After decades of striving, the prospect of Ireland playing in the 1990 World Cup Finals in Italy was enchanting. Even those of us with reservations about Big Jack's long-ball game laid them firmly aside to savour the experience in the months leading up to Italia '90.
I was invited back to work for the RTÉ television panel. I was happy to return, although my commitment to the Sunday Independent meant I would be going to Italy for some of the matches.
When the draw was made for the finals we found ourselves in the same group as England, Egypt and Holland. England up first. Again. On a wet and windy night in Cagliari, England took the lead. But Ireland battled bravely, forcing England to retreat deep into their own territory. High balls rained on England's defence. Irish forwards scuttled after the scraps. A nation waited anxiously for a break, any stroke of good fortune to even the scores.
When it came, Ireland's goal was sublime. A deflected long ball fell to Kevin Sheedy, who struck it perfectly past Peter Shilton from eighteen yards. The dream was still alive. Thanks to their remarkable resilience, the Boys in Green had done the nation proud.
Egypt was next, the following Sunday. The Boys in Green were now the biggest story in the country. People made plans for the game, with parties, barbecues and gatherings in community halls around Ireland.
I recall that Sunday morning very clearly. Driving across the city to RTÉ there was a stillness in the air. Flags and bunting sticking out of windows, adorning shop fronts, pubs and lamp-posts.
Egypt had drawn with Holland in their opening game. England and Holland had drawn the day before. A win meant Ireland would top the group. An hour before the game, news filtered through that Jack had omitted Ronnie Whelan from the team. Ronnie, captain of the Liverpool side that had just won the English First Division, on the bench! That was a very strange decision. Ronnie was a classy player, a goal scorer and goal maker.
The game against Egypt was a horror show. Ireland humped long balls at the Egyptians for ninety minutes. Tony Cascarino lumbered around up front. We never attempted to play a passing game. Long after it became clear that some quality was required to break Egypt down, Jack stuck to his game plan. With 25 minutes to go John Aldridge was taken off. No Ronnie. Alan McLoughlin was the journeyman sub. With five minutes to go Cascarino was replaced by Niall Quinn.
Jack's attempt to bully the Egyptians was an abysmal failure. In our studio analysis I described the football played as 'rubbish'. And I contended: 'Anyone sending a team out to play that way should be ashamed of themselves.'
Jack's post-game television interview was also, I thought, deeply embarrassing. He didn't know the names of the Egyptian players so he attempted to distinguish between them on the basis of the colour of their skin. Thus, there were references to 'the light-skinned lad' and 'the one with darker skin'.
Sitting in the studio, aware that the nation was watching, I winced in embarrassment. This was an OMFG moment. I repeated my assertion that Ireland's football was shameful. Then I dropped my pen on the studio desk and sat back with a sigh of resignation.
Within minutes the RTÉ switchboard lit up. At least two thousand people rang to voice their anger. The fuss was only beginning. With little that was printable to say about the game, the media decided that I was the story. I had, they wrote, declared that I was ashamed to be Irish before flinging my pen across the studio in disgust. The mob began marching. And they were marching in my direction.
The following day I travelled to Italy to cover our final group game against Holland for the Sunday Independent. The morning papers were full of reports about the public reaction to my remarks on RTÉ the previous day.
The airport terminal was packed with travelling Irish fans. It was an afternoon flight. Drink had been consumed. A group of young fans spotted me having a coffee. As they closed in around me they began to chant: 'If you hate Eamon Dunphy, clap your hands. If you hate fucking Eamon Dunphy, clap your hands.' It was borderline dangerous, with the drink and high emotion whipped up by the morning tabloid reports fuelling what was in effect a battalion of 'Jackie's Army'.
Other travellers averted their gaze as the mob closed in around my table. A security man arrived and offered me an escape to a room beside the gate we were to board from.
I was shaken. The press reports stated as fact that I had said I was ashamed to be Irish. I had thrown my pen across the RTÉ studio. The mob chanting outside must have seen the match on television. They must have known the difference between what I'd actually said and what the press was reporting. What, I wondered, would await me in Italy, where the news reports would doubtless be gospel?
As we waited to board, the chanting continued. More security arrived at what was now an ugly scene. I was seated halfway up the plane. The Aer Lingus hostess checked my ticket as I stepped aboard. She seated me in the front row. 'You'll be OK there.' She smiled. This touching act of kindness almost made me cry.
* Eamon went to the match against Holland in Palermo with the journalist Colm Toibin who was reporting for Magill magazine:
Our taxi dropped us about two hundred yards from the stadium at a car park where Irish and Dutch fans were being deposited from their coaches. As we began our walk to the stadium we bumped into the economist Colm McCarthy. 'What have you done?' he asked me.
The street was a mass of green and orange, the Dutch being as famously fervent as our own travelling fans. Then a group of Irish fans spotted me. 'Dunphy, you bastard,' one guy erupted. He was joined by his mates, who crowded round as we attempted to keep moving.
The chant began: 'If you hate fucking Dunphy, clap your hands.' Suddenly we were surrounded by hundreds of men (and women) wearing the green, chanting feverishly, pushing ever closer. A few Irish voices offered some support, but 'Leave the man alone' was a minority opinion. The potential for something nasty hung in the air on the final stretch of road between us and the stadium.
The two Colms were shocked. I was too. This wasn't the Irish way. There was something loutish about Jackie's travelling army, the kind of vibe familiar to those who visited English soccer grounds.
Eamon was now a hate figure for Irish fans and moving around Dublin without being confronted became difficult. At the taxi-rank outside the Westbury Hotel one day the five drivers on duty all refused to take him in their cars.
* Eamon was in Rome for Ireland's quarter-final encounter with the host nation. Once again Ireland played the long-ball game. Italy won 1-0, with the famous goal by Schillaci breaking Irish hearts.
Jack had no plan B. The Italians, master defenders, coped easily with Packie Bonner's bombs. There was one obvious substitution crying out to be made, but Ronnie Whelan sat through the ninety minutes without ever being asked to take off his tracksuit.
Ronnie was one of Ireland's greatest ever players. He had an impressive record as a big-game goal-scorer. His goals helped Liverpool win Wembley Cup finals. He really should have started the match. But the Liverpool captain, an independent-minded character, had fallen foul of the regime after a training-ground row. Tony Cascarino and John Sheridan were Jack's preferred subs on the night.
A wonderful adventure was coming to an end. The 15,000 Irish supporters in Rome's Olympic Stadium rose to Jack and his players as they walked a slow lap of honour. They would go home as heroes.
At Rome airport the following morning I met Ronnie Whelan's father. Ronnie Senior was a hero from my childhood. Like his son, he had been a goal- scoring forward for St Patrick's Athletic in the League of Ireland's golden age. He confirmed what I'd been writing in the Sunday Independent, that his son was fit to play in the tournament. But Ronnie wryly remarked: 'He doesn't follow Jack's orders.'
Ronnie Senior had no time for Jack's Route One football. It was a foreign game to those of us who belonged to the now ever-diminishing original soccer community. How ironic that soccer's emancipation in the Land of Saints and Scholars should coincide with the isolation of people like Ronnie, Dessie Toal, Frank O'Neill, the Bradys, Gileses, O'Learys, Whelans, Liam Tuohy, Brian Kerr and Noel O'Reilly. The mob stole our game. Now we watched helplessly as they paraded round the world, led by Big Jack.
Our plane landed at Dublin one hour before the team's. Flying in over the city we could see the vast crowd, an estimated 500,000, gathered for the homecoming party. There were no taxis at the airport. The drivers couldn't get there through the crowds ringing the approach roads. I had my car. Greg Sparks, the accountant and Labour Party advisor, wondered if I could give him a lift into town. 'No problem,' I told him.
As we moved slowly along the slip-road towards the airport roundabout we noted the raucous crowd awaiting the heroes' return. There was a whiff of hysteria in the air as people pressed excitedly forward. At the roundabout we had to stop briefly. A few young men spilled onto the road alongside my Honda Civic. One of them spotted me: 'It's him,' he roared to his mates.
'Dunphy, you fucking bastard,' another yob screamed.
There wasn't a policeman in sight. We were stalled, the car quickly surrounded. They started to rock the car. Greg and I were in trouble. I suggested he go along the road to find a cop. I managed to get out of the car, which was now completely stuck in a mass of bodies. Drink was being consumed from cans. I needed a stiff one myself. But I kept smiling. People were taking photographs. The mob was split 50:50: some wanted the car turned over, others wanted me left alone. Horns hooted behind us.
During the five minutes while Greg found a guard, I sat back in the car. Two middle-aged women with cameras approached, urging me to wind down the window. 'Can we take a picture, Eamon?' they asked.
'Sure,' I replied. They took the picture. Then, as they went to leave, one woman turned. 'You're a little fucking bastard,' she snarled. I was genuinely frightened.
Greg returned with a garda superintendent. At the sight of the uniform the mob backed off. Shocked by the incident, we made a circuitous journey to the safety of Dublin 4.
* Eamon felt he needed to get out of town for a while and his friend Patrick Guilbaud, the restaurant owner, suggested Deauville in Normandy in France, famous for horse racing, where no one would know him.
W hen I arrived in Rosslare and joined the queue for the ferry, hundreds of Irish holidaymakers were waiting to board. I tried to keep my head down. I was alone. But within minutes someone had spotted me.
As we inched closer to the boarding ramp I was conscious of people staring and pointing. In the ship's reception area, as I waited for my cabin booking, I was surrounded by whispering Irish travellers: 'It's him, Dad,' a youngster exclaimed. 'Dunphy.'
A group of young men started singing 'Olé, olé, olé, olé'.
The girl on reception gave me my cabin key. And a warm smile. Down in my cabin I contemplated the sixteen-hour journey. I'd have to eat in the ship's restaurant. I braced myself and went back upstairs.
There was a queue for the buffet. More staring and whispering. I was close to tears. The maître d' approached. 'Eamon, come on with me.'
He beckoned. 'I've got you a quiet table in the corner. You'll be left alone over there,' he assured me. 'We'll take your order, you won't have to queue.' He brought me a bottle of beer and a menu.
This small act of kindness released a cascade of tears. I sat in my corner for 10 or 15 minutes weeping. I'd been putting a brave face on things for several weeks, pretending not to give a f**k. The tears told a different story.
Eamon Dunphy's autobiography, The Rocky Road, will be published tomorrow by Penguin Ireland at €22