Saturday 22 October 2016

Italia 90: at last Paddy got the breaks

We see it as a lucky time, but also a time when we started borrowing money just to enjoy ourselves, writes Declan Lynch

Published 14/06/2015 | 02:30

‎Illustration by Jim Cogan
‎Illustration by Jim Cogan

There was something wonderfully benign about the presence of Jack Charlton at the Aviva Stadium last Sunday, 25 years after Italia 90, bestowing his greeting on the crowd, reminding some of us that the gift he had brought was quite mysterious.

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Jack had not brought any great technical advances to Ireland, if anything he had made the team less technical than they would otherwise have been. He had charisma, but then quite a few managers have charisma for a while.

No, it seems to me that the one thing Jack brought above all else, was a thing we thought we had already, but didn't really. He brought us a bit of luck.

Until he came, Paddy had no luck.

We had whatever is the opposite of luck, a sense that we would always be found on the wrong side of the line, that we just couldn't make it across to that place where we might get a few ordinary breaks, just like anyone else.

At times the Republic had been simply cheated, by bad men, but then there was a losing mentality that develops naturally when you keep hitting the bar and conceding goals late in the game and generally not getting even the most meagre share of good fortune.

Then Jack arrived, and by the most marvellous coincidence, Paddy started to get lucky. I can think of at least three excellent things that happened under Jack, that could never have happened during the luckless years.

In a game against Belgium, we got a late penalty out of an act of astonishing foolishness by their goalkeeper. And if we thought this was a freak, we were further confounded by the late goal for Scotland against Bulgaria that qualified us for Euro 88. And then there's the one that most of us tend not to recall, perhaps because we were now becoming accustomed to getting the breaks - at Italia 90 when lots were drawn for the last 16, we got Romania when we might have got Germany.

I do not think we would have beaten Germany, who went on to win Italia 90, I do not think we would even have got to extra time, or penalties, as we did against the, well, unfortunate Romanians.

But yes, by then we were coming to expect that such things would fall in our favour. And this, I believe, above all else, was what we discovered in the time of Jack, of Euro 88 and of Italia 90.

This was the psychic lift that we received, this sense that the force, while it may not always be with us, was not always against us.

And it happened at this pivotal moment of our coming out to meet the world, at its greatest sport, having spent most of our major sporting moments until then in the arena of Gaelic games, where reassuringly, no matter what county takes the prize, Paddy always wins.

This would help to explain the appalling fear that we had before playing England in those tournaments. We just were not accustomed to leaving ourselves open to such potential embarrassment, at least not deliberately. And it gave our drinking an even more terrible intensity - all the more so when everything turned out so well.

If Jack had brought the Luck of the English, it was only in writing the book Days of Heaven that I realised how natural and even essential it is, for any Irish international success story to have some English or other foreign involvement. Weirdly, we are still actually having debates about Englishmen being eligible for the Republic, and what that means, when in truth we should probably not be undertaking any collective endeavour without ensuring that there is some English person or at least a non-national of some kind on board in a position of some significance.

Indeed, for a while I figured that the only exception to this law of nature, was Enya, and in that I was choosing to ignore the fact that her recordings were a collaboration with Nicky and Roma Ryan, and that Roma is from Belfast, which is not, at the time of going to press, in the Republic of Ireland.

You could make an argument for some of our Eurovision winners too, while acknowledging that Johnny Logan was actually born in Australia.

Soon we would be claiming different kinds of international success, most notably in the money game, with our bankers boasting that we were doing it all by ourselves. And while this is sometimes attributed to the "confidence" we derived from the football, it must also be recalled that Italia 90 was perhaps the first time that large numbers of Irish people borrowed quite large amounts of money for the sole purpose of enjoying themselves - something that only people like Charlie Haughey would be doing heretofore, and with a slight difference of emphasis in the sense that the poor folks who borrowed money from the Credit Union to go to Italy, would be expected to pay it all back, with interest.

So the irrational exuberance of those times, while it made Paddy feel that at last he was in good standing with the baleful gods, may also have started him on the road to perdition.

Maybe Jack, by walking among us again, can help to turn it around. It's as plausible a plan as any of the others.

Sunday Independent

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