They say that good things come to those who wait, and Republic of Ireland's FIFA World Cup quest was nothing if not an exercise in patience. No fewer than 13 editions came and went without an invite to football's biggest party, and by 1989 the Irish were wondering if they were cursed never to qualify at all.
A stuttering start to their Italy 1990 preliminary campaign did little to dispel such worries. With three games played, the Republic had accrued just two points and, worse still, were welcoming to Lansdowne Road a Spain side with five wins from as many matches. Yet in Jack Charlton, a former FIFA World Cup winner with England, the Irish possessed a manager who inspired belief; someone who had proved in leading the team to its first-ever major tournament at the 1988 UEFA European Championship that he could make good on his promises. The stage was set for a classic.
26 April 1989, Lansdowne Road, Dublin, Republic of Ireland
Republic of Ireland 1-0 Spain
Scorer: Michel o.g. 16
Republic of Ireland: *Bonner; Hughton, McCarthy, Moran, Staunton; Houghton, McGrath, Whelan, Sheedy; Stapleton (Townsend 67), Cascarino
*Spain: Zubizarreta; Quique (Eusebio 69), Gorriz, Sanchis, Serna; Jimenez, Michel, Roberto, Martin Vazquez; Manolo, Butragueno (Salinas 69)
"Our margin for error was zero." That was how Charlton remembered the challenge of facing a side that, just a few months earlier, had taught his side a harsh football lesson in Seville. Supporters had pelted the Republic of Ireland coach with oranges that November evening, but the barrage of local fruit was the least of his worries as the visitors found themselves outclassed in just their second qualifier. The Republic were flattered by a 2-0 scoreline that, by Charlton's own admission, disguised "one of the heaviest drubbings we'd ever had".
There were, however, mitigating factors, most notably the absence of key quartet Paul McGrath, Ronnie Whelan, Kevin Sheedy and Ray Houghton. All four came back into contention for the return meeting, but with the game taking place against the tragic backdrop of the Hillsborough disaster, Liverpool striker John Aldridge was given compassionate leave. Nevertheless, although the personnel issues were complicated, the team's task was simple: only a win would do.
*After a poignant minute's silence to honour Hillsborough's victims, the action began at a frenetic pace. Roared on by a 50,000-strong crowd, the Irish tirelessly pressurised their visitors from the first whistle and, within 16 minutes, were rewarded for their efforts.
Ray Houghton was the goal's architect, driving over a cross that Frank Stapleton was primed to convert when Michel, in his attempts to clear, stuck out a leg and diverted the ball into his own net. Spain attempted to salvage a point, but with the Lansdowne Road pitch hindering their traditional passing approach and Republic keeper Pat Bonner in defiant form, Luis Suarez's side were to leave empty-handed.
Michel might have emerged as the reluctant match-winner, but it was later said that Frank Stapleton - lauded by Charlton as "one of the great warriors of Irish football" - had done most to ensure a home win. The 32-year-old Le Havre striker would not even have been playing had Aldridge been available, but he thrived in a crucial role that entailed dropping back into midfield when Spain were in possession.
"I remember the pitch wasn't great, but what I really remember was the atmosphere. The fans turned Lansdowne Road into a cauldron and, with them at our backs, the lads put on a really strong, hard-working performance. We beat a great Spain team that night and there's no doubt that it was the turning point for us in reaching Italia 90. I'd say it was one of the great nights at Lansdowne Road," *Republic of Ireland goalkeeper Pat Bonner.
"This was not a football match, it was not even close. The Irish players were too harsh. It was very difficult to play in such circumstances," Spain striker Emilio Butragueno.
"We had to show Spain that, when we had a full-strength side, they were only second best," *Republic of Ireland coach Jack Charlton.
What happened next...
The story had a happy ending for both sides, with second place good enough for the Irish to qualify for Italy 1990 alongside group winners Spain. As FIFA World Cup debuts go, it was one of the more memorable, with Charlton's side escaping unbeaten from a pool that included England, Egypt and the Netherlands, before claiming a famous last-16 victory over Romania.
Bonner's decisive penalty save from Daniel Timofte remains arguably the most iconic moment in Irish sporting history, and although a solitary Toto Schillaci strike brought the fairy tale to an end in the quarter-finals, Charlton and his team had become national heroes. A crowd of 500,000 lined the streets of Dublin to welcome them home.
Spain disappointed in Italy, falling to Yugoslavia in the last 16, but they returned to Lansdowne Road on FIFA World Cup qualifying business in October 1993, and exacted brutal revenge. On that occasion, a Julio Salinas double helped fire La Roja to a resounding 3-1 win, although history was to repeat itself as the Republic bounced back to clinch a runners-up finish that enabled them to join Spain at USA 1994.