Imagine Italia '90 as the Big Bang – the detonation that gave birth to the modern universe of Irish sport.
Today, in the first of a major three-part series, we use that unforgettable summer as a launch point to relive the biggest stories of the intervening years.
From Sonia to Saipan, from Cluxton to the Claret Jug to Cheltenham; Alex Ferguson's Manchester revolution to the hurling uprising led by Ger Loughnane and Liam Griffin, we revisit the landmark moments.
Part One focuses on the 1990s – the decade of Ray Houghton, Maurice Fitzgerald, Jayo, Michael Carruth, Tiger Woods, Jonah Lomu, Ken Doherty and so much more.
A decade that began with Packie Bonner's penalty save and ended with JBM restoring Cork to hurling's gilded throne.
Like Everest towering above even its brother Himalayan skyscrapers, we find Italia ’90.
The eternal, rarefied summer when Ireland caressed the heavens.
In truth, there was but the tiniest sip of Moet football (two goals from play in five games) – but as a lunatic Mardi Gras, a national losing of the marbles, a month-long March 17, a tricoloured, inflated-hammered, howling at the moon, it was like something from the imaginings of Hunter S Thompson.
There were unforgettable snapshots: Packie, impossibly elastic in grey superhero cape, fired from a Genoa canon to divert Daniel Timofte's penalty; an invasion of the Eternal City for a quarter-final against the hosts on a scale not seen since the wild-eyed Visigoths sacked Rome in 410 AD.
Charlie O’Leary , the diminutive kitman, conversing with Pope John Paul, as informal as if the Vatican was his local; just two friends chatting over a Saturday afternoon pint.
And the orgy of Bacchanalian merrymaking, days of thunder when you could construct a fountain in any city on earth and within 90 seconds of its unveiling, there would be ten half-cut, flag-toting Paddies frolicking in its waters.
All played out to the carousing, coming-of-age soundtrack of Put ‘Em Under Pressure and The Memories’ adaptation of Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire (Packed in pubs/Ticket Stubs/Suncream Rubs/English Clubs).
The immortal line from the nation’s poet, Con Houlihan – as word of the euphoric frenzy at home reached his Roman taverna – got to the heart of a madcap Irish summer: “I missed Italia ’90, because I was there.”
In any other year, Cork’s historic All-Ireland double (John Fitzgibbon scoring 2-1 of the hurlers 5-15 in their three-point victory over Galway, Shay Fahy delivering a career-best 70 minutes against Meath to propel the Rebels into territory without footprint) would be the story in lights.
Here, the Book of Cork was K2 – an awesome, self-contained giant, yet still, one duty-bound to crane its neck to find the emotional Everest of Italia ’90 somewhere distant above the clouds, standing celestial and alone.
In other news, John Barnes was named Football Writers' Player of the Year as Liverpool won the league title for a 10th time in 14 years, their 18th pennant; 30 years on, Covid-19 delays their 19th coronation.
There was a Game of Thrones – an epic, brutal and riveting fantasy drama, a compelling box-office sensation – long before the world was introduced to Westeros or Essos.
The scriptwriters titled this instant, gravity-defying classic Meath v Dublin. The endless narrative seemed to endure for as long as HBO’s eight-year, 73-episode blockbuster, with as many interweaving plotlines.
A swashbuckling saga co-directed by Sean Boylan and Paddy Cullen, which, long before its impossibly nerve-jangling final episode, had seized the title deeds to the summer of 1991, shipwrecked its vast audience on a reef of hysteria, and delivered an electrifying jolt to Gaelic games.
It took four fevered, roller-coaster contests – two of which went to extra-time – unspooling over a stop-all-the-clocks month to separate Anna Livia and Tara.
Ernest Walton, the Irish Nobel laureate who split the atom, might not have been able to separate teams laden down with familiar names: Colm O’Rourke, Charlie Redmond, Mick Lyons, Keith Barr, Bernard Flynn, Vinny Murphy.
At the end of 320 minutes of football (a David Beggy point and Kevin Foley’s immortal goal the dagger thrusts that did for the Sky Blues) the score read: Meath 6-44 (62) Dublin 3-52 (61). It was the equivalent of a photo-finish after a race that circumnavigated the globe.
Identical twins with only the Royals’ extra freckle distinguishing one from the other.
Even now, the enduring image for this correspondent, was the funereal hush in the Dublin dressing room. An hour after the game, players still in battle uniform, ashen, heads bowed, adrift, entombed in their own misery, unable or unwilling to compute the thieving of their glory.
It was a Leinster first round that dwarfed even an All-Ireland, where Down would coldly unravel the green and gold tapestry Meath had spent an endless summer carefully embroidering.
Months later, Irish rugby would know Dublin’s devastation: On the brink of a landmark quarter-final victory over Australia, courtesy of Gordon Hamilton’s lung-bursting Forrest Gump surge to the tryline, the home side were somehow driven back into the World Cup badlands.
Michael Lynagh's buzzer-beating game-winner would suck every last breath of oxygen from a palpitating Lansdowne Road.
Delirium to devastation in seconds.
At the old, crumbling Wembley, Ireland delivered one of the standout 90 minutes of the Charlton era, Graham Taylor’s England incarcerated in a dungeon of doubt. Niall Quinn equalised Lee Dixon’s early strike. Ray Houghton, so often the author of fantasy, fluffed a golden chance and the home side had a draw that amounted to a significant miscarriage of justice.
Two months later, in May, a coltish Nottingham Forest midfielder named Roy Keane would make his Irish debut against Chile.
Tipp played out a two-game, 14-goal convulsing Munster final epic with Cork en route to a second Liam MacCarthy in three seasons.
One moment in time: High in the hills above Las Ramblas, Michael Carruth is uncontainable, a portrait of rapture dancing the dreamland shuffle, a river bursting his own banks and spilling ecstatically into the arms of his father.
Carruth, the milk-skinned, ginger-topped soldier, had just become Ireland’s first golden Olympian in 36 years, tracing Ronnie Delany’s footprints to the five-ringed podium.
On that Saturday morning in Barcelona, Ireland found itself with the keys to a storehouse of treasure: Wayne McCullough’s (inset) bantamweight silver immediately followed by his close friend’s welterweight gold.
Carruth, bobbing and weaving like a rush-hour commuter at the Walkinstown Roundabout which kissed his Dublin home, stunned the Cuban shoo-in Juan Hernandez.
On RTÉ commentary, as the impossible was spun into glorious reality, our dear, departed friend Jimmy Magee adopted the blissful tones of a churchgoer who has spied angels descending into the neighbouring pew.
Supporters of Donegal would have understood the look of rapture in the Memory Man’s eye.
Like Carruth, Tír Chonaill would confound the odds-makers to pen their own indelible chapter.
Manus Boyle gave a dead-ball masterclass, Martin McHugh spilled over Croke Park like liquid gold, Brian McEniff orchestrated a tactical triumph. And instead of the expected coronation, a stunned Dublin had their heads lopped off.
"Sam's for the hills," roared captain Anthony Molloy from the Hogan Stand steps, as the gates to Nirvana opened for the first time to the pilgrims from the far North West.
Earlier in the summer, after his native county had stunned Kerry in one of the all-time championship upsets, the Banner Abe Lincoln, Marty Morrissey, had delivered an Irish version of the Gettysburg Address, announcing: “There won’t be a cow milked in Clare tonight.”
Eric Cantona, in a brief Yorkshire life before Old Trafford, would win his first English league title… with Leeds.
In sporting terms, it was as seismic and epoch-defining as the seizing of power by Gaius Julius Caesar.
1993 marked Manchester United’s crossing of the Rubicon, the year Alex Ferguson’s two-decade imperium began.
Ruddy-faced, brilliant, avid, ruthless, contemptuous of all rivals, consumed by a vision of knocking Liverpool from their perch, the Scottish laird would set the axis of the English football world spinning on a new, crimson-red trajectory.
If not a strictly Irish story, still a first title since 1967 unleashed a tsunami of celebration, the red wave seeping into the marrow of all 32 counties.
Cantona, collar-starched, pilfered from Elland Road for little more than the price of a few croissants, was the difference maker, the evictor of doubt, the ignition key that would spark Ferguson’s drive to 13-title dominion.
Long before Irish rugby’s time of plenty, Mick Galwey’s try that brought down England was celebrated like a rare invitation to dine at the banqueting table.
It sparked an anarchic Lansdowne Road pitch invasion during which Galwey, bizarrely, met his sister, Mary, home from NYC for the game, for the only time in three months.
Joe Brolly, sadly, was not yet a Sunday Game panellist, denying RTÉ’s audience of what would surely have been a landmark analysis by the Dungiven sun king of his own role in securing Derry’s first ever All-Ireland football title.
Johnny McGurk’s wondrous score cut down Dublin in the semi-final; the final was a triumph for the Downey brothers: Seamus goaled, Henry raised Sam to the heavens
Football’s novelty contrasted with hurling’s Groundhog Day: Kilkenny winning a 25th title, their last in the pre-Cody era.
IN a stadium named for giants, a diminutive, Glaswegian-born Irishman announced himself as King of New York.
Ray Houghton’s swordsman’s incision, the one that left Italy filleted and bleeding out like a mortally wounded Coliseum gladiator, was, of course, thrust into the Azzurri ribcage across the Hudson in Meadowlands, New Jersey.
But as the Irish hordes trailed a North Star of joy back into Manhattan, packing the taverns of Third Avenue, Broadway and The Village, Houghton’s name blazed as brightly as the brilliant neon of Times Square.
The taking down of Italy was a final great stirring of the Charlton era, a brief detour back to the golden summers of 1988 and 1990, the last sting of an dying wasp.
The wild night that followed was a moment in the Gotham penthouse, before Ireland would clack down the floors like an elevator that had lost its moorings.
A defeat to Mexico in the Orlando oven, a snooze-fest against Norway, and then, under another blazing Florida sky, Bonner, his save from four years earlier celebrated on every second Irish billboard, endured a Dutch nightmare.
Bonner’s torment might have been eclipsed in Limerick’s hurling heartlands.
With five minutes remaining in the All-Ireland final, Ciaran Carey, the brilliantly athletic midfield whippet and their master archer Gary Kirby stood on the brink of history.
Limerick led Offaly by 2-13 to 1-11, a surely unbreachable firewall against any scale of calamity.
Except, perhaps, a full-scale eruption of Volcano Dooley.
Johnny Dooley’s goal fired Midland lava into the sky above Croke Park. Pat O’Connor added a second, then Johnny’s brothers Billy and Joe spat additional engulfing fire.
Limerick, frozen like the citizens of Pompeii in the face of the midland Mount Etna’s violent conflagration, were rendered mute and inanimate. In a hurling nanosecond, a victory dance morphed into a crushing six-point death march.
The last post was becoming the soundtrack of Dublin’s summer, Mickey Linden and a rampant Down inflicting a fourth successive traumatic summer ending for Hill 16.
Simon Geoghegan, a flashing blur of blond intent, danced through the tiniest gap in the Twickenham fortifications to plant the Irish standard at the heart of the Empire as we beat England 13-12.
A summer subservient to the bidding of a high-achieving, stardust-flecked trinity: Jayo, Jonah and Loughnane.
Dublin’s game-changing songbird, a freakishly constructed All Black wrecking ball, and the charismatic Banner lodestar who, even in a world before Google Maps, carried in his knapsack the co-ordinates to hurling’s promised land.
Like a comet fired from the Kuiper Belt, Jason Sherlock came blazing across the Croke Park horizon, an astral fireball setting Hill 16 aglow.
Boy-band footballer besieged at the training ground, teenage turbo-boost difference maker who put fear in the enemy’s eye.
An iconic snapshot has Cork’s Mark O’Connor staggering like a village drunk in his dizzying presence, keeling over as Jayo finds the semi-final bullseye.
Dublin – with goalscorer Charlie Redmond managing to briefly stay on the field after being sent-off – beat Tyrone to claim their lone All-Ireland between 1983 and 2011.
Clare’s wilderness years, stretching across the generations, ran all the way back to World War One’s opening salvo. For 81 years, their ambitions were mired in Somme-like sludge, a treacly, inescapable no-man’s land.
They required a transformative force of nature: Ger Loughnane.
Loughnane was extraordinary: evicting all those accumulated eight decades of inferiority squatting in Clare’s chest; unafraid, certain; it was as if the seas would rise when he gave the word.
Clare’s breakthrough All-Ireland – beating Cork, Limerick, Galway and, in a final that thundered with emotion, unseating Offaly – was a glorious centrepiece of hurling’s revolution years, an uprising against the old houses.
Jonah Lomu knocked over old houses, new-builds, castles thought impregnable: a Panzer tank with Ferrari torque, a magnificent freak, a postcard from a new rugby world.
In the World Cup semi-final, he scored four tries, flattening every Anglo-Saxon to have walked the planet since Henry VIII. And then he and his All Blacks fell to food poisoning …
Hosts South Africa won a final streaked with post-Apartheid, Rainbow Nation significance; Nelson Mandela, five years on from his release from Robben Island, beaming in Springbok green, presenting the Webb Ellis trophy to Francois Pienaar, is among the century's eternal images.
So, too, is that of Eric Cantona, a Gallic Kung-Fu panda, sailing through the air, enraged, right-foot at right angle to his body, planting a studded boot into goading Crystal Palace supporter Matthew Simmons.
Footnotes that were so much bigger at the time: The Jack Charlton era fizzles out as Ireland are outclassed by Patrick Kluivert and Holland in a Euro ’96 play-off at Anfield; Steve Collins, a bombastic 20th-century McGregor, takes down Chris Eubank.
In another life, Liam Griffin might have been a speech-writer for his fellow Wexford evangelist, JFK.
Griffin, a natural-born missionary, a hypnotic orator, conjured poetic, inspiring images from the ether.
Bewitching, electrifying, sincere, he captivated an audience. And instilled his downtrodden tribe, over their summer of love, with a bullet-proof, spine-tingling sense of destiny.
This was the year of the Atlanta Olympics: Sonia O’Sullivan, a gold-medal favourite, reduced by a urinary-tract infection, to a portrait of devastation, lapped by her inferiors as her 5,000m challenge buckled.
Michelle Smith should be the story of the year: but her necklace of gold and bronze – though still hers, her ban not coming until 1998 – is a treasure that long ago lost its lustre.
A four-medal haul (three of them gold) embarrassingly filed under: We don’t really speak about that anymore.
Griffin and Wexford's glory shines on.
He announced hurling as the Riverdance of Sport and with that one beautiful, heartfelt sound bite armed the ancient game with a fashionable new relevance.
With Martin Storey as his sashaying Michael Flatley, Griffin carried Wexford onto Broadway. Tom Dempsey, so genial in civilian clothing, wore the eye of the tiger into battle; Larry O’Gorman was the wise-cracking wing-back with the athletic power to outstay the Duracell Bunny.
Wexford, an amiable tribe for whom hurling always felt like something spiritual, a letter in their genetic code, dissolved in ecstatic tears as Limerick were felled. And the nation sobbed with them.
Mayo cried a different kind of river: a replayed All-Ireland final loss to Meath – more punches might have been thrown in a violent drawn game than in that same summer’s Collins-Benn world-title fight – began a pattern.
The county, striving for the top rung of the Championship ladder for the first time since 1951, would stumble at the final hurdle eight times over the next 21 years.
Football, meanwhile, was coming home only to swerve on a detour and take up residence in Germany.
Baddiel and Skinner’s heartbeat quickened with Gazza’s wonder-goal and dentist chair celebration against Scotland, followed by England’s four-goal demolition of the Dutch. But Terry Venables’s crew flatlined in a quarter-final penalty shoot-out with the Spaniards.
The FAI found a new manager: in the same month he celebrated his 37th birthday, Mick McCarthy was handed the keys to Jack Charlton’s kingdom.
Eddie Irvine signed for Ferrari, the Manchester United of F1: he was more Pogba than Keane, 65 rodeos on the famous Prancing Horse yielding the sum total of four victories.
A year touched again and again by divinity: At Augusta, Tiger Woods, a fist-pumping, scarlet-shirted king of kings, announced himself as a 21-year-old golfing extraterrestrial.
At Croke Park, Maurice Fitzgerald conquered both Mayo and gravity, dancing weightless on cushions of air, conjuring a dreamy 70-minutes of performance-art perfection.
At the Crucible, Ken Doherty, the Ranelagh Tchaikovsky, composed an 18-12 overture as exhilarating as the original – a climactic volley of cannon fire announcing his taking down of the Napoleon of the green baize, Stephen Hendry.
In Malaysia, Brian Kerr first broadcast his credentials as an under-age football shaman, his Damien Duff-inspired colts galloping to an against-the-odds third place at the Under-20 World Cup.
It was, too, a year of savagery.
In Las Vegas, Mike Tyson, a diabolic look in his eye, chomped off, then spat out a one-inch chunk of cartilage from the top of Evander Holyfield’s right ear.
At the Masters, seizing the moment as if it was his birthright, The Tiger was more mannerly in spitting out the rest of the field.
After covering the first nine holes in a destructive 40 shots, he took out a four-day lease on that elusive golfing address known as The Zone: By Sunday evening he was 12 shots clear of his nearest pursuer, Tom Kite.
Fitzgerald was also a citizen of a distinct universe: With nine brushstrokes of languid genius – left foot, right foot, mastering angles like a sporting Pythagoras – he declared his unrivalled genius.
The only flaw on his day: He would accidentally break the leg of his team-mate, Billy O'Shea.
Tipperary’s John Leahy, one of the hurlers of the age, boldly went for goal at the death of the All-Ireland hurling final when a point would have secured a draw. It failed to find the net and Clare had a second title in three seasons.
For a wild and beautiful stretch in the middle of the year, Brian Kerr played the lead role in Midas: The Movie.
Everything he touched, anything upon which he fixed those glinting, heavily-hooded, mischievous eyes, every quotable nugget delivered in that wise, cheeky-chappy, upstart Dublin brogue, turned instantly to gold.
Long before Deliveroo, Ireland dialled 1800-Greener (his nickname) and, within 15 minutes, the most satisfying banquet of glory arrived at your door.
In a sizzling three-month heatwave of achievement, not a cloud in the Scottish or Cypriot skies, Kerr managed Irish teams to win the Under-16 and Under-18 European Championships.
“Wojus” and “Malojen”, two of his favourite words, entered the lexicon.
Robbie Keane and Richard Dunne starred on the elder team, the one that ignored a rule written in celestial stone: in the final they beat Germany in a penalty shoot-out; John O’Shea emerged from Kerr’s younger squad.
Such was his momentum that it seemed Kerr could pluck 11 mannequins from the front window of Penneys, set them up in a 4-4-2, and whisk the continent’s football cream.
A Kerry legend arrived at Croke Park in September hoping to illustrate that, after all the years, he was still capable of producing a brilliantly-timed masterclass.
Mick O’Dwyer – the maestro who had led Kerry to eight All-Irelands – had showcased an enduring ability to deliver a killing impact by leading Kildare to a first final since 1935.
But on final day, it was another stirring giant who found again the best of itself. With Pádraic Joyce, Michael Donnellan and Ja Fallon rampant, Galway – disputing Association Football’s copyright on Beautiful Game status – joyously accepted the baton from the three-in-a-row titans of the 1960s.
People power and a flu-ridden Brian Whelehan each merited AllStars as Offaly were last man standing in a breathless hurling summer.
In the semi-final, Clare led by three when referee Jimmy Cooney erred in calling a ceasefire five minutes prematurely.
Offaly supporters received an extravagant reward for their sit-down protest: a winning rematch six days later.
Whelehan, the Birr musketeer whose genius would subsequently earn him elevation to the Millennium team as a half-back, woke up on the morning of the final coughing and sneezing and running a temperature.
Offaly manager Eamon Cregan might have sent him to sickbay, instead he switched his star defender to full-forward. Whelehan fired 1-6 and Limerick were again imprisoned in the All-Ireland torture chamber.
Millions spilled onto the Champs Elysees as France, inspired by the second-generation Algerian, Zinedine Zidane, win their own World Cup.
The year of the Rebel Yell – Roy Keane and Jimmy Barry Murphy, twin Leeside luminaries, carving their initials onto the walls of legend in the most inspirational, indelible calligraphy.
Keane was suspended for the Nou Camp Champions League final as Manchester United drew new, expanded boundaries about what can be fashioned in the blink of an eye with a brace of frantic, supernatural injury-time incisions.
Yet, if it was a rapid, miraculous machine-gun burst from Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer that altered the course of history, still Keane’s signature was on the greatest night of Alex Ferguson’s managerial life.
The Irishman had delivered the defining performance of his career in the semi-final. With United flatlining against Juventus, Keane morphed into a human defibrillator, refusing to let his team die, detecting a pulse where others saw only a corpse, guiding them, by force of will, back to the living world.
Ferguson’s praise for his captain rushes across the years.
“The most emphatic display of selflessness I have ever seen on a football field. Pounding every blade of grass, competing as if he would rather die of exhaustion than lose, he inspired all around him. I felt such an honour to be associated with such a player.”
JBM, as beloved as Ring or Michael Collins, the 1970s sun king, now morphed into a hurling da Vinci: Painting a renaissance masterpiece, framing the story of Cork’s rebirth.
Hurling’s equivalent of Downton Abbey, an aristocratic presence with 27 All-Ireland chandeliers hanging from their ceilings, 12 months without Liam MacCarthy was deemed a catastrophe in Cork.
By 1999, they had endured nine years as an afterthought, an affront to their regal sensibilities.
In his first three years, JBM had overseen a first home loss in 75 years to Limerick in Championship hurling and failed to advance beyond a Munster semi-final.
By 1999, his reign was running down to its last embers. Cork craved an echo or two of the past. Barry Murphy’s young team began the season with the status of extras on a film set.
By September, when they defeated Offaly in the final, Joe Deane, Seán Óg Ó hAilpín and Seanie McGrath had delivered a moment that would always shine like gold.
It was a strangely bipolar year for rugby: Ulster kick-started the nation’s love affair with the Heineken Cup, their supporters flooding into Lansdowne Road to watch Simon Mason kick them to victory over Colomiers. But Ireland endured a disastrous World Cup – a loss to Argentina slamming the door on a quarter-final berth.
Other stories deserving of more detailed explanation: Ryan Giggs scores the goal of a lifetime in a FA Cup tie with Arsenal; Sean Boylan’s fourth All-Ireland arrives as Meath defeat Cork; Jean van der Velde endures the most cataclysmic 18th-hole meltdown in Open Championship history.
In impossibly hostile surroundings, Ireland lose a Euro 2000 play-off in Turkey, a post-match free-for-all that sees punches thrown by players, officials and police.
Don't miss '30 for 30' Part Two – The Greatest Sporting moments from 2000-2009. Only in this week's Sunday World and next Tuesday on independent.ie