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'On the Saturday night of Ireland v Italy in Rome in 1990, even the bingo halls of Ireland didn't open'

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Packie Bonner was a key part of Irish football's greatest era under Jack Charlton. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Packie Bonner was a key part of Irish football's greatest era under Jack Charlton. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

Packie Bonner was a key part of Irish football's greatest era under Jack Charlton. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

If they hadn’t already used the title of ‘When We Were Kings’ for that great boxing documentary about the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’, it would do nicely for remembering the heyday of Irish football.

Here we remember those heady summers of 1990 and 1994 when Irish football was on top of the world, literally, and we were all members of Jack’s Army.

How deep did football dig into our lives in those times?

Here’s how deep. On the Saturday night of Ireland v Italy in Rome in 1990, the bingo halls of Ireland didn’t open – every woman wanted to watch the match instead.

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When you can shut down the bingo, Stephen Kenny, you’ve made it!

Oh, it all seems so far away now. That glorious summer’s evening in Rome, the last day of June, when our gladiators stepped into the arena, or the Olympic Stadium, to play their hosts for a place in the World Cup semi-final.

Yes, that was the heady height Irish football reached 30 years ago.

Actually, at the end of the tournament, FIFA ranked us the fifth best team in the world, and we had the second-best defensive record of any nation.

We were behind only the Italian back-line that could not be broken down during that sweltering match.

Given the defensive strength of both sides, it was always going to be a tight contest and sure enough one goal settled it.

It was scored in the 37th minute by a man whose name remains etched in Irish popular culture to this day – the Sicilian hitman, Salvatore ‘Toto’ Schillaci.

Try as Ireland might in the second half, they could not force an equaliser past the Italian defence which included such great players as Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini and Giuseppe Bergomi.

Ireland were not done any favours that night by the Portuguese referee Carlos Valente.

He wasn’t as blatantly biased as his compatriot Raul Fernandes Nazare had been in Brussels nine years previously, when Eoin Hand’s team were cheated out of a qualifier point that would have got them to a World Cup finals.

But, here in Rome, Valente would blow for a less than blatant foul every time Ireland got a head of steam up and began to pressure the Italians into conceding possession.

Speaking of pressure, Italy’s footballers were under plenty of it on that steamy evening by the Tiber.

This was ‘their’ World Cup, they were supposed to win it, and now the draw had handed them a fortunate passage to the semi-finals by beating an Irish team that their media, at least, did not rate.

Italy’s manager, Azeglio Vicini, was not as cocksure – and decided he would have to trick around with his team to combat Ireland’s long-ball game.

Maldini had played at left-back in the tournament, but was now put into the middle of the defence, with the veteran Bergomi recalled to the team on the left.

Ricardo Ferri was recalled to the midfield as well, principally to track Andy Townsend’s runs from midfield in support of John Aldridge and Niall Quinn. Ferri got into the team ahead of Carlo Ancelotti, now manager of Everton. But Vicini made no change to his strike force, Schillaci and Roberto Baggio.

The great Baggio fared no better in 1990 in Rome than he would four years later against Paul McGrath in Giants Stadium.

But Schillaci only needed the one chance – and he took it, in a tournament in which the little man was on fire.

It was the end of a great adventure.

The whole country had been captivated by Ireland’s journey through that World Cup.

It was truly the stuff of dreams and some of it you just could not make up as the team won its way into the nation’s consciousness.

Kevin Sheedy’s equaliser in a thunderstorm against England, when the game seemed lost.

Eamon Dunphy’s rant and pen- throwing after a boring match against Egypt.

The ‘ready-up’ between Mick McCarthy and Ruud Gullit in Palermo, when both captains realised a draw suited both countries just fine.

And finally, of course, the drama of the penalty shoot-out against Romania.

Where Packie Bonner saved and where David O’Leary, a class centre-half, kept out of the squad by Jack Charlton for three years, would have a day of redemption like no other as he slammed the decisive spot-kick past Silviu Lung.

And so Ireland marched on Rome from Genoa. A visit to the Vatican, to meet the Pope, was even arranged.

And when Pope John Paul II greeted Packie with the words, “Ah, Il Portieri” (The Goalkeeper) we knew we’d really made it.

They were heady times – and they seem so far away now.

What Stephen Kenny, as he settles into the job of Irish manager, would give for players of that class now.

Remember Jack had players from Manchester United, Liverpool,
Juventus and Aston Villa, when the latter were a real power in English football.

Our lads are not at such clubs now, we just can’t seem to get our players up to that level.

The irony of it all is that our national football team became true heroes of Ireland, feted at home and in the diaspora, despite playing a brand of football that many ‘football men’ in this country despised.

For once in our lifetimes, Ireland had amassed a group of players who could live with anyone when it came to technical skill.

Now Jack did not have all these players together at the same time, but, between 1986 and 1994, among his midfield options for Ireland were Liam Brady, Mark Lawrenson, Paul McGrath, Ronnie Whelan, Ray Houghton, Kevin Sheedy, Andy Townsend, Steve Staunton, Roy Keane and John Sheridan.

I defy anyone to suggest that any four of those lads could not have played football against any team in the world.

Instead much of their Irish career, if not in Brady’s case, then certainly the rest of them, was spent haring forward to get on knock-downs after the defenders, on the manager’s orders, had aimed the ball at the foreheads of any of Quinn, Aldridge and Tony Cascarino.

So, instead of trying to match teams for skill and class, which those players could do every week for their clubs, we played ‘put ‘em under pressure’.

You can’t knock Charlton for it – the results are there in the FIFA history books – and have we ever reached a World Cup quarter-final since?

No we haven’t. Since Jack left, we’ve only even got to one World Cup in six attempts.

But the word from incoming boss Stephen Kenny is that he is determined Ireland will not just hoof the ball down the pitch while he’s in charge

That we will hold onto it and try to involve full-back and wingers in our play, which is surely where Damien Duff comes in on the coaching ticket.

But where is the modern equivalent of Whelan or Houghton from the glory days, the player who can pick a pass that will open up a quality international defence?

Thirty years ago, on that famous night in Rome, even those great players couldn’t manage it.

And we’re still struggling to do it now against the modern-day Baresis and Maldinis.

Online Editors