When Jack Charlton led Republic of Ireland to Euro 88 – thanks to Scotland

When Jack Charlton led Republic of Ireland to Euro 88 – thanks to Scotland

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s the tributes flooded in for Jack Charlton after death earlier this year, his achievements as Republic of Ireland manager were rightly lauded. Before his appointment, the team had never qualified for a major tournament. That soon changed. In a decade in charge, Charlton took the country to Euro 88 and two World Cups, also narrowly missing out on qualification for two more European Championships. He squeezed in a lot during his tenure, while also creating memories for supporters, boosting the national economy and becoming a national hero.

All of this seemed a pipe dream when Charlton was unveiled as manager at a feisty press conference in February 1986. Johnny Giles and Liam Tuohy had been the favourites for the job, with Charlton a distant third when the FAI’s 19-man executive committee met in Dublin to choose a new manager. But Charlton sneaked home, becoming the first Englishman to manage Ireland.

The media were not unanimously pleased about the FAI’s choice and the press conference even “threatened to become physical” according to the Irish Times. “The circumstances of my selection are unimportant, they had nothing to do with me,” said Charlton. “My pedigree shows that I know the business and I’ll be perfectly happy to be judged on what I do in the job.”

The task looked ahead tough for the 50-year-old. To qualify for Euro 88, Ireland would have to win a group that contained Belgium, Bulgaria and Scotland, three sides that had played in the 1986 World Cup.

Ireland started slowly in the group. After Liam Brady scored a last-minute penalty to secure a 2-2 draw in Belgium, Charlton’s team were held to a goalless draw by Scotland in Dublin before securing their first win at Hampden Park. Another draw with Belgium and two wins over Luxembourg continued the improvement, but defeat in Bulgaria to another late penalty appeared to put a big dent in their hopes of reaching the finals.

As Ireland prepared for their last group match at home to Bulgaria in October 1987, qualification was still possible, but only if three things happened: Ireland needed to beat Bulgaria, Scotland had to take at least a point off Belgium on the same day, and then Scotland had to win in Bulgaria. Not much to ask for.

Kevin Moran in action for the Republic of Ireland against Bulgaria in October 1987.

Ireland kept their part of the bargain by beating Bulgaria 2-0. When Scotland defeated Belgium by the same scoreline later that evening, their hopes grew. But there was one final hurdle in front of Charlton and the signs were not promising. Bulgaria had not lost a qualifier in Sofia since 1982; Scotland’s away record was poor; and injuries were decimating Andy Roxburgh’s plans. “At their best, the Scots are capable of beating anybody but Bulgaria are a strong, competitive team who don’t normally lose at home,” said Brady.

It hardly helped Ireland’s cause when Rangers trio Richard Gough, Ian Durrant and Ally McCoist pulled out of the squad with injuries. With Mo Johnston unavailable due to club commitments with Nantes, many Irish fans settled down to watch the match at 3.30pm on 11 November 1987 more in hope than expectation.

If Irish fans were holding out for a hero, Gary Mackay was probably not who they had in mind. The 23-year-old Hearts midfielder was only drafted into the Scotland squad a few days before the match because Aberdeen’s Jim Bett had picked up an injury against Morton. Mackay also picked up a knock in training, but he was passed fit enough to take a place on the bench in Sofia.

The match was played in conditions the Times described as “a depressing porridge of mist and drizzle” and the quality was poor. Jim Leighton tipped over an effort from Hristo Stoichkov in the first half, but Alex McLeish and Gary Gillespie marshalled the Scotland defence superbly. Mick McCarthy later revealed that the Ireland players had discussed the game and concluded that “our best and possibly our only hope lay in the Scots’ ability to frustrate the Bulgarians and then strike on the break in the closing few minutes.” The first part of the plan was going well, but could Scotland find the goal to bring a smile to Irish eyes?

Gary Mackay during his brief Scotland career.

The unlikely hero entered the fray at the start of the second half, a replacement for Paul McStay, who was unable to continue in what appeared at the time to be another blow to the Irish. Mackay had never played for Scotland before; by the end of his debut he would never have to buy himself a drink in Ireland again.

With just four minutes left, Gordon Durie, also making his debut, played the ball inside from Scotland’s right flank before being unceremoniously sent flying into the air. Fortunately, referee Helmut Kohl played the advantage and Steve Nicol was able to feed the ball to Mackay on the right corner of Bulgaria’s box. Letting the ball run across his body, Mackay unleashed a left-footed drive past Borislav Mikhailov (sans wig) that found the corner of the net to leave the crowd of 49,976 stunned. Jock Brown and Ian St John, commentating on Scottish television, yelled in delight as Mackay’s effort hit the net. The excitement in the RTÉ studios and around the Republic of Ireland understandably exceeded this.

Nasko Sirakov nearly equalised in the final minutes, sliding a shot wide of Leighton and the far post, but Scotland held on for the 1-0 win. When the final whistle sounded, boos echoed around the Vasil Levski National Stadium, undoubtedly matching the cheers sounding around Ireland.

Scotland’s win completed the remarkable job Charlton had started, not that the man himself had been following the action. Charlton was involved in a prior business arrangement in Birmingham and only discovered the good news when his assistant, Maurice Setters, contacted him. A delighted Charlton said qualifying for the tournament gave him “as much pleasure as anything I have enjoyed in football.”

Before the match, Charlton had sent Roxburgh a telegram wishing the Scotland manager and his team good luck and offering them champagne as an incentive. “Instead of sending the Scots a case of champagne as I promised, I will now send them two,” he said. “Frankly, I didn’t expect Scotland to win, but all credit to them. They went and did the business.”

What of the new Irish hero? “This has been the most incredible day of my life,” said Mackay. “To win my first cap in a game of this importance was really something – to score the winning goal makes it an absolute dream.” An ideal introduction to international football that left Mackay, Scotland and Ireland ecstatic.

Mackay never hit these heights again for Scotland. It was to be his only goal for his county and, after playing in draws against Luxembourg, Saudi Arabia and Malta, his international career was over by March 1988. But he made his mark in Bulgaria and Ireland. Bulgaria manager Hristo Mladenov called it “the blackest day of my career”. Ireland keeper Pat Bonner, meanwhile, noted: “I think all the Irish players will get drunk tonight.” All because of Gary Mackay – and an injury Bett picked up Cappielow Park.

“Scotland’s victory over Bulgaria in Sofia yesterday won no prizes for beauty but to Irish eyes it was sweet indeed,” reported the Guardian. Charlton had proven the doubters wrong and, like he predicted, he would be judged on results. “Lest anybody forget this job is only half done,” said Charlton. “Qualifying is one thing but we must go to the finals determined to justify our presence in them.” They would do that and more the following summer, even repaying a favour to Scotland along the way.

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