Sunday 17 February 2019

A true vision of Ireland was born in Stuttgart

Cartoonist: Jim Cogan
Cartoonist: Jim Cogan
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

If you were writing a history of Modern Ireland, you could start in the first weeks of June in 1988, when Ireland beat England 1-0 in Stuttgart - and you could end it 30 years later in the first weeks of June in 2018, with Ireland reflecting on another victory of enormous significance. One that also had people on the streets celebrating, high on the improbability of it all.

The common thread is not just this euphoria at a result, but the confirmation of something that we hoped we had in us - that our better angels would prevail, and that the world would know it.

And, of course, England is involved too, always there or thereabouts. Indeed the euphoria of Euro 1988 was originally not about the result of that game, but about the fact that Ireland had already beaten England morally, our supporters making it their business to behave impeccably on every occasion, in contrast to the English hooligans who were the scourge of Europe at that time.

There were large articles written about this in the English papers, wondering how we had got it so right, when they had got it so wrong - and this was before we beat them at football too. With their own deep feelings of self-loathing, the English could not give themselves the credit they were due, they could not see that we could hardly have done it without them, that none of our players would have had the professional careers they were enjoying, if they weren't playing in England.

And there was the minor matter of our manager Jack Charlton being one of the Boys of 1966, an aristocrat of the English game - oh, and the fact that several of our players were born and raised, not in Ireland but in what can only be described as England.

But deep down we knew that this football team and everything about it was a reflection of a real Ireland that Official Ireland had never had the grace or the wisdom to acknowledge. That the unwanted emigrants were part of the story too, that being able to call on the "great-grandmother" players was a payback for emigration that we didn't deserve, for which we could only be grateful. That this tricolour being waved in Stuttgart and Hanover and Gelsenkirchen was not the flag of the Provos or of nationalist eejitry in general, indeed that the further we get away from that twisted nationalism, the better we are. And the better we are, it seems, the luckier we get.

When we speculate, as we must, on the importance of Euro 1988 and of Italia 1990 in terms of the boom that was to come, we tend to place too little importance on the luck that we had, or perhaps we just misunderstand it. Because we were not going to Euro 1988 at all, until the most outrageous stroke of fortune in Bulgaria, when Scotland inexplicably won with a late goal.

And against England in Stuttgart, we had the most magnificent luck all the way through the game, which should not take away from the fact that we were good too - we were better than we thought we were. Indeed, looking back, this was an excellent squad, with Paul McGrath, Ronnie Whelan, Chris Hughton, Ray Houghton, John Aldridge, Kevin Sheedy, Kevin Moran and Packie Bonner. Jack was as lucky to have them as we were to have him.

Still there had been other excellent Ireland squads which had never reached the finals of a major tournament, because they got every bad break that was coming to them, and a few more besides in terms of abysmal refereeing and skulduggery in general.

And this kind of thing can eat away at the soul of a nation. Yes there were other international successes for Irish people in the 1980s - on the weekend of Stuttgart itself you had Christy Moore playing the Carnegie Hall, you had The Gate Theatre on Broadway with Juno, there would be My Left Foot winning Oscars, and U2 had already sold about 500m records.

But it always seemed that these victories were achieved against the run of play, as it were, that the old darkness was constantly waiting to consume us, in the epic economic and moral failures of the political class, in the ugliness emanating from the first abortion referendum - always that narrow vision of Ireland was being forced upon us, by those who seemed to have nothing in their heads except the desire to do everything in their power to make us feel bad about ourselves.

And they had the power too, though they also had a problem - their Ireland did not exist any more. They could insist on their legalistic twaddle being stitched into the Constitution, but Ireland as it existed, Ireland coming out of that darkness, could be seen in the multitudes which were congregating in Germany in June 1988, who had recognised in this team of Jack's a true vision of what we looked like, and what we could achieve.

There were only eight teams in Euro 1988, so to be there was a major achievement already. And the fact that we were lucky, on top of being good, seemed to send the endorphins coursing through us not just for that football tournament, but for a long time to come.

Even in Italia 1990 we got a really exceptional break, when they drew lots for the last 16, and we got Romania, while Holland got Germany. After so many years of failure and misfortune, at last we seemed to be in good standing with the baleful gods.

Confidence, I believe it's called - this feeling that if you do the right things, on the whole, you'll probably get the right result.

Indeed, when the old confidence is really working, you feel that even if you do the wrong things, you'll get the right result.

And we were liberated by the events of Euro 1988 in a very practical way - due to the fact that many people were now finding it normal and reasonable to borrow money from institutions such as the credit union, purely for the purpose of enjoying themselves.

This kind of "discretionary spending" had once been seen as the prerogative of our ruling class, who unlike poor Paddy, were allowed to spend money on whatever they liked.

Now this practice of getting a loan for "home improvements" that would in truth be spent on the road to Germany and later to Italy, seemed to invigorate us in some intangible way - perhaps in the end, it invigorated us too much.

But increasingly, in all sorts of areas, we were starting to surprise ourselves with this sense of adventure - Mary Robinson became President in 1990, something that would have seemed completely ludicrous in 1980. As ludicrous, say, as Jack Charlton leading us to victory against England, and eventually into the quarter-final of the World Cup.

Thirty years after we re-defined this nation at Euro 1988, a large crowd assembled in the courtyard of Dublin Castle to bury the last remnants of 1980s obscurantism. It's like we always felt that we had it in us.

But still - what a result.

Sunday Independent

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