton’s first match, a 0-1 home friendly loss to Wales on March 26th, but obviously things were about to turn around then. Part of the problem in the earlier years was that Ireland didn’t even have a manager until 1969 when Mick Meagan (also manager of Drogheda FC, soon to be merged with Drogheda United) took the job, with an FAI committee instead picking the team before then. What could go wrong!


Things didn’t looked too bleak heading into the 60s, starting competitively in 1959 with a 2-0 win over Czechoslovakia in the 1st leg of the European Nations Cup sole preliminary-qualifying tie (to create even numbers for the first round) in Dalymount Park, although a 0-4 loss in the Bratislava return game meant that Ireland would go down in history as the first country eliminated from a Euros. But later that year John Giles made his debut in a 3-2 friendly win against Sweden, followed by a 2-0 defeat of Chile and yet another victory over West Germany in Düsseldorf in 1961. As World Cup qualifying approached however, cause for concern started to creep in after a 1-4 loss away to the Swedes in Malmo and a 2-3 loss at home to Wales, also both friendlies. Any fears were confirmed when Ireland lost all four of their World Cup qualifiers against Scotland and Czechoslovakia, finishing with the worst record of any team in UEFA thanks to a goal difference of -14.

Despite the World Cup nightmare, and another 2-3 home friendly loss to Austria kicking off 1962, a brief upswing was imminent. After defeating Iceland 5-3 on aggregate in the opening round of Euro qualification (which was more a straight tournament at the time, leading to a final-four with one picked as hosts in the run-up), a great 3-2 aggregate revenge win was achieved in 1963 over the Austrians to progress to the third phase. In early 1964, Spain finally ended the run with a score of 1-7 over two legs, but Ireland had effectively reached a quarter-finals. It would remain a high point over the next couple of decades.

Spain were also adversaries for World Cup 66 qualifying, oddly ending up as Ireland’s only opponent over three matches. Syria had bizarrely been intended for UEFA Group 9 as well, but withdrew as part of a wider boycott by African and Asian teams over FIFA’s paltry distribution of one World Cup spot between both zones. A fine 1-0 win against the Spanish in May 1965 was followed by a 5-1 defeat in Seville in October. With the idea of goal difference not yet implemented for tie-breaks, a play-off in Paris a month later was ordered where a 0-1 win for Spain kept Ireland out of England 66.

For the next campaign, with the “European Nations Cup” moniker officially morphing into the more familiar “European Championships” and now with grouped qualifiers, Spain were yet again the roadblock, along with Turkey and Czechoslovakia. This time Ireland at least took points off all three opponents, with a 0-0 at home to Spain, a 2-1 at home to Turkey and a 1-2 away to the Czechoslovaks, but lost the other three games.

Like the Spanish, Czechoslovakia continued to be a major thorn in Irish sides during this era as they were drawn together once more for World Cup 70 qualification, along with Hungary and Denmark. The campaign got off to an unusual start due to weather, as the opening home encounter against the Danes in December 1968 was called off on account of dense fog after 51 minutes, with the score at 1-1. The game was replayed the following year and ended up as a 1-1 draw anyway, which was Ireland’s only point gained from the group. As the 1960s ended, football men in the country said “good riddance” to the decade after an unsatisfactory competitive record of 24 games played, 16 losses, 5 wins and 4 draws.


Of course the 1970s picked up right where the 60s left off for Ireland, with friendly losses to Poland (home and away) and West Germany in 1970, before a glimmer of hope in October with a 1-1 Euro qualifier draw at home to Sweden. With Italy and Austria the other teams in the group, the point earned against a Nordic side would again turn out to be Ireland’s sole “success”; a 6-0 thrashing in Vienna was the low-point. Only Cyprus and Luxembourg were worse in other groups, while Malta finished level.

In June 1972, the Brazil Independence Cup – a friendly tournament to celebrate 150 years of Brazilian independence – gave a chance for some respite. By the time of the trip, it had been more than four and a half years since an Irish win of any sort; the last being that 1-2 Euro qualifier in Prague in November, 1967. Victories finally came, but far from Irish fans and against less than stellar opposition with few stakes to play for: 2-0 over Iran in Recife and 3-2 over Ecuador in Natal. Losses to Chile and Portugal swiftly followed to make the Irish feel more at home.

World Cup 74 qualifiers pitted Ireland in a tough Group 9 with France and the USSR. Despite home and away losses to the Soviets, a fantastic 2-1 win over France nearly a full five years after the Prague win finally gave Dalymount something to cheer for, as it had now actually been six years and a day since the last home victory over Turkey. The only competitive game of 1973 in Paris finished 1-1 giving Ireland a respectable 2nd place as possible from a group with only three teams. It also marked the end of the mostly-disastrous period, which, if you take away the Brazil Independence Cup, had included a run of 20 win-less matches. Liam Tuohy – in the manager’s seat since taking over from Meagan in late 71 – also prepared to step aside for John Giles.

If anything, Giles ushered in a new era of false hope for Ireland fans to replace the overwhelming failures of yesteryear. After friendly wins over Poland and Chile, but losses to Brazil and Uruguay in another South American tour, Giles first competitive game in 1974 was another of the great Irish wins of the decade – a 3-0 Dalymount trouncing of the Soviets in a Euro 76 qualifier. Amazingly, this was followed by a 1-1 draw in Turkey and a 2-1 win over Switzerland the following year to put Ireland in an usually powerful position. Back-to-back losses away to the Soviets and Swiss meant that the Irish would miss out by only one point in the end, with a 4-0 defeat of the Turks ending the campaign on a bittersweet high.

The 4-0 was the start of a nice, little five game unbeaten run including a 1-1 draw in Wembley against England, albeit the four matches following the Turkey game were friendlies. World Cup 78 qualifying started with a 0-2 loss away to France in November, 1976, but redemption came thanks a 1977 1-0 win over the same opposition in Lansdowne Road, now being used as the full-time regular home venue. A loss and a draw to Bulgaria, however, scuppered any chances of yet another Irish trip to South America for Argentina 78.

Bulgaria also featured in Ireland’s largest qualifying group to date for Euro 80, along with England, Northern Ireland, and Denmark. The campaign began with a thrilling 3-3 in Copenhagen against the Danes in May 1978, followed by 0-0 and 1-1 home draws against Northern Ireland and England respectively. A 2-0 home win over Denmark in May 1979 began another five game unbeaten run and seven games undefeated at home. Bulgaria eventually put a stop to the former in Sofia with a 1-0 defeat, and, despite beating the Bulgarians in Dublin to continue the fine home form (at least competitively, as a 1-3 to West Germany came in between), disappointing losses in Belfast and London (the latter actually not taking place until February 1980) were to follow meaning Ireland finished third. Even though we’re not covering unofficial matches, another highlight of this time, and one to be proud of, was an unofficial Irish friendly against the Basque Country in Bilbao in 1979 – the Basques’ first since 1939 due to the oppression of Francoist Spain.


At last, for World Cup 82 qualifying, Ireland were drawn against a definitively lower ranked team in Cyprus and took advantage of this to pick up an opening 2-3 away win in March 1980. The rest of the group was extraordinarily tough though, with France, Netherlands and Belgium completing the pack. In September, Fortress Lansdowne witnessed another great win with a 2-1 over the Dutch, before a 1-1 against Belgium the following month. Now managed by Eoin Hand, losses away to the French and Belgians would end up the difference makers as a respectable 2-2 draw was achieved in the Netherlands, along with a record breaking 6-0 home win over Cyprus and yet another remarkable 3-2 home win over France. This left the French having to win their last two games-in-hand, which they did to finish joint level on points with the Irish (both behind the Belgians in 1st) but France heartbreakingly progressed to the World Cup on goal-difference.

An exotic string of away friendlies in 82 and 83 against Algeria, Chile, Brazil and Trinidad and Tobago, resulted in four defeats in a row, with the Brazilian loss being a 0-7 demolition – an Irish record which stands to this day. The losing run was then extended to five by the Dutch in the opening game of Euro 84 qualifying. A crazy 3-3 with Spain at home was sandwiched in between expected wins over Iceland and Malta, before a 0-2 Spanish victory in Zaragoza. After an encouraging 0-3 Irish win in Iceland, a 2-3 loss to the Netherlands sealed Ireland’s fate to 3rd as predicted, but a final day record breaking 8-0 win over the Maltese at least gave Dalymount (used again for several friendlies and qualifiers in the early-mid 80s) something to celebrate.

After an away loss to Israel and a 0-0 with Poland, Ireland travelled to Japan in May 1984 for the Kirin Cup. This was mostly unofficial, as three of the four games were against a Japanese university XI and Brazilian club Internacional. But a first time contest against China in the middle was recognised as a full international, which was won 1-0 by the Irish (the only win of the tour, recognised or not). Later in the year came another one of those big home wins that ultimately meant nothing, as Lansdowne hosted a 1-0 over group favourites USSR.

Back-to-back Scandinavian defeats at the hands of Norway and Denmark soon put the breaks on any realistic hopes Ireland had of making Mexico 86. In early 1985 a string of friendlies, including the famous Dalymount game against Italy – a 1-2 loss – and another trip to Israel, concluded with the slightly unusual venue of Flower Lodge in Cork hosting a scoreless draw against Spain. A 3-0 win over Switzerland back in Lansdowne was the only other redeeming result of the year, as two draws and two defeats in the remaining qualifiers meant that Ireland finished second bottom. The Soviet game was at least watched by 103,000 in Lenin Stadium, Moscow, which is a record number of spectators for an Ireland match. After this came the Danish defeat we mentioned back in the intro, meaning that the Irish had unknowingly come to the end of a very long and depressing era.


Chart: (created before the article was conceived, hence the slightly wrong time period; credit to Wikipedia for the original source)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s