May 1988. My first visit to Lansdowne Road. Republic of Ireland 3 Poland 1. It was the penultimate warm-up game for Euro '88 and the beginning of Ireland's arrival on the world football stage. Not long after, I was brought on return trips to Dublin 4 to see Malta, Wales and the Soviet Union. It was easy to fall in love with the place. The stadium was alive. The atmosphere infectious. And Ireland always seemed to win.
Lansdowne Road then was nothing like the Aviva Stadium is today with its corporate hospitality and spacious foyers. The upper tier of the old West Stand was a wooden bench. Metal dividers separated the seats every two feet or so. The best two things about being there were the atmosphere and the results. Qualifying for major tournaments was the natural progression.
The summer of 1988, to our famous night in Rome in June 1990, was a lesson in European geography for me as a child. Cities I knew little of forever became associated with Jack Charlton's Boys in Green. Stuttgart. Gelsenkirchen. Hannover. Palermo. Cagliari. Genoa. Iconic places. Wonderful memories.
And just as the football team evolved under Big Jack in the late 1980s, so too the Irish economy started tentatively along a different path. The connection between the two is often a source of discussion. Many commentators are keen to emphasise how Jack's Army was a symbol of our economic and social transformation, but did the reversal in our footballing fortunes in the late 1980s trigger the economy into action?
There is a strange asymmetry that less than eight weeks after Scotland's Gary Mackay scored the goal in Sofia that sent Jack Charlton's team to Euro '88, the respected newspaper The Economist ran with a front cover portraying Ireland as 'The Poorest of the Rich'. With a national unemployment rate in excess of 16 per cent it is easy to understand why.
Shortly afterwards, living standards did start to creep up, albeit from a low base, but even as Ireland headed to the United States for the 1994 World Cup, national unemployment stood at 14 per cent.
All was not lost. About the same time that Ray Houghton was lobbing the ball over Gianluca Pagliuca in the Giants Stadium, the man credited with creating the term 'Celtic Tiger', Kevin Gardiner, penned those famous two words for the first time. Unemployment was about to tumble rapidly, and as early as May 1997, The Economist ran with a cover showing Ireland as 'Europe's Shining Light'.
The year Big Jack took over, the economy contracted by about 0.5 per cent. However, it would not shrink again for more than 20 years. But as most economists will tell you, correlation does not mean causation.
At the turn of the millennium, the late Kieran Kennedy, published Reflections on the Process of Irish Economic Growth. The former director of the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) explained how Ireland had experienced a remarkable phase of economic growth in such a short period of time.
Kennedy, and many others, pointed to a number of probable causal factors. The buoyancy of our international trading partners, particularly the United States from 1994 to 2000, successful national wage agreements and increased labour force participation, particularly female participation. There is not a single mention of the national football team.
Kennedy stresses that the early years of the Celtic Tiger were down to mobilising more inputs to generate greater output, rather than improvements in labour productivity or growth rates in education per worker. Our economic miracle was much more perspiration than inspiration.
But this is something Big Jack could relate to. Ireland's successes on the pitch were down to hard graft and work rate much more than technical excellence, flair and imagination (even if the players had it). And just like the Celtic Tiger, no shortage of good luck.
Whether our footballing exploits can explain the economic miracle in Ireland is romantic but questionable. As much as you might want to believe this, it probably lies in the realm of wishful thinking. The team did not cause the global economy to surge, played no part in the national wage agreements, nor did it encourage greater participation in the workforce.
What Charlton's team did do was present Ireland on a world stage, gave the country a sense of pride and confidence that it probably never had before and portrayed Ireland in a hugely positive light. All of this certainly helped enable the rapid economic growth experienced on these shores. We can thank many people for this. The one who deserves the most credit is the great Jack Charlton.
Sunday Indo Sport