Ray Houghton believes it was the Republic of Ireland's finest hour. For England, it was up there with the humiliation at the hands of the United States in 1950. Scotland had failed to qualify for EURO 88 but had played its part, defeating Bulgaria 1-0 in Sofia to send the Republic through, thanks to Gary Mackay's 87th-minute winner.

It wasn't the only Tartan-wrapped gift Ireland were grateful for. Scotland had produced Houghton, too. Born and raised in Castlemilk, he had dreamed of playing for his country at a World Cup finals. Arthur Graham, the future Manchester United, Leeds and Scotland winger, was a neighbour whose family lived two floors up from Houghton's.

But where Graham succeeded in fulfilling his childhood ambition, Houghton failed, having been overlooked by the Scottish Football Association for the 1986 World Cup. Instead, he accepted an invitation to play for the Republic for whom he was eligible through his Donegal-born father.

In the television studios and column inches prior to kick off at the Neckerstadion in Stuttgart, Ireland had been written off as no hopers. Drawn in a group featuring the Netherlands, England and the USSR, three of the favourites for the tournament, Jack Charlton's men arrived in West Germany off the back of one poorly-attended warm-up game against Poland and a drinking session in Dublin's Hill 16 pub.

“We’d never done this before,” recalls Houghton. “We were overjoyed that we’d even qualified, to be honest, because we needed Bulgaria to lose against Scotland in the last game. We’d already finished all our matches to qualify, so there was nothing we could do about it.

“We just had to sit tight, and Scotland did unbelievably well to go out there and win, to make us qualify for this particular tournament. But once we got there, we didn’t know what to do! There were no real expectations; it was very low-key. In the build-up, most of the pressure was on the England side.”

It took six minutes for the Irish to make their mark. A punt forward by Kevin Moran was misjudged by Mark Wright, deputising for Terry Butcher who had broken his leg playing for Rangers against Aberdeen the previous November, and Gary Stevens, Butcher's Ibrox team-mate.Tony Galvin hooked the ball into the area, Kenny Sansom swiped the ball into the Stuttgart sky before John Aldridge knocked across goal to where the advancing Houghton did the rest with a stiff header beyond Peter Shilton. The Irish were in raptures. Jack Charlton jumped up so quickly that he banged his head off the roof of the dugout. Six years later, Houghton would score the goal that caused another great international upset when Ireland beat Italy 1-0 at Giants Stadium. But this one meant more.

“I’m often asked: [of] the two big goals that I scored – one against England in 1988 and, obviously, the World Cup in 1994, what was your favourite? Well, the one against England, simply because it was my first international goal. You know, I wasn’t a very good goalscorer; if you look at my ratio, the number of chances that I had [compared] to the number of goals wasn’t particularly promising.

“When I actually scored, the cameraman and whoever was directing it for the TV actually didn’t go on me, but on John Aldridge, because they must have thought, ‘It couldn’t be him, he’s never scored with his head before. 

“When I actually scored, the cameraman and whoever was directing it for the TV actually didn’t go on me, but on John Aldridge, because they must have thought, ‘It couldn’t be him, he’s never scored with his head before. Let’s go with the ultimate goalscorer, John Aldridge.’ There’s a great picture I’ve got of me and Ronnie [Whelan], where Ronnie’s grabbing me when the ball’s gone in, and I’ve got my arms up in the air, you know, striking, whatever, after scoring that particular goal.”

They may have been underdogs but Houghton is at pains to point out that the Ireland squad, made of first-team regulars at Liverpool, Manchester United and Celtic, was full of experienced players.

“If you looked at all of our players that started that game from Packie [Bonner] in goal to Chris Morris, Chris Hughton, Kevin [Moran], Mick McCarthy, and then the midfield with Ronnie, myself, Tony Galvin, Paul McGrath, up to Frank [Stapleton] and John, every one of us had won trophies at some stage in our careers. We’d [Liverpool] just come off the back of losing to Wimbledon in the FA Cup final – we should have done the double.

“The Celtic boys had done the double up in Glasgow that season. So we came into it with a lot: we had a lot of belief, we had experience behind us, we had a winning mentality – we knew what it was like to win. So, yeah, six minutes in, we got the goal and we now had something to hold on to and believe in.”

It may have been worryingly early into the game for some but it was to prove enough. An off-colour England, for whom Gary Lineker, later diagnosed with hepatitis B, missed a sequence of chances, could not find a way past Bonner. The Celtic goalkeeper, who had handed out rosary beads to the his team-mates in the dressing room before the start, made a string of saves.

Divine intervention or otherwise, Bonner certainly had good fortune on his side, as Houghton recalls, particularly when it came to a stoppage-time chance that Lineker would normally have devoured.

“Goalkeepers are allowed to make saves. They are in the goal to do exactly that. There’s no doubt England didn’t have the breaks they would have liked. That goes without saying. Lineker was such a potent force in front of goal, you’d normally think he was going to finish it off. The longer it kept at 1-0, we kept driving on. We were tired because that was our game. We didn’t lose twos and threes that often and we didn’t lose leads that often either because we were disciplined, we kept our shape and we made it very, very difficult for the opposition.”


That spoke to Charlton's schooling under Don Revie at Leeds United. On a baking hot day inside the Neckerstadion, his players clung on, running on fumes by the time the final whistle sounded. Revie had been a tough-talker and Charlton was no different. But it was a gentle admonishment that Houghton received from the English World Cup winner afterwards.

“I remember after the game, what he said to me was ‘Don’t ever do that again.’ And I said ‘What? Score against England?’ Because, obviously, he’s an Englishman and won the World Cup. And he said ‘Score that early. That was the longest 84 minutes of my life.’ So, he wasn’t talking about what a great win we had but, you know, that was Jack. You wouldn’t put him down as a master tactician but he made you feel that, going out there, you could beat anyone. He gave you that belief, that confidence.”

Houghton ascribes the result to mental fortitude, but also the habit of winning. It's why he believed the great celebrations in the aftermath of the game belonged to others.

“It’s a bit like when you win the league at Liverpool, you get your medal and they tell you to go and put it away and get ready for next season because that’s the mentality they had: driving on and driving on. I felt more the celebration was for Mick Byrne and Charlie O'Leary.

“Now they’d been part of the squad for a long time in their roles as physio and kitman. I remember after the game, Mick was the happiest man I’d ever seen in Germany. He was overjoyed. His life was encapsulated in this moment: beating England and he was part of it in front of this large Irish crowd. For us as players, it was a good start to the campaign but no more than that. We had to get ready for the next game.”

They would draw that next game 1-1 with the Soviet Union to set up a qualification decider against the Netherlands. In the final group match against the Dutch, they were eight minutes from the semi-finals when Wim Kieft struck a fatal blow and the Irish were out.

Yet their heroics continue to be remembered to this day, an RTE poll voting Houghton's goal Ireland's Greatest Sporting Moment of the 1980s in 2017.