EURO 2016

Greatest Ireland memories: Alan McLoughlin seals USA '94 spot

John Aldridge, Alan McLoughlin and Denis Irwin celebrate Ireland's qualification
John Aldridge, Alan McLoughlin and Denis Irwin celebrate Ireland's qualification

FOR the second of our greatest Irish football memories, we go back to November 1993 and a fixture that it is appropriate to write about since the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland will both play at Euro 2016.

We refer of course to that dramatic night in Windsor Park in Belfast when Alan McLoughlin wrote his name in Irish football history. He scored a late equaliser that carried Jack Charlton's team to USA '94.

It was an incredible night, fraught with tension, one that even inspired a play.

A year later, the teams met at the same venue in a Euro '96 qualifier and the atmosphere was totally relaxed. What had changed was the first IRA and Loyalist ceasefires in early 1994.

But when Charlton and his team went north a few months previously, things were still fraught.

So fraught that the police insisted the Irish team fly from Belfast to Dublin after the game rather than driving down the road in a bus to the border.

The game was also the last outing for Billy Bingham as manager of the Northern Ireland team that he had guided with such distinction to World Cups in 1982 and 1986.

Each of the three possible results to the match carried meaning for Ireland. Charlton's team would qualify for America with a win.

Yet a draw would do as long as Spain beat European champions Denmark in Seville in a game starting at the same time.

However, defeat would be the end of the line.

You could cut the tension with a knife as the teams took the field. Bingham had stoked up the home supporters, calling his opponents 'a bunch of mercenaries' and there were no Republic of Ireland fans there to answer, at least not officially anyway.

Packie Bonner made a few good early saves before the away side took command of the contest – but without ever scoring a goal.

Things turned very grim when Jimmy Quinn smashed in a goal for Northern Ireland in the 73rd minute.

But then came better news. Spain, though down to 10 men, had taken the lead against Denmark.

Ireland just needed to get the one goal back.

Denis Irwin produced a cross from a free-kick, it was poorly headed out to McLoughlin standing on the edge of the penalty area and he lashed the ball beyond Tommy Wright to the Northern Ireland net.

The remaining 10 minutes in Belfast were played out without too much drama.

However a long injury stoppage in the other game meant Charlton and his players had to stand in the middle of the pitch for four long minutes, waiting to know whether Spain had held on.

They had – thus Ireland put Denmark out on goal difference and they would be the only team from these islands to play at the 1994 World Cup.

IRELAND: Bonner; Irwin, Kernaghan, McGrath, Phelan; Houghton, Keane,Townsend, McGoldrick; Quinn, Aldridge.

Subs: McLoughlin for Houghton (70mins), Cascarino for Aldridge (81mins).