Gary Mackay, Ray Houghton and Mick McCarthy are all national treasures – but not necessarily in their home nations. Here’s the curious tale of how a Scotsmen helped and Englishman become an Irish legend ...

Have you heard the one about the Scotsmen who made an Englishman an honorary Irishman? 

Now that sounds like the start of a bad dad joke - doesn't it? 

Gary Mackay and Ray Houghton were the Scotsmen. Jack Charlton was the Englishman, and Barnsley-born Mick McCarthy was taken along for the football ride of a lifetime with the Republic of Ireland. 

Confused? You won’t be. It will all make perfect sense by the end. 

Let’s start in the most inauspicious of beginnings, shall we? Sofia, Bulgaria on 11 November 1987. The Vassil Levski Stadium to be precise. It was then Scottish manager Andy Roxburgh’s first match in charge of the national team. The hosts only needed a draw to advance to the European Championships in West Germany. There was just one problem: nobody handed Mackay the script. 

The Hearts midfielder bagged a dream debut goal for his country after coming on as a substitute for Paul McStay just three minutes from time to shut up 60,000 fans and inadvertently sent Big Jack's Ireland on the fairytale journey to the Euros. 

Mackay's angled drive in the pissing rain put a dampener on Bulgaria's qualification campaign but it lit a football fire in Ireland. The rest, as they say, is history. 

The Irish had been blessed with some wonderful individual players down the years – Johnny Giles and Liam Brady spring to mind – but they were never an international football force to be reckoned with. Yet with one swish of the left boot, Mackay started a runaway Irish train which culminated in The Boys in Green qualifying for the ’88 Euros as well as the World Cup finals of Italia ’90 (making it all the way to the quarter-finals) and USA ’94. 

Mackay rightfully basked in the glory of his fleeting moment of Scotland international footballing fame. Who wouldn’t? The goal was celebrated by the Tartan Army, but it carried the most meaning in Ireland. The ramifications for the Emerald Isle are still being felt to this day. 

Mackay takes up the story. 

The Herald:


He said: “Donald Ford went to the World Cup as a Hearts player in 1974. I was the first Hearts player to get a Scotland cap for 13 years since Ford. That in itself was a great honour. I came on for Celtic midfielder Paul McStay against Bulgaria. I had always looked up to Paul and it was a wonderful experience. 

“I did not have much time to think about it and it was a wet and skiddy surface. More often than not I would have tried to get it back on my right foot but I just opened my body and as soon as I hit it I knew where it was going. It was a lovely feeling to see it hit the 

back of the net. When you score your only goal for your country and it’s on your debut, well, I don’t remember a lot of things in my life but that sticks with me big time!” 

Mackay’s match-winning intervention granted him an even greater celebrity status. It wasn’t long before streams of whiskey were flowing his way. He appeared in adverts for Guinness and was even asked to appear on Gay Byrne’s ‘The Late, Late Show’ owing to his newfound popularity across the water. It never transpired, though. Hearts wouldn’t let him go. 

Mackay’s lifelong ambition ended up being gazumped as the Irish qualified for their first-ever major finals tournament. There was, however, one rather sizeable upside. 

Mackay recalled: “For me, it was all about scoring for Scotland and playing for my country but it became much more than that due to what it meant for Ireland. It was manic for the next seven-to-10 days after that. 

“A case of Jameson’s whiskey was sent to my mum and dad’s pub. I even did a couple of adverts for Guinness. It was an honour to have scored the goal for Scotland but equally, it was great that it also helped a country like the Republic of Ireland reach the final of a major championship for the first time in their history. 

“Big Jack even spoke at my testimonial dinner and it was a brilliant occasion. He was a very humble man. I learned to be humble working with the likes of Wee Doddie [Alex MacDonald] and Sandy Jardine. Humility is a massive part of life and sport and Jack had it in spades. 

“I can’t change history but my goal for Scotland ended up with a life of its own. If I am only remembered for scoring a goal for Scotland that sent Ireland to the European Championships then I am more than delighted with that. 

“I wanted to play for Hearts and my country, and I did both. I have a record number of appearances for Hearts that will probably never be beaten and I am very proud of that. It makes it all worthwhile. From a selfish point of view, the pinnacle of my football career is scoring that goal for Scotland.” 

What about that non-appearance on Gay Byrne’s TV show, then? 

The Herald: Ray Houghton in action for Republic of Ireland against ScotlandRay Houghton in action for Republic of Ireland against Scotland (Image: SNS)

The 60-year-old said: “I would be happy to go on ‘The Late, Late Show’ and talk about my goal nowadays. I would have been like a rabbit caught in the headlights back then. 

“Alex MacDonald – or the gaffer as I still call him because I keep in touch with him to this day – and Sandy Jardine made sure that I remained grounded. I am thankful that I had both of them around me to guide me when something like that happened to me as a young player. 

“They told me what I could and couldn’t do and ultimately it was Hearts who were paying my wages at the time so I didn’t get to appear on TV in Ireland with Gay Byrne, but I’ve no regrets about it.” 

No regrets, they don’t work. Although if you were to ask Castlemik-born Ray Houghton, he’d tell you he still harbours regret about never being capped for Scotland. 

Scotland’s loss turned into Ireland’s gain as Big Jack brought him into the Irish international fold and the then-Liverpool midfield schemer announced himself in the best way possible. 

Ireland were drawn to face England, Russia and Holland at the ’88 Euros and they would kick off their campaign against the country’s sworn enemy. Fate decreed that Houghton’s sixth-minute goal would hand the Republic of Ireland one of their most memorable wins in their first-ever group match at a major competition. The fact that England – with whom Charlton had won the World Cup in 1966 - were the opponents made it all the sweeter for Houghton and company. 

For Houghton, it was a huge consolation after being rejected by the nation of his birth. 

Houghton explained: “I had gone up to Scotland for trials for the Under-18s and it didn’t work out. I played regularly at Fulham and Oxford United, and there was still no sign of an international call-up from Scotland. I was disappointed never to be considered for Scotland. I was doing well but I never heard anything or got any feedback. 

“I’m often asked, ‘why did you choose Ireland?’. Scotland never asked. That’s an easy one. You cannot go somewhere where you are not wanted. I got the call from Big Jack because my father was born in Donegal. It took off from there.” 

‘Took off’ is one way of saying it. ‘Exploded’ is probably more apt. 

Houghton said: “I got to the Euros with Ireland when I was 26. To be part of an Ireland team playing in their first major finals tournament was special. It was amazing. Big Jack saw something in me and that’s why I played in the European Championships for the Republic of Ireland whilst playing for Liverpool and that was the stuff of dreams. 

“It just shows you how things can change very quickly in football.” 

As for that magical moment, when Mackay conjured that definitive winner in the dark blue of Scotland against Bulgaria to send the Republic of Ireland to the Euros? Houghton was all alone. Not that that led to muted celebrations. 

Houghton recalled: “The night Gary scored for Scotland against Bulgaria, I had not long joined Liverpool and I was staying in a hotel. All I had was Ceefax to keep me up to date and it was still flashing 0-0 long before the game had ended as the updates were sporadic. 

“It was an Irish journalist who phoned me to tell me Gary had scored and Scotland had won and that Ireland were through to the ’88 Euros. I just remember jumping around and going mental in the hotel bedroom. 

“You dream of playing in big tournaments like the European Championships or World Cups for your country, don’t you? Yet I got to play in the Euros for the Republic of Ireland because a Scotsman’s goal had helped us qualify. It was all a bit surreal.” 

Initially, things got worse for Ireland before they got a whole better under Big Jack. A turning point arrived against Scotland at Hampden in a 1-0 European Championship qualifier success in February 1987, courtesy of a goal by Mark Lawrenson. 

The Scotland triumph and then the opening group-stage victory in Germany in the summer of 1988 against England put the Republic of Ireland firmly on the international map. It was the catalyst for what happened next. 

The Herald: Jack Charlton won the World Cup with EnglandJack Charlton won the World Cup with England (Image: PA)

Fast-forward to 12th June 1988 and the Stuttgart Arena. It is a date that has been etched into Irish sporting folklore. Barely six minutes had elapsed when Houghton looped a header over Peter Shilton in the England goal to put Big Jack’s Republic of Ireland in dreamland. 

To score a winning goal in a game of such magnitude once is life-changing. Houghton would repeat the trick at the World Cup finals held in the USA in 1994 when his solitary strike was enough to defeat Italy 1-0 at the Giants Stadium on June 18th. To do it twice on the big stage is verging on showboating. 

Houghton said: “Fate bestowed it upon me that I scored those two goals. I didn’t score many goals internationally. Sometimes you get lucky or not. People ask me what my favourite goal for Ireland was - hands down it was the goal against England. It wasn’t in the biggest tournament because when you score in the World Cup that is a global event. 

“Scoring the winner against England meant everything. It was my first international goal. They say it is something that you should always remember. I had played a few games and I hadn’t scored and it was eating away at me. My first goal for Ireland is there for posterity. It will always be remembered as a cause for celebration. My goal is for others to speak about and judge the significance of it. All it says is ‘Christ, did I do that?’. 

“I remember everything about my goal, but the abiding memory is walking behind the goal with the Irish physio Mick Byrne taking the acclaim of the Ireland fans at full-time. It was brilliant. He had his arm around me and that is something that will live with me forever. When you finish playing all you have is your memories and I’ve got a few to look back on.” 

The 62-year-old is adamant that Big Jack made sure the Irish team were not in awe of England that fateful day in Stuttgart, despite the Three Lions’ superiority complex. 

Houghton said: “We knew all the lads in the England team so there was no fear factor at all against them. We respected them. Big Jack was very instrumental in that as he knew how good we were. He kept telling us how good we were and that we were not going to be embarrassed by the teams we were playing against in the group. 

“What Jack’s Republic of Ireland team had was that all the players were successful and knew how to win trophies and medals. Jack knew we would handle a game of that magnitude against England because we were all winners with our respective clubs. 

“He also knew England would be as fearful of playing Ireland as we were of playing them. Jack was right as Ireland got off to the perfect start by beating England. He knew the areas we could get at them. He knew their strengths and weaknesses inside-out. 

“He was such a people person and a manager that players wanted to play for. I have met very few people in life, especially in sports, where they instantly command respect. Jack could hush a room whenever he walked into it. He had that quality. Certain people wanted to be around him. He was so down-to-earth. There were no airs and graces about him.” 

Jack Charlton gave Ray Houghton a crack at an international career, and he won’t forget that fact anytime soon. Like many former Republic of Ireland internationalists who defined the era and performed national service under Big Jack, Houghton adored his manager – as did the Irish nation. Charlton was a freeman of the city of Dublin and remains one of only 12 people in Ireland to have been granted honorary Irish citizenship. 

Houghton said: “Big Jack Charlton is a giant of a man in Ireland. He was revered. If he came into your pub he’d talk to anyone. He was approachable and amiable and he was tight. He was renowned for his tightness. He didn’t like spending his money. 

“He was a great man-manager – and what a character! The players loved him. Everything about him was done for the good of the team. All he ever wanted for Ireland was that work ethic and for all the lads to be part of a good team. International football was never about any one player. He was a lovely fella and an out-and-out football man. 

“Big Jack is up there with the likes of Jock Stein, Bill Shankly, and Brian Cloughs of this world because the managers of today just don’t have their personalities. These guys were football people and they spoke the language of the public which the public liked. Big Jack was part of the public. 

“That’s what made Jack Charlton a special person because he could communicate with the players and fans alike. Big Jack was a class act.” 

The Herald:


Mick McCarthy was part of the Republic of Ireland team that shocked the football world between 1986 and 1996 under Charlton. The former Celtic defender, who earned 57 caps, insists Big Jack gave him the most enjoyable years of his career and he was honoured when he made him captain of his country. 

He said: “We loved Big Jack. If you asked any of the players who played for him during that time for Ireland they will tell you he was an excellent coach and he was brilliant to work for. The Republic of Ireland job suited him. He had that great empathy with people and you only need to look at how he dealt with and treated Paul McGrath then you will know what I am talking about. 

“When Jack handed the captaincy to me there was pressure on him to give the armband to a bonafide Irishman like Ronnie Whelan and not someone who had Irish ancestry through his dad like myself. I held on to the captaincy after Ronnie got injured and I held on to it for a while. 

“Gary Mackay can claim all the credit for his goal that sent Ireland through but that happened because the games did not kick off at the same time. Had Gary not scored that goal none of this would have happened. I covered the Scotland game for the TV back in Ireland alongside my fellow Celtic team-mates Packie Bonner and Chris Morris and we all went mental when it happened as you can imagine. We just lost our shape on live TV. it was a brilliant experience.” 

He also recalls how he managed to silence the famously loquacious Brian Clough, who was scathing towards him before Ireland defeated England at the Euros. 

“There were lots of players with mixed heritage in that Ireland team that kicked off against England in the ’88 Euros,” McCarthy recalled. “There were English, Scottish and Irish guys all in the side. At that time the Republic of Ireland were dipping into the heritage of players and that’s how a lot of us got called up. It is an amazing statistic that only four teams were represented when we played England in Germany - Celtic, Tottenham, Manchester United and Liverpool. That has always fascinated me. 

“The interest in the England v Republic of Ireland game was huge. It does not get any bigger than given that Jack had a World Cup winner’s medal with England in 1966. He never mentioned that once in the build-up. The media attention was massive. We were expected to lose. It was an amazing result for Ireland competing in their first-ever big tournament. England had a more experienced squad in terms of playing in competitions - but they didn’t have Jack Charlton. 

“We played well and made it difficult for them. I was inspired by the words of Brian Clough, who told everybody that Peter Beardsley and Gary Lineker were going to have a field day against me. Cloughie's piece on me was brilliant. 

“I had tight calf muscles before the game and Cloughie was on with Ian St John and Jimmy Greaves. And he said on camera that the England camp should send their physios to the Irish camp and make sure Mick McCarthy was fit because Lineker and Beardsley would run riot and it would be the best thing for England’s chances. 

“I remember Liam Brady defending my honour, which was very gracious of him. I always told people I wasn’t a great player but I kept the ball out of that bloody net and I kept a clean sheet against England. I see some players now who are good footballers but they can't defend for toffee. Jack picked the team, and he picked Kevin Moran and me to play at centre-back and we defended. End of story. And more often than not we kept clean sheets. 

"Cloughie’s words were all the motivation I needed and it was great afterwards when England had been slapped up by Ireland. I remember thinking afterwards, ‘have some of that!’. Jack Charlton gave me the most enjoyable years of my football career, there is no question about that.” 

The drummer for U2, Larry Mullen Jnr, summed up the Jack Charlton era best as he described how the Irish tricolour flag had been usurped by those associated with The Troubles and politically motivated by violence: “We took the flag back and flew it with pride. Jack Charlton did that.” 

McCarthy wholeheartedly agrees. “Everything picked up in Ireland when Jack Charlton took over the Irish national team and started to be successful. He made everybody feel good about football in Ireland and the Celtic Tiger economy came on the back of that. It changed everything and businesspeople have told me that. The fortunes of the Republic of Ireland football team under Jack Charlton helped the country boom. It was a huge thing for the country and a catalyst for everything else that followed. That stuck with me and it resonated with me as it all made sense. 

“Jack Charlton turned football around in Ireland. He got people to believe in us. He got the players to believe in themselves. We started winning games. He was brilliant to play under and every player turned up and wanted to be in that Republic of Ireland squad because of the buzz that he created.” 

In the 2020 critically-acclaimed ITV film documentary by Gabriel Clarke ‘Finding Jack’, which chronicles Charlton’s impact on Irish football and subsequent battle with dementia, former Manchester United, Aston Villa and Republic of Ireland defensive legend Paul McGrath sets the tone at the outset when he asks: “In the troubled history of the country, why would the Irish FA appoint an Englishman?”. 

It ends with McGrath stating: “Jack Charlton defined my life. Whenever I pulled on that Ireland shirt, I played for him. He understood that I loved him.” 

Charlton died at his home in Northumberland on 10th July 2020 at the age of 85. He suffered from lymphoma and dementia. 

His brother Bobby, who also won the World Cup with England in 1966, once famously said that every Irish household possessed three pictures on the mantlepiece - one of JFK, one of Pope John Paul II - and the third was Big Jack. 

The European Championship trophy and the World Cup were never raised on St Stephen’s Green but what a magic carpet ride it was under Charlton. Big Jack wore green and he was beautiful. He became a national treasure and hero, largely because of the deeds of two Scotsmen. The 1988 European Championships will always be remembered because the Republic of Ireland took their tournament bow. And what a bow it turned out to be. 

Have you heard the one about the two Scotsmen who made an Englishman an honorary Irishman? What a tale it is. The tale of a man beloved by the English, the Scots and the Irish. As McCarthy succinctly puts it: “I loved the bones of that man.” 

That man was Big Jack Charlton.