George Hamilton: 'There were lumps in throats and moist eyes all round at the sight of the crowds back home...'
Published 07/06/2015 | 02:30
I spent a large chunk of the summer of 1990 on duty abroad. Looking back, I feel, like Con Houlihan, that I missed World Cup.
Yes, I was there. But I didn't get to the party.
Not that I should have been surprised there was one. Two years before at Euro 88, the Boys in Green had made their entrance at a major international tournament for the very first time. O'Connell Street was overwhelmed when the team came home and rode down on an open-top bus. What would it have been like if they'd returned as champions?
Two years on, they'd qualified again. This time for their very first World Cup.
Now, they say the past is a different country. The passage of 25 years confirms that. My sidekick Tom Flanagan and I flew to Italia 90 in the cockpit of an Aer Lingus 737, courtesy of Pat Galvin, a captain who regularly took command of the Irish team flight back then. We were armed with a concertina of carbon paper tickets to see us through our six weeks of air travel up and down the length and breadth of Italy.
There was no internet to deliver shots of street scenes in Dublin after Ireland had drawn with England in the opening game in Cagliari. Mobile phones didn't roam in those days either. The odd newspaper shared by a recently arrived fan offered as much information as was available. Over there, we were living in a bubble. Blissfully unaware.
We flew through the night from Sardinia to Sicily, and suffered the stalemates against Egypt and Holland. But we'd made it out of the group and into the last 16 of the World Cup.
Holland had qualified, too, with an identical record to Jack's team. That meant a toss of the coin to decide who they'd play next. One would get West Germany, who'd go on to win the tournament. The Dutch drew the short straw.
It would be Romania for Ireland. Before that, my World Cup schedule took me to Milan to see the Germans march into the last eight. The following morning, Ireland's day of destiny, Tom and I headed for the autostrada and the 200-kilometre trip south to Genoa. Two forgettable hours of football there ended in another stalemate. There would be a penalty shoot-out. The tension was immense.
Back home, the Six-One News had joined the audience on what was then Network 2. It struck me that the only thing on TV in Ireland at that moment was the unfolding drama on the Italian Riviera.
Eight penalties, all successfully converted. Just one more each before it goes to sudden death. Packie Bonner saves from Timofte. The big man from Donegal has set it up for the victory.
Forward stepped David O'Leary. Just about everybody in Ireland must have been watching. What else was there to say? "The Nation Holds Its Breath".
O'Leary's nerve held, sending us all to Rome and the quarter-final against Italy. Our colleagues sent us a videotape of the coverage from back home. During these days the team hotel is a bit like the cockpit of an aircraft - no visits allowed. In 1990 we stayed with the players.
The only VHS machine was in the team room so we took the tape in there and started to watch. Ronnie Whelan happened by and could scarcely believe his eyes. He called Ray Houghton. Soon the whole squad was there, struggling to take it all in.
There were lumps in throats and moist eyes all round at the sight of the crowds swamping the traffic in O'Connell Street, sweeping Irish flags across the roofs of the stationary cars. They'd used 'I've Had the Time of My Life' as the soundtrack.
It was quite evident that everybody had.