Tuesday 24 April 2018

'Son, we're going to watch this game and I'm going to let you in on a secret; you're lucky to be Irish'

Richard Dunne, Republic of Ireland, is attended to by team physio Ciaran Murray during the game. EURO 2012 Championship Qualifier, Russia v Republic of Ireland, Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
Richard Dunne, Republic of Ireland, is attended to by team physio Ciaran Murray during the game. EURO 2012 Championship Qualifier, Russia v Republic of Ireland, Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

Jack O'Toole

Irish football fan Eddie O'Mahony received his first Ireland jersey as an eight-year-old in 1986. It was the first of 158 Irish jerseys he would collect and is among his most cherished belongings.

Eddie is a curator as much as he is a football fan, and while he'll be watching tonight's Ireland game hoping that Martin O'Neill's side can secure a much needed victory over Wales, the match in Cardiff will also bring an end to a 31-year process that began with Wales.

The first jersey Eddie owned was a 1986 green home jersey, but the first jersey in his collection was the jersey that former Ireland captain Liam Brady wore in Jack Charlton's first game in charge of the national team against Wales at Dalymount Park in 1986.

From Liam Brady to namesake Robbie, O'Mahony has some of the most iconic memorabilia in modern Irish football history. Paul McGrath's Italia 90' jersey. Alan McLoughlin's boots from the 1993 World Cup qualifier against Northern Ireland. Roy Keane's infamous 2002 World Cup jersey. Richard Dunne's blood-stained white jersey from the Euro 2012 qualifier against Russia in Moscow.

The jerseys tell stories. They document different periods of Irish football and they evoke different memories for different people. One day they will hopefully be held in an Irish Football museum at a redeveloped Dalymount Park, but for now, they will be documented in O'Mahony's upcoming book 40 Shades of Green : The history of the Republic of Ireland soccer shirt 1986-2018.

"A big part of writing the book was replica shirts weren't as popular as they are now," O'Mahony told Independent.ie.

"My mam brought me down and got me my first replica kit (1984/85) and I thought this is incredible, I feel like a superhero.

"I was in Japan in 2002 at the last World Cup we qualified for and after the game against Germany I was at the team hotel having a few drinks and Steven Reid gave me one of his shirts from the game.

"I brought it home and bored everyone to tears with it for a couple of weeks and then eventually I went looking for the Irish football museum that I could put it into and there wasn't one.

"I thought that that was an awful shame and I said I'll see if I can get one up and running. How it started then was I wanted to get an away version of the jersey I had, then I wanted to get a goalkeeper's version and it slowly started like that from 2002 right up until now, where I have 158 shirts from the Irish team."

O'Mahony sourced all 158 shirts himself by reaching out to various players from the last three decades. He rang phone numbers, attended auctions and caught players out on the golf course.

To authenticate the items, he asked if players would sign their belongings for future reference, but of course, some were easier than others.

"All the players have been great," added O'Mahony.

"Ronnie Whelan and Shay Given are going to plug the book on their social media. Robbie Keane wrote the foreword for the book and he's going to put it out on his social media streams. If I hadn't had the support of the Irish players this thing was never going to go anywhere.

"I've spent the last 10-12 years tracking players down at auctions and golf outings, but even say the likes of Paul McGrath, he had me over to his mother's house signing shirts and things. There's been a great buy in from them.

"I emailed Liam Brady at Arsenal and he told me to come into the RTE studios and he'd sign the shirt for me. I went along and he didn't just give me one minute of his time, he brought me into the studios and I met all the lads and they were doing the show and they took time out to talk to me.

"They asked about the project and wished me well. They couldn't have been any better. I told my dad I just met Liam Brady and he nearly fell off his perch.

"Never once have any of the Irish players not taken the time to help, even Roy Keane signed his 2002 World Cup shirt for me.

"I got him out at a hotel and I said 'sorry Mr. Keane, would you mind signing your shirt from the World Cup for me?'

"He looked at me with one of those Roy Keane stares and said 'my shirt? How do you have it?'

"I was sh**ting myself but he then gave me a cheeky smile on the side of his face and said 'of course I'll sign it for you'. They've all been great."

But the book isn't just an ode to Irish football players, the fans are just as much as part of the story. O'Mahony said that he can still remember where he was, who he was with and what the weather was like on the day Ray Houghton scored against England at the European Championships in 1988.

"Jerseys mean different things to different people," he adds.

A jersey can tell a lot about a person's affinity to Irish football, and while different jerseys represent different eras of heartbreak and joy, the communal sense of Irish fans abroad was a big inspiration for him to write the book.

The 2002 World Cup was a seminal moment for O'Mahony and spurred a love of Irish football that he has carried through today. The first tournament abroad is a rite of passage for many Irish football fans, but for 21-year-old Irish fan James Nolan it was his first and last.

Nolan went missing in Bydgoszcz, Poland, after the Spain game at Euro 2012 and his body was discovered by police divers a week later. It is believed Mr Nolan accidentally fell into the water 500m from the bar where he had been socialising with friends.

O'Mahony had heard about his absence but assumed there was a great story behind it, the kind where a phone dies and you go home with one of the locals before reconvening with your friends a few days later just in time for the next match.

But when Nolan did not show up for the Italy game in Poznan the atmosphere soured. Optimism turned to fear, and for O'Mahony, it hit him hard.

Japan and South Korea in 2002 had been a seminal moment for him. He went to Asia with the team and arrived home with some unforgettable memories.

Nolan left for Poland and never returned.

The book is dedicated to him with the approval of his family, who have a string of condolence letters from Irish fans as well as the UEFA Fans award.

The book is for Nolan as well as Irish football fans of the past, present and future.

And the future of Irish football is important to O'Mahony. He wanted his son to understand the passion he has for the national team. As part of that process, he made sure his six-year-old son Séan watched Ireland's Euro 2012 qualifier against Russia.

The game will be remembered as Richard Dunne's finest hour, and for O'Mahony, the Dubliner's performance embodied everything he thinks that the Irish jersey represents.

"They all mean a lot, but if one jersey means everything to me it's Richard Dunne's shirt from the Russia game.

"There's a couple of reasons behind it. Firstly, there's very few games that define a player's career. If you go back and look at Don Givens hat-trick against the USSR. Roy Keane against Holland in 2001. Dunne's performance in Moscow that night, there was nothing he couldn't do, it was off the charts.

"To have so much drama surround his shirt and to literally go back to the infantile thing of taking a pen out and drawing on it, it just made it something special.

"My eldest fella was only about 10 days old at the time and I sat him down on my knee to watch the game and I said 'now son, this is why your dad travels all over the world.

"This is why he shouts and screams at the television. We're going to watch this game and I'm going to let you in on a little secret; you're lucky to be Irish'."

Aren't we all.

O'Mahony's book 40 Shades of Green : The history of the Republic of Ireland soccer shirt 1986-2018 will be available to buy from November 12 at www.faishop.com. The collection can also be viewed online at www.irelandsoccershirts.com.

Online Editors

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport