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Terry Phelan joined Manchester City from Wimbledon for £2.5 million back in 1992 as Peter Reid looked to assemble a side capable of building on the fifth-place finish the season before.
It was a significant transfer. Phelan, who had helped Wimbledon win the FA Cup in 1988 in one of the biggest shocks in the competition’s history, became the world’s most expensive defender. With English football undergoing the biggest makeover in its history thanks to the advent of the Premier League, City were an upwardly-mobile side who wanted success.
But by 1995 Phelan had left, joining Chelsea with City struggling in the Premier League under Alan Ball. We were soon relegated and by 1998, we were playing in the third tier of English football. Some would say he escaped at the right time.
But during his time at Maine Road, Phelan played for Ireland at USA ’94, as Jack Charlton’s side once again confounded expectations. Four years earlier, Charlton had led Ireland to the quarter-finals at Italia ’90 in what was their first-ever World Cup finals appearance, and in America they were at it again, reaching the last-16 despite being handed a tough group.
Their first game is rightly remembered as one of the biggest shocks in World Cup history. With Phelan starting at left-back and City teammate Alan Kernaghan watching from the subs bench, Ireland managed a memorable 1-0 win over Italy, the eventual runners-up, on a blisteringly hot day in New York. Ray Houghton’s goal was brilliant; his roly-poly celebration an iconic World Cup moment.
Phelan kept his place for Ireland’s second group match, a 2-1 defeat to Mexico famous for John Aldridge’s rant at the fourth official as his entrance from the bench was inexplicably delayed, but was left out of the 0-0 draw with Norway. That result saw Ireland finish second in Group E, ensuring a place in the knock-out phase where they faced Holland.
The Dutch were too strong for Ireland, though. Phelan returned to the starting XI, but goals from Dennis Bergkamp and Wim Jonk saw Dick Advocaat's side through to the quarter-finals.
USA ’94 was a memorable World Cup – for the colourful kits as much as the brilliant football – and Ireland had certainly played their part.
In total, Phelan won 42 caps for Ireland, and having spent time at Everton, Crystal Palace, Fulham and Sheffield United after leaving Chelsea in 1997, he finished his career with Charleston Battery in America and Otago United in New Zealand.
Born in Salford, he was a highly-rated, ultra-quick full-back, whose City career ultimately failed to deliver. But his exploits at the World Cup in the USA provided him with a career-high. Charlton’s Ireland punched above their weight, and for those glorious few weeks in 1994, the Irish were many people's second team.
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