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In June 2016 England blooded two new Lionesses in the shape of Rachel Daly and Nikita Parris, who both made their debuts in a 7–0 cakewalk against hapless Serbia. Some 35 years earlier England also handed out a double debut, to Gillian Coultard and Angela Gallimore, in this match with Ireland at Dalymount Park. In their first visit to the Emerald Isle, England eased to a 5–0 win. But Ireland’s team sheet included a star name of its own: Veronica “Ronnie” Guerin wore the famous green shirt before she turned into a leading journalist, got tragically gunned down and became the subject of a Holywood blockbuster…
In 1981 Ireland’s national team had some talented players but lacked structure, resources and proper association backing – a state of affairs which may sound familiar to fans of the 2016 Girls in Green.
Like his English counterpart Martin Reagan, coach Tony Kelly had taken over a couple of years previously. And he had a similar remit to Reagan: cobbling together a functional national team from a patchwork of regional amateur leagues, while trying to raise coaching standards across the board.
They had scored a notable 1–0 victory over Belgium in October 1980, in a controversial friendly at Dalymount Park. The scorer in that game, Grainne Cross (pronounced “Gron-ya”), left the field covered in blood after colliding with the Belgian goalie, who was stretchered off needing stitches in her chin.
With Anne O’Brien out of sight and apparently out of mind in Italy, midfielder Cross was perhaps the team’s closest thing to a star player. She spent a season in Italy herself, with Fiammamonza in 1986–87.
The rest of the time she played for local teams in Limerick, including Krups, De Beers and Greenpark United. She was reportedly one of FIVE sisters to play for Ireland, which must be some sort of record. Two other Cross sisters turned out on the Limerick League circuit.
Grainne later played rugby union for Old Crescent RFC.
After the Belgium match Ireland came back to earth with a bump in their next game, being hammered 5–0 at home by Scotland in March 1981. Goalkeeper Marian Leahy played exceptionally well to avert an even more embarrassing rout.
Leahy was another product of the Limerick League, who won a debut cap in Ireland’s first meeting with England; a 6–1 reverse at Exeter in May 1978. An IT professional, she captained Ireland in later games after becoming a buccaneering full-back, including the first women’s international to be held at Wembley in April 1988.
Like many Irish soccer fans of a certain vintage, Leahy keenly followed the Arsenal side graced by Liam Brady and Frank Stapleton. Even the floodlights at Dalymount Park, then Ireland’s national stadium, were hand-me-downs from the Gunners’ old Highbury ground.
There was another, more direct, link to Arsenal too: Frank’s footballing sibling Helena Stapleton was in the 20-strong squad for the match, having made her debut in the Scotland defeat.
Helena played for Dunseedy, a club based in the Raheny area of Dublin. There she formed a potent attacking tandem with her pal, a strong-willed youngster named Ronnie Guerin.
Ireland’s squad also included Denise Lyons, who was English-born but grew up in Waterford. She found success at college level in the United States; playing for Keene State Owls from 1986 to 1989 and then starting a long and glittering spell as head coach in 1992.
Philo Robinson also starred for Keene State Owls, from 1988 to 1991. She was from Dublin and orphaned at a cruelly early age. Like Lyons she was later named in Keene State’s athletic Hall of Fame.
Janice “Jan” Mooney was playing for the Suffragettes club in 1981, but later moved to London and went on to captain the Wembley LFC team which spawned Kelly Smith.
Included in the 20, but not – for some reason – in the team, was experienced skipper Linda Gorman. She was a veteran of Ireland’s first national team matches in 1973 and went on to become the national team’s first female boss in the 1991–92 season.
In February 1980 a brace from Irish-descended Kevin Keegan settled a Euro qualifier in England’s favour, but men’s matches between the two nations were politically charged and relatively rare.
With “the troubles” at their height, many Irish citizens were still smarting over 800 years of British oppression, while the IRA’s bombing campaign in Britain had unleashed rampant Hibernophobia.
On the day of this match, the Irish revolutionary (and sometime left-back) Bobby Sands MP slipped into a coma on the 64th day of his hunger strike. His death two days later sparked riots all over Ireland.
Events took a turn for the worse when a second hunger striker, Francis Hughes, died the following week. A furious crowd tried to ransack the British embassy in Dublin.
The men’s home nations tournament was promptly cancelled when Northern Ireland’s opponents refused to travel.
But the two women’s associations forged very friendly relations, shared it seems by the players and staff on both sides.
At the time of this match, Martin Reagan’s ambitious revamp – introducing interregional fixtures as a route to the England team – had yet to bear fruit. In 1980 he won one, drew one and lost one of his three games in charge.
This was England’s first visit to Ireland and was a rather belated return fixture to the 6–1 win at St James’ Park, Exeter in May 1978.
Uncapped players Gillian Coultard and Angela Gallimore were drafted in ahead of this match, as Reagan began carefully crafting the side which went all the way to the inaugural European Championships final in 1984.
Coultard was 18 but had apparently been held back from senior international football to aid her development. Some four years earlier she had been playing in the old Probables v Possibles trials match (for the Probables).
It was the worst kept secret in women’s football that tough-tackling Doncaster Belle Coultard was already one of the best in the country. But Reagan made “keep it simple” her mantra in order to harness her fantastic talent for the team’s benefit.
Gallimore played for the Broadoak club, based in the Middleton area of Manchester. A defender who was strong in the air and possessed a wand of a left foot, she too went on to enjoy a fine England career, before a knee injury wrecked it after 35 caps.
Theresa “Terry” Wiseman had taken over as first-choice goalkeeper from Sue Buckett. It was reported in the Irish newspapers that Wiseman was a Londoner with green roots, as one of her parents hailed from County Cork. Presumably Martin Reagan and Liz Deighan could also boast of Irish heritage somewhere in their own family trees.
England were without Pat Chapman, so St Helens-born winger Janet Turner played on the left flank.
After eight minutes England took the lead. Right-back Gabrielle Byrne, a Kells LFC player from Drogheda, inadvertently turned the ball into her own net under intense pressure from Janet Turner.
Ireland were outmatched but scrapped for a foothold in the match during the first half. Teresa McCann was prominent in midfield as the Girls in Green worked hard to shut down the wide open spaces of “Dalyer”.
Disaster befell Ireland on the stroke of half time; Tracy Doe’s fine cross was headed powerfully into the net by her strike partner Eileen Foreman.
The two-goal cushion persuaded Reagan to roll the dice at the interval. Coultard was brought on for Linda Curl, who at that stage was a fixture on the right of England’s midfield three.
That gave England their second debutante of the day. Gallimore had impressed after starting at left-back.
Inspired by what the Irish Independent called a “wonderful performance” from Coultard, England went further ahead on 50 minutes. Half-time substitute Maureen Reynolds of Lowestoft got the goal.
The fourth goal came from Christine Hutchinson on 58 minutes, five minutes after she entered the fray as England’s final substitute.
A tough Geordie with a talent for arm-wrestling, Hutchinson’s playing career took in Wallsend, Percy Main and Whitley Bay. But she was also a PE teacher and successfully got girl’s football on the timetable in 1986.
As Ireland ran out of steam Reynolds’s second goal made it 5–0 on 65 minutes.
The decidedly blunt match report in the now-defunct Irish Press blamed: “a blatant lack of stamina coupled with an extremely shaky defence”.
Reagan showered his squad with praise, taking the same 16 players to Japan later that year, insisting they had grabbed: “a host of friends and admirers and were a great credit to England”.
With one or two minor tweaks (and the addition of prolific young striker Kerry Davis) this squad formed the basis of the side who pushed Sweden all the way to penalties in the Euro 1984 final.
Coultard ruled England’s midfield roost for the next 19 years, famously becoming the first female England player to scoop a century of caps.
With his Ireland team 5–0 down and the match ebbing away, coach Tony Kelly handed his impetuous substitute Ronnie Guerin a debut cap.
During her short cameo Dunseedy striker Ronnie failed to make any impression on an English defence led by vastly-experienced Sheila Parker – a holdover from the classic Dick, Kerr’s Ladies era.
Young Ronnie grew up into Veronica Guerin, the fearless investigative journalist, immortalised in celluloid by Cate Blanchett.
Her 1996 murder by netherworld drug lords led to an outpouring of national grief and sweeping new laws which sent Dublin’s gangsters scuttling away overseas.
A year before her killing Guerin was shot in the thigh. She was saved from more serious injury when her femur stopped the bullet, a feat attributed to her soccer-toughened bones.
Sports nut Guerin also played basketball for Ireland, before destiny marked out a greater and more noble path than any ball sport.
In a world where “legends” and “heroes” are ten-a-penny, this is a genuine case. And the wider women’s football family can proudly claim her as one of our own.