Friday 9 December 2016

Radio: Strange days, great times: Italia '90 remembered

Published 24/01/2016 | 02:30

Such was the collective hysteria of the period that Dunphy instantly became the national pantomime villain
Such was the collective hysteria of the period that Dunphy instantly became the national pantomime villain

'The nation holds its breath." "I'm ashamed to be Irish after watching that." "We'll put 'em under pressure."

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You remember those bon mots, I'm sure, from the Italia '90 World Cup - catchy statements since entered into Irish cultural lore, from a seminal summer which was recalled in Put 'Em Under Pressure (Radio 1, Sun 7pm), John Kenny's fond, well-researched documentary.

The sharper-minded among you will also remember that only two were actually spoken. The second was what Eamon Dunphy supposedly said, but didn't, after Ireland's excruciatingly boring 0-0 draw with Egypt, as part of a highly entertaining rant which ended with him flinging a pen in anger.

What he did say was, "We should be ashamed about the way we went about the game", but this slight difference in words and intent mattered not. Such was the collective hysteria of the period that Dunphy instantly became the national pantomime villain. (You could even buy "Dunphy versus Jack" t-shirts; my friend had one reading "We kicked ass on Italian grass" over a cartoon of Big Jack mowing Dunphy into the lawn.)

Italia 90 was a great time in many ways, but it was also a strange time in many ways. Mass hysteria, no matter how positive or benign the source, is never really good, is it? And mass hysteria over something as ultimately inconsequential as a sporting event borders on being actively disturbing.

Before you spit out your coffee in disgust, of course I appreciate that sport plays a vital role in people's happiness; some of the best days of my life revolved around it. (And some of the worst - I still have nightmares about the 2009 All-Ireland final). But by any reasonable, objective examination: it doesn't amount to a hill of beans in the end. It only has the meaning we give it. And fundamentally, sport - yes, even the 2009 All-Ireland final - is really rather silly.

Interestingly, Put 'Em Under Pressure proved both points: that these things genuinely matter to people and there's nothing wrong with that… and sport is silly and pointless. From listening to the documentary's mix of "them were the days" interviews and contemporaneous audio archive, I came to the conclusion that the former applies on the macro scale, the latter on the micro.

Listening to people talking, then and now, about the excitement, travelling, nerves, results, borrowing money, Sardinia, English hooligans, the Pope and everything else - it was easy to get swept back up in the great big roaring rush of it all. They were memorable times in some ways; even a lapsed Ireland fan like me still recalls it vividly.

On the other side, and perhaps ironically, when specific incidents were discussed the absurdity came into focus. One example will suffice: Niall Quinn's goal against the Netherlands, which ensured qualification for the second round.

This is an iconic moment in Irish sporting history. Yet on another level, it was nothing more than a man stretching his leg to kick a ball past another man, through a three-sided wooden frame and over a chalk-line.

Does that make sense? What I'm trying to say is that Italia 90, and all such events, are simultaneously fantastic, powerful celebrations of community and identity - and childish, stupid jig-acting which means absolutely squat. And there, I suppose, lies a neat summation of the human condition itself.

Back in the present, there's an election looming. And if nothing else, the forthcoming campaign has at least taught me a new word: "psephologist". Psephology - it says on the internet - is a branch of political science which deals with the study and scientific analysis of elections, and Noel Whelan is a psephologist, introduced as such on Today with Sean O'Rourke (Radio 1, Mon-Fri 10am).

Whelan brings out his Tallyman's Campaign Handbook for every general election, in which he predicts how the voting will go. Brave man, say I, leaving himself open to egg on the face like that - though as he proved while serving as one of the Marriage Referendum's chief Yes advocates, Whelan doesn't lack for courage.

I like this sort of thing, trying to divine trends, although the flood of names and numbers had me addled eventually. Whelan's predictions? "Fine Gael heading towards 60 seats", 35 for Fianna Fáil, and "24 and maybe more" for Sinn Féin.

Over on Newstalk's Lunchtime (Mon-Fri 12.30pm), Jonathan Healy hosted "the first in a series of pre-election debates" in Killarney. The Kerry constituency used to be divided into South and North; the new unified electoral area is reduced from six to five seats.

This should mean the battle here is spiced-up and more exciting for observers, but I must confess that I found this segment awfully dreary. Not Healy's fault - he did his best to make it sound interesting - but they all delivered similar clichés and slogans and meaningless statements, in a similar robotic, politician style. Hopefully it won't all be this dull.

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