Tuesday 23 January 2018

Irish teams aren't just built on tactics, sports science and work ethic but on friendship too

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Time and memory play tricks on us, transporting us back to ‘Joxer’ and ‘Whacker’ on the road to Stuttgart and an age when we were all just football newborns, blinking in a foreign sun.

How could you not smile when Christy Moore howls out that ballad now? Stuttgart was the first leaf on the tree. The beginning.

Whole rain forests have tumbled since in service to the chronicling of Ireland’s modern football story and, maybe, everything gets faintly carmelised by sentiment. By the time we got to USA ’94, Sports Illustrated had commissioned a major feature on the ‘phenomenon’ of Ireland’s following, specifically the quaintness of a mass support that wasn’t, somehow, programmed to seek out trouble.

The ‘green army’ became a parallel story to that of a previously invisible team, suddenly, making three major tournament finals in six years.

And that was, maybe, how we saw ourselves. The romantic wing of international football. The little guy that every neutral had to, instinctively, be rooting for. But were they? At Italia ’90, one critic rather scornfully described Ireland’s high-energy, one-dimensional style as that of a team “playing one-twos with the angels!”

That tournament has been filed in history as a largely stolid jigsaw, a competition won by efficient, undramatic Germans. It was supposed to herald an African revolution through the Cameroon of 38-year-old Roger Milla, but that — as we now know — was to prove illusory. Italy’s games apart, the stadia were almost never full and no great player truly put his stamp on Italia ’90.

Maybe we forget these things, our vision blurred by the cataract of self-interest. If so, is it any less than human? For the travels of ‘Joxer’ and ‘Whacker’ begat a new context in which we came to see ourselves.

Football is a uniquely non-profound game. But its impact on the people? Anything but.


WHAT DO YOU REMEMBER of those safaris across foreign fields?

Perversely, for those of us accredited to be there, it was usually the stories and images from home, the snapshots of a country convulsed with joy. I wasn’t at Euro ’88 but, when I think of Dave O’Leary’s penalty in Genoa two years later, it’s not really in the context of anything immediately around me that day in the Stadio Luigi Ferraris.

Though, perhaps, that’s not strictly true. I do remember turning towards Noel Dunne, the veteran football correspondent of the Irish Independent and seeing this resolutely reserved, undemonstrative man weeping quietly at his desk. Noel had been covering the Irish football story for almost as long as I’d been alive and the thought of our national team now in a World Cup quarter-final completely disarmed him.

He, palpably, hoped nobody would see his tears now. The moment just got the better of him.

But the TV images from home completely tickled us. The snapshots of O’Connell Street, empty as a nuclear wasteland during games, then flooded with a great, teeming river of humanity immediately after, bringing to mind July 9 Avenue in Buenos Aires when Argentina claimed World Cup victory in 1978.

It took that sense of home and a country becoming ever so slightly unhinged to jolt us into an understanding of what Jack Charlton and his team were actually igniting.

Being close to the story meant, maybe, being consumed by the smaller stuff, the troubled logistics, the temper tantrums (mainly Jack’s), the routinely slapstick hotel conditions endured by the players, the comical aesthetic quibbles after that infamous 0-0 draw with Egypt, the wretched phone lines, the heat.

In Palermo, the team stayed without the consolation of air conditioning at the Portorais Hotel, two players even sleeping on camp beds. Their leisure facilities were non-existent, each day snaking by with glacial reluctance. In Genoa, they found palatial refuge at a beautiful Rapollo base but, for the quarter-final in Rome, they were back in cattle class.

On the eve of that game against Italy, I was angrily upbraided by an FAI official for having delivered a player’s perspective on the Diana Park Hotel south west of the Eternal City. I’d been given a tour of this drab, stale building and its dark, bath-less bedrooms by one of the eleven who would start our biggest game in the Olympic Stadium.

Originally, two players had been billeted to share each room in which the toilet could not be used without having both feet in the adjacent shower. They felt insulted, betrayed, used. Despite being away from home for more than a month now, they had to pay for their phone calls.

My guide protested, “It just jars a little when the FAI seems loath to treat us with even a remote hint of respect. There are no facilities here to help us avoid boredom. You know we’d kill for a board-game like Monopoly.

“But even ignoring that, the basic facilities here are appalling. The three things we all ask for are food, sleep and a bath. We haven’t got the bath, it’s nearly impossible to sleep because of the heat and the food is bloody awful.”

Roy Keane, incidentally, had not yet even headed to England as a professional. He would, of course, have his say on this kind of business down the line.

No question, the game back then was different to what it is now. At Charlton’s first press conference as Irish manager, he’d handed out his phone number to journalists. Martin O’Neill, presumably, would consider that the equivalent of giving your house keys to a squadron of criminals.

To begin with, Jack was an open book. A World Cup winner as a player, he seemed faintly amused by our national self-consciousness, our pre-occupation with how the outside world looked upon us. But, over time, his humour thinned and it had all but curdled by the time the country sought his presence in the Phoenix Park for a ceremonial homecoming after our exit from USA ’94. Jack, frankly, considered the idea absurd.


He was contracted to stay on in America, working as an ITV pundit and the idea of submitting himself to two trips across the Atlantic now for a few tepid speeches and some political glad-handing left him cold. But the coercion tilted into uncomfortable areas (like how personally profitable his management of the team had become to him) and, in the end, he acquiesced.

By the time he did, the giant stage that was to have been centre-piece of the homecoming had been all but dismantled again and it took a batallion of workers labouring through the night to rebuild it in time.

And maybe that vast, skeletal structure was faintly emblematic of our native immaturity.

Ireland had won only one of its four games at the tournament (albeit an epochal triumph over Italy), scoring just twice. For a son of ’66, the idea of that arithmetic being the tap for great national celebration simply did not compute. So that day in the Phoenix Park felt forced and a little wooden, Jack’s smile never quite reaching his eyes.

At Italia ’90, he had sometimes alluded to his resentment of the stresses imposed by modern football management, insisting that he would not let the job do to him what he suspected it had done to the great Jock Stein, who collapsed and died when Scotland manager at a World Cup qualification game in Cardiff five years earlier. Jack had been in Ninian Park that night, vowing afterwards that he’d prefer to die “trying to catch a salmon on the River Tweed” than chasing football glory.

Ten days into Italia ’90, he was asked if he was enjoying the experience and responded curtly, “No I’d much rather be doing something else.”

So his management of Ireland gave us that curious paradox of a routinely unromantic, grumpy Geordie shaping the dreams of a lovesick nation. At USA ’94, I was granted rare, one-to-one access to Jack in his eighth-floor Orlando Hilton hotel room, where he had his own, personal keg of Guinness installed.

Having poured both of us a drink, Charlton spent most of the interview articulating his frustration with a team of West Europeans having to play football in temperatures he likened to the Gobi desert. Central Florida had baked in 120-degree heat for Ireland’s lunchtime kick-off against Mexico. Fairness simply wasn’t a condition in the World Cup charter.

Jack had sought to restructure his team for that tournament, playing five midfielders and a lone striker. With Niall Quinn injured, John Aldridge in decline and Tony Cascarino in a constant struggle for fitness, the role of striker went to Motherwell’s Tommy Coyne.

A tidy, unexceptional forward without any conspicuous gift of pace, Coyne fell seriously ill through dehydration after the Italy game. On the subsequent flight to Orlando, he lay on the floor of the aircraft in obvious distress, that image compounding his manager’s sense of siege.

Jack had a Vesuvian air about him throughout then, turning up to training sessions at Seminole County Training Centre looking faintly incongruous with cheap straw hat and green and black striped shorts. He all but became an angry cartoon.

That tournament in America killed something in Charlton. He seethed at the injustice of its schedule and at the clumsy, over-bearing input of hopelessly pedantic US officials who seemed determined to straitjacket the most rudimentary of moments in formality.

When Ireland’s adventure eventually drew its final breath in The Citrus Bowl, a dusty old college football ground microwaving everything within, he was palpably reluctant to engage with the expected post-match etiquette. “We lost and now we are going home,” he snapped curtly to the international media.

At the time, he thought that journey would apply only his players.

And there followed the slow unravelling of this love affair, Jack growing increasingly distracted and careless, eventually leaving the team in Limerick, effectively under the care of his son, John, just days before a European Championship qualifier against Austria. As Niall Quinn subsequently put it, “it would have been easier for him to be minding mice at a crossroads.”

The players did what they were always conditioned to do, they took advantage. Then Jack compounded the chaos with the never-to-be-forgotten ‘Harry Ramsden Challenge’ en route to their destiny in Dublin. He was shareholder in a chipper and, after a week of his players on the booze, they were now invited to commit a kind of cholesterol harikari.

The following day, Austria devoured them.

That December a play-off against Holland at Anfield ended the affair. A TV camera-crew would capture the hopelessly sad tableau some weeks later as Jack, having effectively been shown the exit door after eight tumultuous years, walked alone towards the departure gates at Dublin Airport, his time as Ireland manager over.

He was a battered piece of human hardware by then, worn down by our need for the fairytale to continue in spite of a squad waning palpably with age. We’d adored our time in the sun and been left wanting (and expecting) more.

But reality was about to come crowding in again.


THE KWANGHWAMUN INTERSECTION in Seoul is a great, gaping junction that was closed to traffic whenever South Korea played during the 2002 World Cup finals.

Freed of cars, it all but became the lungs of an entire country. Almost a million people would turn it into a great, seething sea of crimson red, watching the games on giant screens with a kind of good-mannered etiquette that seemed positively quaint to visitors from football’s more traditional strongholds.

The locals made extraordinary noise without ever transmitting a message that was remotely threatening. And they self-policed, always tidying up after themselves when the show was over. Within an hour of a game ending, Kwanghwamun would have been fit for a ‘Tidy Town’ inspection.

The Irish team stayed in the Westin Hotel, maybe fifty yards around the corner, and their first night there coincided with a game between South Korea and Portugal. Niall Quinn and Steve Staunton were among those who wandered down to observe an articulation of community that was so alien in tenor to what we know as football support in the west.

By then, both were getting on with the relative simplicity of being World Cup players, having been central to reconciliation attempts on what Quinn himself would refer to as “the Roy nightmare”.

I ghostwrote Niall’s column during that World Cup and, at times, his emotional exhaustion was palpable when we’d sit

down together. The Irish team’s motto for that tournament, ‘NO REGRETS’, was always scribbled on a whiteboard at team meetings.

But everyone knew that that motto had become a lie.

Roy Keane’s departure wounded everybody involved. Sure they got on with things and, in qualifying from their group, Ireland — at least — did not let the tournament escape them.

But Heaven alone knows how much further a world-class Keane might have taken that Irish team. Trouble was, nobody knew him. Not in the truest sense at least, not on a level where they’d have felt comfortable exploring the itch that, clearly, had him needled.

Some months before the tournament, Quinn had been one of those asked to help organise some World Cup package for the players’ families. None of the players had Keane’s number and, when asked to divulge it, Roy declined.

So he was always an islanded figure and, when the squad flew out of Saipan without him, they did so never quite understanding the storm now raging in his head. Their first port of call on the Japanese mainland was Izumo where, at 2am one morning, maybe 30 journalists squeezed around a photographer’s laptop for access to Tommie Gorman’s ‘Six One News’ interview with the departed Corkman.

So Irish people spent a lot of time pre-occupied at that tournament, maybe right up to the moment Robbie Keane scored against Germany in Ibaraki. Then and only then was Roy’s story truly parked.

By now, the Irish base was Chiba and a modern skyscraper called the New Otani hotel, behind which there was a tented village for supporters. The night of that draw with the mighty Germans, Mick McCarthy allowed his players fully submerge themselves in the moment with fans, officials and some journalists.

The following day, they and their families went to Disneyland, an emotional catharsis now underway.

McCarthy was a bright manager who understood his audience. And Ireland would exit the tournament honourably, losing on penalties to a star-studded Spanish team. But the Keane controversy sundered a nation and I remember nights in the Far East when even close journalistic friends became submerged in hostile argument over the rights and wrongs of Saipan.

Two games into the subsequent Euros qualification campaign, McCarthy departed, having discovered that that argument would have an unhealthy life-span.

Yet, even through turmoil, he’d managed to keep the group in his care determined and united. They retained a spirit that hindsight suggests Giovanni Trapattoni could not protect at Euro 2012. ‘Trap’ did things the Italian way, maybe neglecting the ‘release-valve’ needs of his players.

There is, of course, no manual for that. Man-management is a thing of instinct and, maybe above all, emotional intelligence. The best Irish teams have always been built not simply upon tactic, sports science and high work ethic, but maybe upon friendship too. Charlton and McCarthy both understood that.

In France these coming weeks, that message must not be lost.

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