Saturday 24 February 2018

Life lessons with Packie Bonner: 'On the morning of a Rangers game I'd try to call into my local church'

Packie Bonner is proud of the book he and Gerry McDade wrote. Photo: Kip Carroll
Packie Bonner is proud of the book he and Gerry McDade wrote. Photo: Kip Carroll
Frozen in time: Packie Bonner saves a penalty in the shoot out versus Romania at Italia '90.
John Meagher

John Meagher

Patrick "Packie" Bonner (55) won 80 caps with Ireland and his career with Celtic lasted 20 years. He is best remembered for his match-winning save in the penalty shoot-out against Romania at the World Cup in 1990 which put Ireland into the quarter-finals. After working as a technical director with the Football Association of Ireland, he is now a football analyst with TV3 and BBC Scotland and recently published his autobiography.

The Last Line was short-listed for the Bord Gáis Energy Sports Book of the Year at the recent Irish Book Awards. A native of Burtonport, Co Donegal, he lives in Glasgow and is married to Ann. They have two children, Melissa and Andrew.

I found it very difficult to adjust to life in Glasgow when I moved there at 18. I had grown up on the west coast of Donegal in the most rural setting imaginable and here I was in a big, industrial city that felt a long way from home. I missed my family so much, especially my twin brother Dennis, and there were nights where I would cry myself to sleep.

I loved the Old Firm derbies, the atmosphere was something else. I used to love playing in Ibrox [home of Celtic's city rivals Rangers] because it was like going into the lion's den and it was great to get a win there. I know there can be ferocious tension between the two clubs, but outside of match day there's often a lot of friendship between fans.

Meeting Ann changed my life. She really helped me to get used to life in Glasgow and she's been there through thick and thin.

My father-in-law Tommy was a Rangers season ticket holder and when I first met him he was wearing a Rangers scarf. But after I married Ann, he started coming to Celtic Park to see me play. Those who might not be aware of the rivalry between the two clubs might find it difficult to appreciate what a big deal it was - and is - to do that, but it was the mark of the man.

I have a strong faith and I go to Mass whenever I can. One of the things I like doing whenever I'm in Dublin is to call into that lovely church off Grafton Street [St Teresa's]. It's such a calm place to reflect and a world away from the bustle of the streets outside.

I used to pray before a really big match. On the morning of a Rangers game I'd try to call into my local church. On other occasions, I'd say a few silent prayers. I think my faith helped me then, because you really can feel pressure as a goalkeeper, especially in the early days after you've broken into the first team. A few bad mistakes can really knock your confidence and I didn't want to be someone who was perceived back home as a failure.

I was very fortunate to be playing with Ireland when I did. We had some great players, really big men in every way, and a manager [Jack Charlton] who helped get the best out of us. It was fantastic to qualify for the Euros in '88, but the World Cup two years later was even more special. Twenty-five years on and it's still very much in the hearts of everyone in Ireland. I feel honoured to have been part of that.

Ireland was a simpler place back then and to get to the World Cup for the first time was very special for us all. We had an inkling about how much excitement there was back home because we would see some of the footage, but it was only afterwards we fully grasped what a huge deal it had been - in all parts of the country, from Burtonport to Dublin.

I don't think there's as much connection between supporters and players today. I remember fans at Euro '88 coming up to us in the hotel in Hanover and we'd be able to chat freely with them. There's much more of a remove today and supporters don't really get that sort of access.

People talk to me about that penalty save a lot when I'm back in Ireland but I don't mind because it's one of those things we all cherish. They're able to recall in minute detail where they were and who they were with during that match. I love to hear their stories. People have frozen that moment in time and, when you think about it, there aren't many events in our lives that we can recall so vividly.

Jack Charlton had a special bond with the Irish people. He seemed to have a connection with everyone. Even people who wouldn't have had much interest in sport were really taken with him. The success he had helped, but I think people understand that he had fallen in love with Ireland and his feelings for the country were genuine. There was a warmth there that they could relate to.

Professional sport brings lows as well as highs, much like life. Moments like failing to make an easy save like the one against Holland in the '94 World Cup, which can really tear you up. But you have to be philosophical about it and take the bad with the good.

I hadn't wanted to write an autobiography because I had no interest in settling old scores which is what most sports books seem to do. That's not the way I am as a person, but with the 25th anniversary of the '90 World Cup coming around [ghost-writer] Gerry McDade talked me around and I'm glad he did because I'm really proud of the book we wrote. It may not get headlines the way some others do, but I think it's an honest account of what it was like to play professionally at a time when football was changing.

One of the reasons I had such a long career with Celtic was because there were no agents trying to move you on like today. It's in their interests financially to get players to move clubs and that can be very destabilising. You see it all the time in the modern game and while there's an awful lot that's good about the sport today, that's one of the big drawbacks.

It's really great that Ireland will be in the European Championships next year. I think all the goalkeepers who've played in the qualifying campaign have done themselves proud. I hope we can make it past the first round and then anything after that is a bonus. But don't be under any illusion - we're not going to win it.

'The Last Line' by Packie Bonner is published by Ebury Press

photo: Kip Carroll

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