Monday 24 October 2016

Meeting the hands of God

In a rare personal interview, former Irish goalie Packie Bonner talks about finding love in Glasgow, handling female attention, and why his wife thinks he's far too serious

Published 20/07/2015 | 02:30

National hero: Packie Bonner famously saved a penalty against Romania in Italia 90. Photo: Gerry Mooney
National hero: Packie Bonner famously saved a penalty against Romania in Italia 90. Photo: Gerry Mooney
25 June 1990; Republic of Ireland goalkeeper Packie Bonner saves Romania's Daniel Timofte's shot during the penalty shoot-out. Picture credit: SPORTSFILE

He became the nation's hero when he famously saved that penalty against Romania in Italia '90, but does Packie Bonner mind still having to talk about it constantly 25 years later.

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"I don't mind now, but there was a period where I was embarrassed when people mentioned it," says the softly-spoken Donegal man who earned 80 caps for Ireland after making his debut on his 21st birthday. "I found it hard to handle afterwards because I wasn't used to the attention. I learned how to deal with it over the years, and have used that moment as a positive because I can do things for charity now because of it."

At the time of the save, even women with zero interest in football noticed that the man dubbed the 'hands of God' was very good-looking. Was he aware of that, and how did he feel about being the object of the nation's devotion?

"Ach, you get attention being a footballer anyway but you have to handle it and put it in its place," says the happily-married father of two. "People were calling into the house in Donegal and I wasn't living there, so my mum had to deal with it and she did that so well. Anyway, she would soon knock it out of you if you got carried away with yourself."

Now 55, Packie, aka Patrick Bonner, and his non-identical twin brother Denis grew up in Cloughglass, Donegal, and they have five sisters, four older and one younger. Their parents ran a B&B so they met all sorts of people from different backgrounds, which opened up the world for them.

"I loved my upbringing," he says. "We lived by the sea, and Denis and I were always running around outside. We were very close, and it was great having someone that same age to be with. Our parents were hoping for a boy after four girls, but I'm sure they got a fright when they got two."

While his mum Grace lived to be 90 and passed away only before Christmas, Packie's dad Andrew died of a sudden heart attack, aged 61. It saddens the former Celtic star that his dad missed out on all the good times after that, because he loved sport and used to travel to games. He would have loved what happened with Packie's career, and also with Denis's, who played League of Ireland.

"He could be critical of performances, but he was very supportive," says Packie. "I was only 22 when he died so it was a massive blow. My mum was a very strong woman, but it was a big shock for everyone, and I was away in Glasgow so it was hard. I threw myself into football, as we were going into the European Cup game a few days after he died. When you lose your dad, you have to make your own decisions and suddenly there isn't someone there watching out for you."

While he had planned to go to Thomond College and become a PE teacher, Packie signed with Celtic just prior to sitting his Leaving Cert and went to Glasgow after it, aged 18. He has now lived there for 36 years, and says that the decision to leave home was the biggest challenge he has faced.

"I had to move away because there wasn't going to be a career for me as a professional footballer here," he says. "I missed my family and friends lots and although things have changed now and we live in a world of technology, we didn't even have phones back then. I was very close to my parents and Denis, and in fact, as my wife Ann could tell you, I put them in front of her and the kids at times. Home, to me, was in Donegal, and she'd rear up on me and say that my home was in Glasgow."

Packie met Ann through friends in a pub when he was 21. She worked in a bank, and while he was attracted to her good looks and personality, the fact that she wasn't keen on football came as a welcome relief. Glaswegians in general are very passionate about the sport and about Celtic, and always loved to talk to him about it. "Ann came to one of my games and went home and told her dad I saved a penalty, but it was a free kick about 25 yards from the goal," he laughs. "She didn't have a clue, and while she understands the life we live, she isn't any better on the game these days. I have to go into another room to watch matches."

Packie got married to Ann when he was 24, and they had their first child Andrew almost a year later. Andrew is 30 and their daughter Melissa is 25, and they have a beloved seven-year-old grandson Alan as well. What would Ann say if we asked her to describe her husband?

"She'd say I'm too serious," says Packie. "I'm single-minded and when I work, the job takes over 100 per cent. She'd also say I'm negative, but I like to encourage other people to be positive and succeed."

One person that Packie hugely admires is his niece Una, 20, the daughter of his brother Denis. Una has spina bifida, and has a great personality, is in college and regularly swims 50 lengths. Packie got involved with Spina Bifida Hydrocephalus Ireland 18 years ago because he has seen the great work they have done over the years. He holds an annual golf classic to raise funds, and loves that every penny earned goes directly to help people in Una's position.

Packie's goalkeeping career came to an end in 1998, and he went on to work as technical director of the FAI for eight years. His tenure came to an abrupt end in 2010 when the FAI announced a series of job cuts and wage reductions in an effort to reduce expenses. Was he disappointed about that?

"I would have loved to continue, there is no point in lying about it, but I had a good eight years in the FAI," he says. "We built it up - maybe too quickly - and put a plan around it and I had a great time there. We made an impact at the time anyway. I have been able to continue in sport, and I go to different countries and see different cultures doing coach education. My only regret is that I would have loved to move abroad and play there at the end of my career, but I'm getting to travel now and learn new things."

The 2015 Packie Bonner Golf Classic, in aid of Spina Bifida Hydrocephalus Ireland, takes place on Friday 21st of August in Palmerstown House Estate Golf Club in Naas, Co. Kildare.

Contact for team bookings and sponsorship opportunities, to help raise vital funds for this very worthy cause.

Sunday Independent

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