Friday 21 October 2016

'It was impossible to sit on the toilet in players rooms without having both knees in the shower'

Published 27/06/2015 | 02:30

Irish fans celebrate in O’Connell Street during the magical few weeks of Italia 90, 25 years ago
Irish fans celebrate in O’Connell Street during the magical few weeks of Italia 90, 25 years ago

Reminiscence makes us old and, in the case of Italia 90, spins its share of gentle swindles. What we remembered this week as a wondrous, nation-changing festival was, in reality, one of the poorest World Cups there's been. Italy's games apart, the stadia were never full, few superstars did anything for us to be sentimental about and the final was an ugly, mean-spirited eyesore settled by a German peno.

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Worse, 24 lives were lost in the construction of World Cup venues.

Ireland's journey to a quarter-final against the hosts obscured much of that for us. Our world at the time was a blizzard of swooning excitement and pasty giddiness. It was a voyage of epic self-discovery, albeit much of it maybe founded in hype and mild distortion.

But we forget that Jack Charlton spent much of the tournament waspish and frazzled, barking his way through press conferences like a sergeant major vexed by muffled laughter in the drill yard.

We forget that we did not actually win a game, that the rest of the world looked upon Ireland's style with the kind of smirky disapproval that moved one Frenchman to describe us as the team "playing one-twos with the angels".

Con Houlihan's famous line about having missed Italia 90 as he was in Italy at the time carried a perfectly apt resonance for those of us door-stepping Charlton and his players through the chaotic dramas of Cagliari, Palermo, Genoa and, ultimately, the Olympic city.

And Jack's silly decision to storm out of that infamous press conference in Sicily captured, in many ways, our insularity. We were just days away from meeting the Holland of Gullit, Van Basten and Rijkaard, yet fixating upon the language of a contrary TV analyst in Dublin.

After that Dutch game was drawn, journalists began asking Jack how the feeling compared to winning a World Cup in 1966. And you could almost hear him ticking.

On the eve of our quarter-final, he snapped finally. "You ask me the same questions over and over again," he hissed. "It's boring."

So the beauty of Italia 90 was the light it radiated in other places.

The Irish players were visibly moved by RTE's TV clips showing O'Connell Street after that Dutch game and, again, after the penalty shoot-out against Romania in Genoa. Those clips offered glimpses of a lovestruck nation and they were spellbound.


But the implied glamour of their lives at the hub of the universe was illusory.

Their base in Palermo was the Portorais Hotel, where the air conditioning didn't work and leisure facilities were non-existent. Two of the Irish players even slept on camp beds.

Conditions improved with the move to Rapollo on the outskirts of Genoa, but Rome then returned them to the foothills of revolt. On the eve of their quarter-final with Italy, one of the Irish players took me on a tour of their base, the Diana Park Hotel.

It was like traipsing through a students' hostel.

The bedrooms were cramped and stuffy, the air conditioning growled as if an old diesel locomotive might lurk behind the wall. To begin with, there were two players sharing but, after protesting, they were re-located to rooms originally reserved for FAI officials.

Baulking at the exchange, the same officials moved out to a nearby Sheraton.

My guide's bathroom went some way towards explaining that decision. A tiny cubicle, the size of two telephone kiosks pushed together, it was impossible to sit on the toilet without having both knees in the shower. One of a professional footballer's most basic requirements is a bath. In the Diana Park, they had none.

The food, he said, was "bloody awful", the heat made it impossible to sleep and they would have "killed" for use of a simple board-game like monopoly.

Having written the story, I was accosted by an FAI official the day of the quarter-final and branded "a disgrace". There was, the blazer declared, little for the players to be disgruntled by.

One year later, the human mistral that is Roy Keane would come blowing into their world.

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