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Wallace and co - Wexford League on tour

Italia 90: Mick and friends lived the dream supporting the boys in green

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October 29, 1975, was another stand-out day in Mick Wallace’s love affair with the beautiful game. Republic of Ireland trio Paddy Mulligan, Don Givens (scorer of all four goals) and the recently-deceased Tony Dunne before the Euro 1976 qualifier against Turkey in Dalymount Park

October 29, 1975, was another stand-out day in Mick Wallace’s love affair with the beautiful game. Republic of Ireland trio Paddy Mulligan, Don Givens (scorer of all four goals) and the recently-deceased Tony Dunne before the Euro 1976 qualifier against Turkey in Dalymount Park

SPORTSFILE

Still a loyal supporter... Mick Wallace making his way to his seat in the Aviva Stadium before Ireland’s clash with Denmark last November

Still a loyal supporter... Mick Wallace making his way to his seat in the Aviva Stadium before Ireland’s clash with Denmark last November

SPORTSFILE

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October 29, 1975, was another stand-out day in Mick Wallace’s love affair with the beautiful game. Republic of Ireland trio Paddy Mulligan, Don Givens (scorer of all four goals) and the recently-deceased Tony Dunne before the Euro 1976 qualifier against Turkey in Dalymount Park

Watching the Republic of Ireland at a World Cup must have been a dream come true for a football fanatic like Mick Wallace.

When you throw the fact that it was held in Italy into the mix, it was pretty much heaven on earth for the Wexford Youths founder.

His passion for all things Italian is only matched by his devotion to the 'beautiful game', so when he got the opportunity to blend his two great loves together it made for one hell of a ride.

Himself and a merry band of brothers, including the late Pat Whitty, Eddie Carroll, Eugene White, Joe Chapman, Lorcan Barden, Noel Stafford and Michael Stafford, certainly didn't do things by halves, going to 16 games in total on a fun-filled World Cup journey in Italy.

'There was eight of us going around in a white Hiace van. We drove up and down Italy twice and drove half way down a third time and back up again. There was actually eleven of us for a while,' he said.

It was certainly a case of the Wexford Football League on tour as they pitted their wits against anyone that was willing to take them on, with plenty of success, although their pre-match routine was far from the norm.

'We played soccer everywhere we went. We were all fit as fiddles, we were all playing Wexford League soccer at the time. We played some football out there.

'We used to take on the locals. Every time we saw anyone with a ball we'd stop the van and ask them if they wanted a game.

'When Ireland drew with Holland we had to race to Genoa to get tickets for the Romania game. We drove 900km in the van. They were starting to sell the tickets at something like six o'clock in the evening and we got there just in time and we all got tickets,' he recalled.

'We went on the beer after getting the tickets. A five-a-side competition started on the tarmacadam outside the stadium. We played football until five o'clock in the morning. Whatever team won stayed on the pitch. It was unbelievable, we had some night there,' he said.

As a former construction firm owner, and now an MEP, some might imagine Wallace wining and dining his way around Italy, but it definitely wasn't a five-star trip, more a rough and ready adventure, and you get the feeling he wouldn't have wanted it any other way.

'We went down to Palermo for the Egypt game and we stayed there, we were living on the beach. We had f**k all money, we weren't staying in hotels or anything, we were sleeping rough the whole time. We brought two tents with us and sleeping bags,' he said.

Wallace caught the football bug at an early age and, listening to him reminiscing about the first international he attended, Brazil's 4-3 win over a Shamrock Rovers selection in Lansdowne Road in 1973, tells you all you need to know about his absolute adoration for the game.

'There was a six foot fence to keep supporters off the pitch in Lansdowne at the time. I got over the fence, ran in on the pitch. I wanted to touch Rivelino, which I managed to do, and I didn't wash my hands for about three months,' he laughed.

The first Irish international he attended wasn't a bad one either, the 3-0 win over the Soviet Union in Dalymount Park in 1974, with Don Givens bagging all three goals for the hosts and a fresh-faced Liam Brady making his debut.

'Givens was on form that night and Brady was amazing. He was either 18 or 19 with long hair, Jesus he was something else. He was a beautiful footballer, he really was.

'I was at the Ireland-Turkey game in 1975 and we beat them 4-0 and Givens got all four goals. Giles was playing that time as well. Giles and Brady in the middle of the park. It was a great team,' said the Independents 4 Change MEP.

And so a lifelong devotion to the Irish team had begun, supporting the Boys in Green through good times and bad, and having plenty of thrills and spills along the way.

'From the late '70s on I went to all the games, home and away. There was about 20 years where I only missed about five matches in total and I was out of the country for them. I was working in Canada for two summers,' he said.

As an Irish supporter, the zenith was in 1988 and 1990 when the team reached their first European Championship and then made their World Cup debut in quick succession, and Wallace agrees that it was a special time to be a disciple.

'The Irish fans have been spoiled with praise over the years, but in '88 and '90, that's when you had the best of the fans, lads with feck all money going. The people with more money got more interested in it when the thing got successful and a lot of the genuine fans used to struggle to get tickets after that. That was a problem as well, but it happens,' he said.

'Apart from the final, the hardest games to get tickets for are the group games because everybody can plan for them. You can't plan for knockout, bar you say to yourself I'm going to the tournament and I don't care where it's on.

'You don't know where your team is going to end up, you don't know if you're going to qualify, whether you're going to finish first or second. You don't know what stadium you could be in for the second round or the quarter-final or semi.

'The Irish that were out there in Italy, none of them wanted to go home. They were supposed to go home but loads of them rang home for more money, asking girlfriends, wives, mothers or fathers to get out loans from the Credit Union and everything.

'Loads more came out as well then because the craic was so good. It was phenomenal the Irish that went that time. It's just one of those few weeks in a lifetime that people would never forget,' he said.

Starting with the Republic of Ireland's opening game against England and continuing to shout encouragement from the stands as they faced Egypt, the Netherlands, Romania and finally Italy, Wallace enjoyed every second of Italia 90.

'There was some atmosphere around that World Cup. The first game, the English match, was in Cagliari. That was some mad place and it was a great result for us.

'When we beat Romania in the penalty shoot-out Ireland just went nuts. We weren't at home to see it, but obviously we were talking to people at home. Over 30,000 Irish came out to Italy, it was unbelievable.

'The craic was something else, it was really something else. I'll never forget it for as long as I live.

'The noise in the Luigi Ferraris Stadium in Genoa is brilliant and obviously it was brilliant that day. The whole of Ireland was in it. It must have been 90 per cent Irish,' he said.

After the dramatic penalty shoot-out win over Romania, Wallace was rubbing his hands at the prospect of taking on the Italians, a side that he long-since had plenty of affection for, having supported them when he attended his first World Cup in Spain in 1982, managing to secure a much-coveted ticket for the final.

'I supported Italy at the World Cup in 1982 and I saw all of Rossi's goals, that was my first World Cup. I remember when Italy played Brazil, who were hot favourites to win the World Cup.

'That was probably the best Brazilian team I've ever seen, the likes of Falcao and Socrates. Rossi scored three goals against Brazil and Italy won 3-2.

'They beat Poland 2-0 in the semi-final and Rossi got the two goals, and then beat Germany 3-1 in the final, Rossi, Tardelli and Alessandro Altobelli.

'I'll never forget getting my ticket for the final. They had announced that there was 1,500 tickets for sale on the terrace. They were being sold on Saturday morning and they were selling them at 8 o'clock. I went along at about five to eight and the queue was about two miles long, six or seven thousand people queueing.

'I went up to an Italian fella that was second in the line and I asked him how many tickets could you get per person. He said four and he only needed one for himself. I needed two.

'The tickets were four pound each and I said if you get me two tickets I'll give you six pound each for them, so he got me two tickets. That was an amazing tournament,' he said.

At that stage Wallace couldn't possibly imagine that Ireland would ever be facing the Italians in a World Cup quarter-final, but that's exactly what came to pass in 1990 when the sides locked horns, with a place in the final four at stake.

'It was a great night in Rome, it was an amazing night, but Schillaci undone us. Italy were probably the best team in 1990 but they threw it away against Argentina in the semi-final.

'It wasn't a great Argentinian team. They had been much better in previous years. Maradona was carrying them on his back that time. Losing a quarter-final to the host nation, who were favourites to win the tournament, there's no shame in that,' he said.

With other Irish fans returning home bedraggled, yet invigorated, by the experience, the journey wasn't over for Wallace as he saw the tournament through to the end, and he recalls playing with fire at the West Germany versus England semi-final.

'For the semi-finals I wanted to see England and Germany. We were nearly killed at it, we were in the English end shouting for Germany. It was dangerous those days. Anyway the Germans won on penalties.

'The final was a disappointment, Andreas Brehme scored the winner for Germany and Argentina were short three of their best players for the final, which was a shame.'

While continuing to enjoy the feast of football on Italian soil, Wallace said he still managed to soak in the atmosphere from home as Ireland made a triumphant return to the Emerald Isle, with the adoring public lining the streets in their droves.

'The crowds that turned out for Ireland when they came home, it was incredible. It was so emotional. I remember Jack Charlton saying "what would it be like if we won?" It was just brilliant,' he said.

While some may have been critical of Charlton's put 'em under pressure, often route one approach, Wallace was, in the main, satisfied with what he saw and will always hold Italia 90 and the European Championships two years earlier close to his heart.

'There was a big controversy over Charlton not using Brady at the time. Brady was past his best but we still thought he should have used him because he was such a nice footballer. He just didn't fit into the grander scheme of things.

'People were very critical of the way Jack's team played but, in actual fact, if you look back at the games, it was very entertaining just the same. We weren't pretty but it was entertaining.

'It was recently the anniversary of us beating England 1-0 in Stuttgart. We played three matches in the group, England, Russia and Holland, and we only just missed out on going through,' he said.

The famous European Championship triumph over England and the 1-1 draw with the Soviet Union, a game which Ireland deserved to win, will live long in the memory for Wallace.

'We were unbelievable against Russia. It was probably the best performance ever by an Irish team, Whelan scored. While that was the best performance, the best result has to be beating England in Stuttgart,' he said.

Since attending his first World Cup in 1982 and European Championship in 1984, Wallace has only missed one of those major tournaments since, but the two that still stand out are the heady days of 1988 and 1990 when the Republic of Ireland announced themselves as a real force on the international stage.

'1988 and '90 were the two most enjoyable tournaments. The first European Championships I went to was '84 and I've never missed one since. I've only missed one World Cup.

'I didn't go to South Africa in 2010 because my business was collapsing at home at the time, but that's the only tournament I've missed since I went to my first one in '82.

'That's a lot of tournaments, but watching Ireland in '88 and '90 are definitely the ones that stand out,' he said.

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