It may have taken 28 years for Oxford United to make any impression on the European Championships, but when it came, it was explosive; pivoting around a single game, and a single goal, on the 12th June 1988 in Stuttgart.
Before we get to that, some context; Charles Hughes was the FA’s technical director during the 1980s and an acolyte of Wing Commander turned accountant turned football theoretician Charles Reep. Reep observed that most goals resulted from moves of less than four passes and therefore argued that teams should focus on creating what he called POMOs – Positions Of Maximum Opportunity – via what we now know as the long ball or route one.
Hughes was such a robust advocate of direct football he enshrined it in the FA official coaching manual in 1980 and it became a template for a generation of managers including Dave Basset at Wimbledon, Graham Taylor at Watford and Jack Charlton for the Republic of Ireland.
The idea of POMO is flawed; there’s no advantage of playing the long ball; all possession in those days tended to consist of less than four passes, it’s just how football was played. Teams were more potent when they retained possession just they didn’t do it very often. The idea stuck and even today, you’ll hear English football fans channelling Charles Reep by yelling at teams to get the ball in the mixer and stop mucking about.
When Jack Charlton became Republic of Ireland’s manager in 1985 he set about transforming the nation’s hopes based on two principles; a full-hearted commitment to Hughes’ philosophy and the leveraging of the opportunities provided by the Irish diaspora.
The Irish are among the most dispersed in the world, forced by poverty and persecution to find a better life elsewhere. To retain its identity, the Irish government had a liberal interpretation of nationhood. By law, if you had Irish relatives going back three generations, you could apply for citizenship. This helped circumnavigate FIFA’s ‘grandparent’ rule, where players were eligible to play for only their parents or grandparents’ home country. If Charlton could persuade eligible players to apply for Irish nationality, his catchment for talent would grow exponentially.
While some headed to the Americas, and others to Gaelic speaking Scotland, many Irish migrants simply crossed the Irish Sea to settle in Liverpool. One of those was John Aldridge’s great grandmother, Mary Mills, from Athlone.
Two things prevented Aldridge from being the greatest domestic goalscorer of his generation; Gary Lineker and Ian Rush. Lineker was immovable for England, while Rush was the leading striker in club football. Aldridge scored an avalanche of goals for Oxford, but opportunities to go further, particularly internationally, were limited.
Jack Charlton seized his chance, giving Aldridge his international debut in March 1986 against Wales. Prolific wherever he played, Aldridge didn’t quite fit into the long-ball system; his reputation built on poaching goals from six yards out. It took two and a half years and 20 games to score the first of his 19 international goals.
He hadn’t found the net by the time Ireland qualified for Euro 88 in Germany. By this point, Aldridge had moved from Oxford to Liverpool, replacing Rush who had been sold to Juventus. Ireland’s presence was assumed to add some colour to the tournament with their fearsome reputation for drink and an endless appetite for the craic. Ireland were what England could have been if they weren’t so angry and uptight about everything, it’s not surprising Charles Hughes’ ideas gained traction, the English dreary and pragmatic, lacking in romance.
Ireland qualified having scored just ten goals in eight games and thanks to a late Scotland goal against Bulgaria. Nobody considered them to be a threat. England, off the back of a good World Cup in 1986, fancied their chances to go all the way. The two countries were drawn together in Group B and faced each other in their opening game on the third day of the tournament.
Charlton was up against the country he’d won the World Cup with twenty-two years earlier, but somehow seemed more Irish than English. England seemed uncomfortable and on edge, partly because of the constant threat of hooliganism, but also because of the expectation that hung over them. Charlton had an air of chaotic bonhomie and the Irish loved him for it. In a frenzied atmosphere, the Irish entered the fray, backed by thousands of fans, with Aldridge leading the line.
The early moments were a testament to Charles Hughes’ vision; the flow of the game punctuated by petty fouls and aerial duels. After six minutes, a long Kevin Moran free-kick was launched down the left, deep into England territory.
Another former Oxford player, Southampton’s Mark Wright was partnering Tony Adams after Terry Butcher had been ruled out with a broken leg. Wright had played 10 games for Oxford before being transferred to The Dell in a deal which brought Trevor Hebberd and George Lawrence to The Manor. Within two years he’d made his England debut.
Wright was drawn out to firefight down the flank. Apparently spooked by the Irish threat, he clattered his right-back Gary Stevens allowing the ball to run loose to Tony Galvin. Galvin weakly hooked the ball across the penalty area but Wright’s ill-discipline caused panic in the English defence, pulling it out of position, forcing left-back Kenny Sansom into the middle to fill the hole he’d left behind but leaving the back post wide open.
The ball was awkward, bouncing waist high, Sansom lashed at it, sending it high into the air; Aldridge, playing target man, beat Tony Adams in the air nodding it onto the back post where Ray Houghton was arriving at speed.
Houghton may never have been an Irish legend he was if it wasn’t for John Aldridge. Charlton’s focus had been on the striker when he watched him score twice in Oxford’s Milk Cup semi-final first leg draw against Aston Villa. Afterwards, Aldridge introduced Charlton to Houghton joking that his teammate was more Irish than he was.
Houghton, a Glaswegian who’d signed for Oxford the previous summer, had a fractious relationship with the Scottish national team when it became clear that, despite a breakthrough season at The Manor and a goal in the Milk Cup Final, he was unlikely to be considered for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. Much to Charlton’s delight, Houghton’s father was from Donegal and therefore eligible for the Republic. Moving quickly, Charlton gave him his debut against Wales alongside Aldridge three weeks later.
Back in 1988, as the ball from Aldridge dropped, Houghton – now also a Liverpool player – burst into the box with his characteristic scuttle. He’d spotted Peter Shilton just off his line and off-centre to the goal, he realised if he could get some elevation on his header, he’d be able to get it over the keeper and into the net. Shilton, playing his 99th game for England, watched helplessly as it sailed over his head for 1-0. The celebrations were wild, it was the defining moment in a defining Irish win. The two ex-Oxford players, with a little help from a third, had ignited a golden age for the Republic on a world stage, one Irish fan said it defined the country for the first time since Irish partition nearly 70 years earlier.
Nestled away on the Irish bench in Stuttgart was Le Havre striker Johnny Byrne. If Aldridge and Houghton were in the right place at the right time, the reverse could be said for Byrne. He’d made his Republic of Ireland debut a few months before Jack Charlton became manager. A mercurial ball playing forward, he didn’t really fit Charlton’s model. Aldridge, Frank Stapleton, Tony Cascarino and Niall Quinn were all ahead of him in the pecking order, Byrne was very much plan B, or perhaps C or D, watching all three games from the sidelines. Things would pick up for him five years later as he spent a memorable couple of years partnering Paul Moody at The Manor.
The defeat was the start of a dismal tournament for England; after losing to the Republic they were humiliated 3-0 by the Netherlands. Wright was rested for the dead rubber against the Soviet Union, which ended in a 3-1 defeat. For Ireland, with Aldridge and Houghton ever-present, a draw with the Soviet Union put them on the verge of qualification, but a late 1-0 defeat, and freak goal, to the Netherlands ended the adventure, if not the wanderlust for more.
The Euros became a recurring nightmare for Mark Wright. In 1992, days before the tournament in Sweden, he aggravated his Achilles and dropped out of the squad. It came so late England weren’t allowed to replace him and he remained an official, if unavailable, squad member. Four years later, in Euro 96, Wright was set to be a surprise pick having worked his way back into contention after two years out of the squad. Two months before the tournament, he strained knee ligaments ruling him out again.
With Mark Wright missing Euro 92, it took until Euro 96 in England for an Oxford presence to re-emerge on the Euro stage. Ian Walker – who’d played three games on loan at The Manor six years earlier – was the perfect nineties footballer with his ‘curtains’ haircut, mock Tudor mansion and page 3 girlfriend. He also had an extraordinary International career that lasted eight years, two European Championships – he was picked again in 2004 – and just four games. In 1996 he played third fiddle to David Seaman and Tim Flowers, eight years later he’d been overtaken by David James and Paul Robinson. It goes without saying, Walker didn’t get a sniff of even the substitutes bench for either tournament.
Memories of Euro 96 are heavily skewed by England’s glorious failure. Elsewhere, the tournament was a bit ho hum; stadiums were half-full and there were few genuine stand out games. Scotland’s tournament was very typical – an encouraging draw with the Netherlands preceded a defeat to England. A win over Switzerland put them on the brink of qualification, but England conceded in a win over the dutch meaning Scotland were edged out on goals scored. On the bench throughout was Scot Gemmil, a disappointment no doubt that was extinguished when he moved to Oxford in 2006 as Jim Smith’s player-coach. He made one substitute appearance at Mansfield, an experience he found so overwhelmingly fantastic he immediately emigrated to New Zealand.
And that was it until this year’s tournament. Leeds United’s Tyler Roberts, who was on loan briefly at Oxford in 2016, is in the Wales squad. After the group games, Roberts – wearing the number nine – remains rooted to the bench. If he does make an appearance in the knock-out stages, he’ll be the first Oxford-related player to have stepped onto the pitch since the 1988 tournament 33 years ago. Given the wait, Charles Hughes may have blighted a generation of English football, but maybe we should be grateful for his flawed theories.