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14th Nov 2016

NIALL QUINN EXCLUSIVE: How a wild week in Limerick set the tone for a disastrous defeat to Austria in 1995

Niall Quinn

When the cat was away, the mice went out to play.

I have to admit I’m generally an optimist but I hadn’t got this Irish team down for 10 points out of 12 at this stage of the qualifying process.

I thought we’d have our usual skin of the teeth end to the campaign. Instead, we look comfortable going into the break and if we win all our home games now we will be in Russia.

2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifier, Ernst-Happel-Stadion, Vienna, Austria 12/11/2016 Austria vs Republic of Ireland Ireland's Jon Walters after the game Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

After the game on Saturday and the ending of the long history of the hoodoo with Austria, inevitably some memories came flooding back from 1995 and the beginning of the end of our time with Big Jack.

It was early summer and the long English season was over. We had gone to Vaduz in Liechtenstein and had an embarrassing draw the week before. We came back to Ireland and headed to Limerick for the week to get ready to redeem ourselves against Austria in Lansdowne Road the next week.

Jack trusted us so much that he spent the week at another engagement. We were old enough, in theory, to be left by ourselves for a week but in practice, when the cat was away the mice went out to play.

What I’m saying is the mice played for a week in Ted’s Night Club in Limerick. We did long warm ups for Ted’s each evening in Henry Cecil’s bar. We generally did a half-hearted training session the next morning.

On the morning before the game a bus turned up to bring us to Dublin. It was like an exhibit from a Victorian transport museum. This was 1995 and we hadn’t laid down all those nice motorways we have now. We chugged slowly towards Dublin.

Republic of Ireland 1 Austria 3 11/6/1995 Austrians celebrate win over Ireland © INPHO / James Meehan

The highlight of the journey is well known but before we get to that, what is less generally remembered is the stop off in Ballyfermot Community Centre. Jack had vaguely promised a local fundraiser that we would turn up for some sort of opening.

When our bus came belching and farting into the car park and we got out, the locals were as surprised to see us and we were surprised to be there.

Still, when word got around that we were there, a friendly crowd assembled. I remember us going out again on the bus and all these young fellas riding bareback on piebalds galloping along beside the bus waving at us as we headed toward the Bluebell Road. They were trying to beat the bus and, for quite a while, they succeeded .

Eventually we got to Harry Ramsden’s on the Long Mile Road. Each player got given a fish as big as a wellington boot and a mountain of chips. And then a brochure got handed around telling every player that if they ate it all they’d get a free dessert and a certificate.

Gary Kelly hadn’t won a medal in his career but he set about the Harry Ramsden challenge with gusto. We had a presentation for him when he won and we all stood around him clapping, fat as fools but with work still to do.

Euro 1996 Qualifier 11/6/1995 Republic of Ireland vs Austria Republic of Ireland's Ray Houghton celebrates scoring Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/James Meehan

We didn’t head to the hotel after the fish and chips as we had to go straight to Lansdowne Road to train on the pitch. We did the warm up stretches belting and farting like the old bus that had brought us there.

It was dusk when we were finished and fully dark when we got to the hotel, having left Limerick in the morning. We didn’t even have the usual card school; we just all headed off to bed, knackered.

The next day we were back on an even keel and got serious. I got taken off at around the hour mark and Tony Cascarino came on for me. We often passed each other coming on and off the pitch but I remember being especially glad to get the chance to greet Cas that day. I was shattered after an hour.

So, it turned out, was everybody else. Ray Houghton did put us one-nil up not long after I had come off but then, with 20 minutes left, we collapsed. The Austrians put three past us. Toni Polster got two of them.

Euro 1996 Qualifier 11/6/1995 Republic of Ireland vs Austria Austria's Toni Polser (not in picture) scores from a free kick Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/James Meehan

When the old team meets up now we don’t really talk about that week. Of all the old stories, the Limerick trip and our guilt is best forgotten.

We’d done those things before – that was part of the times and part of what we were as a team – but we’d never done them as much as we did that week in Limerick.

Time caught up on us and on Jack. We got kicked in the backside.

We eventually reached a play-off against Holland that we lost in Anfield but I think in six games before the end of Jack’s reign, newly-founded Latvia were the only team we beat. All good things come to an end.

I watched James McClean scoring on Saturday and it made me smile. He epitomises what is best about this new team. They have the spirit and guts that went missing in the Trapattoni years. They have that bit of defiance.

2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifier, Ernst-Happel-Stadion, Vienna, Austria 12/11/2016 Austria vs Republic of Ireland Ireland's James McClean celebrates scoring the opening goal of the game Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

They’ll never know the inside of Ted’s Nightclub or the thrill of winning a big competition like the Harry Ramsden Challenge but that was then and this is now.

Priorities change and Russia beckons!