Italy v Ireland: I Was There When Ex-Liverpool Player Houghton Lobbed Pagliuca

Ireland v Italy this evening, which seems the perfect time to tell you about the greatest goal I ever saw; Ray Houghton in USA 1994...
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Ireland v Italy this evening, which seems the perfect time to tell you about the greatest goal I ever saw; Ray Houghton in USA 1994...

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The Greatest Goal I Ever Saw: Ireland's Ray Houghton Against Italy

Ireland v Italy this evening, which seems the perfect time to tell you about the greatest goal I ever saw; Ray Houghton in USA 1994...

The greatest goal I ever saw? How do you measure it? What’s the criteria? On the telly? That’s easy, Maradona’s second against England. The Hand Of God game. We were drinking in some Goth type Sunday night disco at the top end of town. We were a bit confused. Half our lot had sombreros on. There was a kid’s fluffy donkey doing the rounds. A big Union Jack with Leeds 9 painted through the middle draped over our chairs and twenty odd chancers from East Leeds, off our heads on two for one Ouzos, who shouted, screamed and swore at the telly for his first but stood there numb at his second.

Saw it live, actually there, on the terraces or sat in the stands? I think that’s fair enough. Bit harder though. Vinnie Jones’ volley at Elland Road against Hull in 1990 was a bit special for lots of reasons. One, I’m a Leeds fan. I don’t care if it’s Brian Gayle scoring, all Leeds goals count. They all make me happy. Two, everyone loved Vinnie. He was barmy. He loved it at Leeds and Leeds loved him right back. Truth be told, we sold him too soon. He was great for us. You wanted Vinnie to do well; he wanted to do well for us. He was the perfect fit at the time. The perfect foil to Gordon Strachan in midfield. Three, it was, actually, a thing of beauty. It could have gone anywhere but it didn’t. It went into the back of the net and Vinnie, and everyone inside Elland Road, went a bit mad after. It’s here, about 1.40 seconds in - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EkVR4cBwVFY

But is that the greatest goal I ever saw scored? I don’t know. What else can you measure the greatest goal you ever saw scored by? Skill? Actually been there v watching it on telly? What about impact? I don’t mean like an obviously off-side goal that should never have counted that provoked a pitch invasion and denied your team a league title or anything daft like that. Earned promotion? Lee Chapman’s against Bournemouth? Won a Cup? Allan Clarke? Sealed a league title?  Take a bow Brian Gayle. Won you money? David Batty against Man City, the second one, anyone? I have mentioned I’m a Leeds fan haven’t I?

After much consideration, I’ve come up with this little gem -

So here’s how it qualifies - It’s a pretty damn skillful shot. It’s against top quality opposition. It proved to be the game winner in a game Ireland were not expected to win. I was there. It caused the hairs on the back of my neck,  me, an Englishman - alright Houghton’s a Scot, but at least he’s a Celt - to stand on end and it sparked off one of the greatest runs of alcohol consumption New York has ever seen.

There was a lot to like already in New York in 1994. I’d just moved here and had ingratiated myself quite well, I thought, with my new chums in the local, inevitably, Irish bar. It seemed like I’d landed in the epicentre of the sporting world. There was something going on, it seemed, every night. The famed New York Knicks, were on a tear, going on a run that, sadly, culminated in defeat in the seventh game of the  N.B.A. finals at the hands of the majestic Hakeem Olajuwon  and his Houston Rockets. A compelling seven game series my fondest memory of which is being in O'Flanagan's, on the Upper Eastside, drinking (for a change) with friends over from England, the second generation Irish of Leeds, watching the game suddenly interrupted to bring us live coverage of O.J. Simpson’s slow speed getaway of an advert for Ford Broncos. A packed barroom, clad in ubiquitous green nylon, chanting, ‘Run O.J!’ in every accent from Antrim to Wexford. Very strange. Can’t imagine the F.A. Cup final getting shunned for live coverage of some Halton Moor joyrider going down the A64, can you?

Added to that was the New York Rangers successful bid to break a 54 year run without winning ice hockey’s ultimate prize, The Stanley Cup. Captained by the enigmatic Mark Messier the Broadway Blue Shirts were also taken to a game seven sudden death bout, pitted against Pavel ‘The Russian Rocket’ Bure’s Vancouver Canucks. I watched the final game in a Queens bar, Biddy Mulligan’s. The barmaid, from Leeds, kept the ale flowing as the locals went wild. ‘Let’s Go Rangers’ chants were met with, ‘We are The Champions. Champions of Europe,’ call and response from our little rag tag band of Leeds lads over for the World Cup. As the game ticked to it’s final seconds the camera flashed to the stands at Madison Square Garden. A fan holding up a homemade sign that read,’Now I Can Die In Peace.’ Imagine that, 54 years without a title. Be like following Newcastle.

A packed barroom, clad in ubiquitous green nylon, chanting, ‘Run O.J!’ in every accent from Antrim to Wexford. Very strange.

What a town New York was then. We were out every night. Somehow I went to work. Thankfully, my boss was a sound guy and tolerated my showing up in less than stellar condition. We had no furniture but we didn’t care. It was wild. Monday diner time in the pub was like a Saturday night. The lads from home split their time between the Irish nabes of Queens, Woodside, Sunnyside, getting drunk in Manhattan and touring the Bronx, Woodlawn and Bainbridge (renamed Brain Damage) Avenue in the days when The Blackthorn had The Dubliners on the jukebox and Sunday diner was served with spuds. Now it’s Salsa and a pig roast. Times change and so do neighbourhoods. The Irish have moved further afield. Heading north. No more Brain Damage Avenue; they’re going Bonkers in Yonkers these days. I digress

Houghton’s goal. Ireland. Italy. Giants Stadium. It’s not even in New York it’s in Jersey. It might as well have been in Dublin. I met my mate Costy in Manhattan. Tickets were like the proverbial rocking horse crap so everyone else had elected to watch the game in the Roaring 20s, or DeNiro’s bar as they’d renamed it on account of one of the bar staff bearing a passing resemblance to the screen legend. We didn’t have tickets but chanced it anyway. In the build up to the game all you’d heard round town was how the Italians had all the tickets. I knew a few Irish guys with tickets but not many. The marble guys on the job site we worked on had tickets. The Irish brickies and carpenters didn’t. It was red hot. Not pleasant. The bus ride out was notable for two things only. The great atmosphere, devoid of any violent overtones in spite of excessive alcohol consumption and the obvious differences between the New York Ireland and the fans who’d come out for the finals. Case in point. It’s hot on the bus, the New York Irishman makes sure the windows are all shut to give the air conditioning a fighting chance. The lad on his holiday opens the windows to let some air in.

We get to the stadium, and it is a stadium, it’s not like Maine Road or Elland Road or Goodison, it’s planned, designed and impressive, it’s got a car park as big as Derbyshire, it’s also swamped by the Irish. Sure, there’s Italy fans there but it’s easy 75/25 in favour of the Celts. It just feels special. Christ knows what an Irishman must have made about it, it’s getting to me just reflecting upon it now. There’s touts, scalpers to use the local parlance doing brisk business but there’s also New Jersey State Troopers policing the area. You ever seen a New Jersey State Trooper? They are not to be messed with. We find a guy who wants $300s each for the crapest seats in the house. Face value $30s. I tell him I’ll give him a hundred each. I think he’s going to hit me. I think he’s from Bensonhirst or Arthur Avenue or some other Italian strong hold. He looks like the guy they send round when you don’t pay the bookie. I bet his name was Sal. I tell him $120 each. He tells me to stop wasting his time. Our little exchange attracts a State Trooper and it’s think on your feet time.
‘What going on guys? You know scalping’s illegal in Jersey? I could confiscate those tickets.’
I don’t know where it came from, I pointed to Costy’s bag,’ You’ve got it wrong office, he’s my cousin been holding the tickets for us. We’re here on holiday,’ I nod toward Costy’s bag. He joins in. ‘Just got off the plane this morning see?’He holds up his holdall. Traveling light doesn’t come into it.
‘You crazy Micks,’ he grins and steps back. I pull out $300s I had rolled up, tens and tewnties, a jam it in Sal’s paw. He gives me the tickets and backs away shouting, in the worst fake Irish accent ever,’See you inside Cuz alright?’ Christ I hope not I say to Costy, he’s about $300s lighter than he’s looking for. I have visions of being hurled onto the pitch when he counts up his roll. Still, five times face value, he should be happy.

We ride the escalators up to the top of Giants Stadium. Amazingly, it’s not too loud but, when we step through the entrance way to the stands it’s something else. It’s a sea of mad partying Ireland fans, the sound must be going straight up ‘cause it’s loud as hell in here. We’re in the cheap seats. Almost at the top, behind a goal. The seats are perched on the sort of angel a mountain goat would have reservations scaling. Still, we make it. Beer and all. It’s hot. It’s dead hot. There’s pink people everywhere. We end up sat next to a crowd from Drogheda. They’re sound. They get the Leeds connection to this team, Big Jack, Sheridan, they give me a pass. Just a light ribbing about England. I point out no one in the starting line up is actually from Ireland. They get that Costy’s second generation and he’s well in with them. In front of us are six or seven Italy fans, the only ones, it seems, in our section, to a man, and woman, clad in Baggio shirts and, get this, stick on pony tails. What’s even weirder is they’re not Italian. No. They’re Japanese. It’s one of those days. It’s frankly, brilliant. An England game could never be like this, I think.

So after the warm ups, the change of kit, the national anthems, like last orders in The Crown played through the Rolling Stones P.A. system, we get down to it. Christ just look at that Italian line up. Pagliuca, Costacurta,  Maldini,  Baresi, Albertini,  Baggio, Donadoni, Baggio. Ireland’s line up reads like payroll at McAlpines in contrast. It’s mad, it’s hectic, it’s loud, loud, loud. We’re all drunk on sun and warm ale. I can’t take the game in from up here. I don’t, in all honesty, remember too much of it. Shez, alright, he’s at Wednesday now but he’ll always be a legend to Leeds fans of a certain age, hits a long ball down the field, it bounces around,. It bounces off Baresi to Houghton somewhere on the pitch below us. Everyone’s on their feet, breath held, he controls it and lets rip with his left, it hangs in the air, it takes a life time, it dips under the bar, over Pagliuca’s out stretched palms and, as Tommy Smith would say,’ There’s the bulge in the old onion bag!’ Giant’s Stadium goes mental. I mean really mental. Costy is shaking me in the air. I fear I might fall to my death. Everyone is bouncing up and down making noise, beautiful, joyful, incoherent noise. It makes no sense. It makes perfect sense. It’s barmy for the rest of the match. The air is filled with chants of ,’You’ll never beat the Irish.’ I don’t know how but it keeps getting louder and louder and louder. Even the Japs are joining in. Long after the final whistle our section is still full, partying away. A kilted bag piper appears and leads everyone on a spirited Molly Malone. Me and Costy, we crack up. Below us Baggio shirted pony tailed Japs are singing,’Awive, awive O. Awive, awive O.’

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