The 1994 World Cup was just the second for which the Republic of Ireland qualified and came four years after an impressive debut tournament saw Jack Charlton’s men reach the quarterfinal.
The run in Italy came to an end with defeat in Rome at the hands of the host nation, so perhaps it was inevitable that fate would not only draw the two countries together at USA '94, but that Group E’s opening game would be a rematch of that last eight encounter.
And so it was that, on Saturday, June 18, 1994, Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., would play host to an encounter which has since gone down in the annals of Irish lore.
ESPN football analyst Tommy Smyth emigrated to New York City from Knockbridge in County Louth in 1963. More than 30 years on, his national team were set to embark on another memorable World Cup adventure on the other side of the Hudson River.
Unsurprisingly, given the size of the Irish community in America’s northeast, as well as the influx of fans from home, interest in the game was at fever pitch. Tickets had been initially hard to come by, but, as the game drew closer, those in need got some good news.
"Two weeks beforehand, you couldn’t get a ticket for love nor money," Smyth recalls. "My nephew didn’t have one, and so we contacted everyone I knew. All of a sudden, though -- three or four days beforehand -- they were everywhere, and anyone who wanted one in the Irish community got one.
"What we heard was that the Italians had decided they were going to win the World Cup and so were not bothered about seeing their team beat Ireland 6-0 or whatever. They sold their tickets and saved their money for later."
Though tickets were available, demand still exceeded supply, which led to many a favour being called in.
"Word of mouth, pubs, phone calls," Smyth says of the methods of communication used in the pre-Internet era.
"House phones were very busy because cell phones were virtually unheard of. The night before the game, my phone was ringing until one o’clock in the morning as we tried to get tickets for everyone that needed one.
"I heard from people who I hadn’t spoken to for over 20 years. One guy suggested that he and five of his pals stay in my basement -- all of a sudden, he was my best friend!"
The morning of the game dawned in bright sunlight and, with temperatures predicted to soar, the Irish were concerned that what they knew would be a difficult task was about to become near impossible, thanks to the weather.
"The Italians I knew thought the game was over; Ireland had no chance," Smyth says. "To be honest with you, we in the Irish community thought the same and were upset that, of all the teams to be drawn with, it had to be Italy. The only thing we felt good about was that it was the first game, as we felt the Italians might start slowly."
Nevertheless, it was more in hope than expectation that tens of thousands of Irish fans poured into the Meadowlands stadium. Eleven minutes into the game, though, a loose ball fell to Ray Houghton 25 yards out, and, with the mid-afternoon sun beating down, a fairytale of New York began to take shape.
"I always remember the goal just looping in over [Gianluca] Pagliuca," Smyth says. "It was one of those where, when he first hit it, you thought that it would never make it before realising it would. It took you that little bit of time to realise. I didn’t think Pagliuca would ever be beaten like that.
"I saw he had just stepped off his line as the play built up, and I could see the ball just looping in like a little rainbow. As it flew, I just thought, 'That’s going in,' and it took the stadium a breath before they reacted. When it did, though, it was shaking!"
Elation soon turned to trepidation as the Irish fans began to dream of an unlikely victory. The clock was ticking, but not fast enough for Smyth and his fellow countrymen and women.
"Everyone was saying, 'How are we going to hold out for so long?' We got to half-time, and I’m talking to guys and we’re all saying, '45 minutes left.' We didn’t think we were ever going to score again, so it was a case of, could we hold on?
"Every minute seemed like it was four or five or six. I don’t remember there being a clock in the stadium, and so you just kept looking at your watch over and over and it didn’t seem to move!
Despite the best efforts of Roberto Baggio & Co., the lead was maintained by Ireland, with goalkeeper Pat Bonner and Paul McGrath in central defence having inspired games. Full-time brought about delirium in the stands.
"It was the first time I ever saw so many Irishmen kiss one another! We’re not really known for showing our feelings like that but, that day, it was just pure, raw emotion," Smyth says. "I think they were guys at that point who thought Ireland would win the World Cup! That’s how carried away we got."
The result started to a party that would go on for weeks -- "If you had an Irish contractor working on your house at that time, you were in trouble!" –- as Ireland qualified for the last 16. As Smyth explains, that progress came as a surprise to some fans, who had not budgeted to be away from home for so long.
"The World Cup caused an awful lot of people an awful lot of trouble; I’d venture to say there were a few divorces over it because there were guys who spent the next five, six, seven years paying off their debts. I know one guy who sold his fridge so he could finance staying on for the knockout round. Everyone figured they’d be home before the postcards."
Indeed, while most did eventually return home, there were more than a few who decided to make a new life for themselves following their side’s eventual elimination at the hands of the Netherlands.
"I know a whole dance band that came to America for the tournament and never went home," Smyth says. "There were others, too. In fact, the plumber working on my house at the moment; he’s one!"
That magical day was arguably the final great moment of the Charlton era -- which ended in 1996, almost 10 years after it began -- when Ireland failed to qualify for the European Championships.
While many might point to the 1990 run or victory over England at the 1988 European Championship, for Smyth and the Irishmen and women of New York, there has been no higher point in following their nation’s football team than that day in New Jersey. Even if, 20 years on, it still conjures some feelings of disbelief.
"I think the surprise of the result was the thing that sticks with me," Smyth says. "As a football fan, you go to a game expecting certain things, and then, when they don’t, you ask yourself, 'How did that happen?'"