Italia 90. Gorgeous, glorious Italia 90. Paunchy Diego Maradona and an even-paunchier Luciano Pavarotti. Mullets, machismo and masses of man tears.
It was the first tournament that I can remember – kind of – back when innocence pervaded, long before the cynicism set in. Footballers were everything and more, all we talked about at school, who we pretended to be in the streets afterwards.
And it felt like I had a genuine stake in this tournament. Republic of Ireland debuted, announcing their arrival on the world stage by playing a truly intoxicating brand of punt-it-long, knock-it-down football. The Netherlands and their “Total Football” shtick? Nah, not for us, boys. Fire that to Big Cass or Big Quinny, feed off them scraps.
And, for the most part, it worked. Ireland made it through a group containing the Netherlands, England and Egypt, then squared up to Romania in the last 16.
That's when Packie Bonner saved in the shoot-out from Daniel Timofte and I vaulted from the dinner table in delight. Granny McAuley was not so happy, but who cared, David O'Leary was about to strike the winning spot-kick. Hold on… David O'Leary? Surely there was another candidate? Couldn't Sheedy just go again, or Houghton, or Townsend?
But somehow O’Leary scored, somehow the television brought through to the kitchen survived, and somehow Ireland were quarter-finalists. They even later had a face-to-face with the Pope. Imagine.
In truth, I can barely remember anything about their subsequent defeat to hosts Italy. We simply continued doing what we did: played football in the streets, only occasionally tuning in to see Gazza gurning, Maradona inconsolable and Lothar Matthaus thrusting the gleaming trophy high above his fantastically square head.
Enlivened by Jack Charlton’s Ireland, we were too busy out in the glow of the summer, playing our heroes who had lit up the tournament. Bonner? O’Leary? No chance. I’ll do Bobby Baggio, you Roger Milla, thanks.
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