- 19 Mar 20
As highlighted by RTE’s excellent two-part documentary The Boys In Green, the tournament remains a milestone in Ireland’s sporting, social and cultural life.
I sometimes think that the Irish soccer side from 1986 to 1996 holds a unique place in the nation’s sporting affections – are they our most beloved ever sports team? At the same time, I’m wary of the rose-tinted spectacles, of sounding like a tiresome bore wittering on about how it was so much better in the old days.
Nonetheless, Ross Whitaker’s wonderful two-part documentary on the period, The Boys In Green, which screened on RTE over the past couple of weeks, again confirms it as a truly special period in Irish sporting history. It was no small achievement, as it’s an already extensively reported, analysed and discussed era, but on the 30th anniversary of Italia ’90, the series shone a fresh light on what made those years so extraordinary – not just in a sporting sense, but also socially and culturally.
In many ways, my personal story perfectly sums up the wider impact the team had. My father was a staunch GAA man from Kildare and, though he always had an interest in soccer, like many in the association he viewed the rival sport with some suspicion.
The GAA was the sporting heart and soul of the country; the national soccer team, on the other hand, was almost an embarrassment, perennially mired in mediocrity and hard luck stories. And why were the supporters – what few of them there were – so in thrall to English clubs when they should have been supporting domestic sport anyway? No thanks!
All of that changed dramatically when, in late 1985, a gruff Geordie World Cup winner took over the national team and decided it was high time we stopped accepting second best. It would be harder to pick an Englishman more in tune with the Irish temperament than Jack Charlton.
From a working class Northumberland background, he had a hard-nosed, no-nonsense attitude and didn’t fuss over what way people went about their business – as long as it was his way. And it’s fair to say, whenever we enjoyed some success, he liked a few drinks and a party. It was a match made in heaven.
In the qualifying campaign for Euro 88, Charlton’s Ireland played occasionally brilliantly, occasionally appallingly, and were still in with a small chance of qualifying when the final round of games rolled around. In what must surely be the most famous goal in Ireland not actually scored by an Irish player, Scotland’s Gary Mackay produced an unlikely winner in Sofia against Bulgaria, and Ireland had qualified for their first ever major tournament. It was already a remarkable achievement, but what came next changed Irish football forever.
Faith would have it that the opening game of Euro 88 would pit us against England in Stuttgart. As Declan Lynch noted in The Boys In Green, there was a hidden fear that we might actually disgrace ourselves with the continent watching. But this Irish team was a different animal, and after Ray Houghton stuck the ball in the English net early on, they proceeded to fight like demons for the rest of the afternoon as they bravely stared down their much-hyped opponents. Aided by an outstanding goalkeeping display by Packie Bonner, we emerged with a 1-0 win.
In our debut game at a major tournament, we had vanquished our most bitter historical foes – and the travelling army of Irish fans rightly went apeshit. It was a moment that quickly branded itself into the national psyche, and it was literally celebrated in song, with Kildare’s own Christy Moore penning the memorable ‘Joxer Goes To Stuttgart’.
It turned out we were only getting started, and this incredible journey kept ascending to new levels. In the second game, a 1-1 draw with the USSR, we took the lead with an absolutely spectacular – preposterous, really – 18-yard volley into the top corner from Ronnie Whelan. What the fuck was going on here? Was this Ireland we were watching?!
In the final game against Holland – unquestionably one of the finest football teams of the past 40 years – we held our own for almost the full 90 minutes. In the end, the draw that would have secured us a semi-final place ultimately evaded us, courtesy of a fortuitous last gasp Dutch goal from Wim Kieft.
But still: what a summer. From being initially sceptical of Charlton’s reign, men like my father were now fully-fledged disciples, flush with the zeal of the newly converted. Here we were in a major tournament, competing with some of the best teams in the world. And the icing on this glorious cake: WE’D FUCKING STUCK IT TO ENGLAND!!
FIRST WORLD CUP
After such giddy highs, what exactly do you do for an encore? Well, qualify for Ireland’s first ever World Cup, that’s what. Like a lot of kids my age, Italia ’90 was a watershed moment in my life as a sports fan. My first proper memory of the team was the qualification game against Northern Ireland: our national school in Kilcullen, Co. Kildare let us out from class early to watch the match on TV in the hall (it was a convincing 3-0 win).
In the build up to the tournament, there was a palpable surge of excitement. We delightedly filled in our sticker books, put up the posters and bought the cassettes of ‘The Boys In Green’, ‘Give It A Lash Jack’ and the numerous other World Cup singles (side note: has there ever been a better football anthem than the Larry Mullen-produced ‘Put Em Under Pressure’?). We also took a serious interest in our new national heroes – and it has to be acknowledged this was an Irish golden generation like no other.
The jewel in the crown was the peerless Paul McGrath – who played like some unbeatable combination of Andres Iniesta and Ronald Koeman – but we boasted heavyweight artillery all over the field: Houghton, Aldridge, Whelan and Staunton had variously won leagues, cups and European titles with Liverpool; Sheedy was a leading figure during an era of unprecedented success for Everton; O’Leary was celebrated for his exploits in an Arsenal jersey.
One of the first times my father became fully aware of Kevin Moran’s burgeoning soccer success came during the 1978 Leinster final, when – wait for it – he flew home from Man Utd for the weekend to line out for Dublin against Kildare. Well, we certainly never got that from Ronaldo.
SENSE OF PRIDE
Indeed, there was a huge sense of pride amongst my father’s generation when they saw the likes of Moran – and other men who had played GAA during their upbringing, like Quinn, Staunton and Bonner – competing at the highest level on the world stage. And unlike rugby, football was the people’s game: it genuinely brought communities together. As John Giles noted in The Boys In Green, Italia ’90 wasn’t just about one tournament: it legitimately popularised football in Ireland.
There isn’t much else to say about that summer that hasn’t already been said. Suffice to note: after David O’Leary’s climactic penalty put us through to the quarter-finals in the shoot-out against Romania, I walked out of our house in Kilcullen and there were people literally dancing in the streets. For a country that had been battered by a decade of economic stagnation and spiralling unemployment, it was the uplifting celebration we badly needed. The whole experience genuinely raised spirits and gave us an immense sense of pride in being Irish.
STYLE OF PLAY
I was in tears when Salvatore ‘Toto’ Schillaci’s goal put us out after a hard-fought quarter-final against the host nation (my father’s reaction when the goal was later shown during an end-of-year highlights package: “Schillaci, the bollox!”).
Life being life, of course, there were complexities and nuances to the whole voyage. At the time, Eamon Dunphy appeared to be nothing more than a colossal pain in the arse. In retrospect, though, he and other critics had legitimate grievances that – given the calibre of player Jack had at his disposal – we favoured such a rigidly defensive style.
Undoubtedly, the team could be direct, even agricultural. And Jack certainly had a fondness for centre-backs and defensive midfielders with a particular skillset (ie. putting em under pressure, hitting first and never asking questions). Nowadays, such tactics would be seen as outrageously aggressive, dangerous even. Still, there are those of us who actually miss the hard men like Moran and Mick McCarthy. It has made the game less exciting.
Besides, I think the aesthetic debates somewhat miss the point. That the team were a bit rough around the edges was part of the appeal: characteristics like resolve, aggression and unconquerable spirit made them appealing to the national character (even a bit like – whisper it – a GAA team). Those same traits also resulted in many highly dramatic comebacks, a number of them against England.
SOLIDARITY AND COMMUNITY
As a young kid during Italia ’90, occasionally mad thoughts would flash through my head, such as: what will we make of all this 30 years from now? And hard as it is to believe, here we are. That Ireland should find itself in the grip of a global pandemic, wreaking social and economic havoc, makes that summer seem more precious than ever.
We are certainly going to need that sense of solidarity and community to make it through the next few months. And when this unbelievably gruelling and draining period finally passes, maybe, just maybe, we’ll have a party to rival it. Wouldn’t that be a fitting way to commemorate the adventure of a lifetime?