Liam Kelly takes a nostalgic look back on the adventure of a lifetime with Jack's Army
EURO 2012 beckons next summer, but for novelty, adventure into uncharted territory and drama, Euro '88 in Germany can never be equalled.
You never forget the first time for anything worthwhile, and 23 years ago, little old Eire made its debut among the elite of European football.
Over 13,000 Irish fans made the trip and they certainly got their money's worth. In the build-up to the championships, fans plotted and planned, sold cars to raise finance, and lodged applications with credit unions and banks for urgent house improvements that just had to be completed in June.
Meanwhile, Jack Charlton and his players were hard at work.
They had a professional job to do and for nearly four weeks, Jack had the lads in camp at Finnstown House in Lucan, the training broken by a home international friendly against Poland on May 22 (won 3-1) and a friendly in Oslo on June 1 (0-0).
Manager and players were certainly not going on a jolly, and with England, USSR and Holland in our group, each match was going to be the equivalent of a cup final.
It was an adventure for all concerned -- players, fans, media, the FAI and sponsors Opel. Adding to the fascination for the core Irish media contingent was our being billeted with the players and official party for 11 memorable days.
At the time, Europe was a smaller entity in terms of countries, and only eight teams qualified for the European Championship finals.
Group One was made up of West Germany, Italy, Denmark and Spain; Group Two consisted of England, Holland, USSR and the Republic of Ireland.
The USSR had the pick of every region under their control -- Ukraine, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, etc. The Russian Bear ruled all.
The same applied to Yugoslavia, who hadn't qualified, but who Jack's team played in a friendly in April 1988. Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenengro, Macedonia and Slovenia were all part of the Yugoslav Federation with the government based in Belgrade.
England, with Bobby Robson as manager, boasted the talents of Gary Lineker, Glenn Hoddle, Chris Waddle, Bryan Robson, Peter Shilton, John Barnes and Tony Adams -- pretty formidable.
Holland had Ruud Gullitt, Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard, and a wily old former manager of the great Ajax team of the '70s, Rinus Michels.
The Waldhotel Degerloch
Wednesday, June 8-Monday, June 13.
Rural area, a lovely hotel outside the city, football pitches for training, tennis courts, a swimming pool. There was heavy security. Green-clad police were everywhere. There were fears about terrorist attacks on the tournament and the Germans were taking no chances.
At the airport the Irish party had been met by the mayor of Stuttgart -- Manfred Rommel, son of the 'Desert Fox' of World War Two fame. The team trained -- anyone could watch -- and Jack did a press conference on the Wednesday evening.
He suggested that maybe he ought to have given the lads a bit of a break from training camp because they had been closeted together since May 17. It was too late by then to do anything about it.
BUILDING UP FOR
THE ENGLAND GAME
The team spent most of the time tucked away in their rooms, but were fairly amenable to doing interviews.
They had to endure the noise of some late-night sessions in the bar, and on one occasion, Kevin Sheedy gave out to some of the guys -- none of them media personnel -- for playing a table football game that was outside his room in the early hours of Friday morning.
By Friday, day 3, we were getting a bit niggly. We posed the questions, Jack batted them back. Charlie Stuart of the 'Irish Press' said in one stalemate: "same old boring answers, Jack." "Same old boring questions, Charlie!" came the riposte. And we all laughed. It broke the ice.
Charlton's assistant Maurice Setters then said we were all getting a bit fed up waiting for the action to start, and he was right.
Sunday, June 12
That morning I came out of my room and walked down the corridor. Physio Mick Byrne's treatment room was on the same landing.
As I walked by, I glanced in. The door was open. There was Mick McCarthy, on his stomach, his legs being wrapped in heavy bandages. I paused. McCarthy growled, Byrne quickly slammed the door.
Bloody hell! They'd kept that quiet. A scoop! Ring the office... and then, reality. It was Sunday morning. I worked at the time for the 'Evening Herald'. The match was Sunday afternoon. No chance of a headline.
Turned out Mick's legs had mysteriously seized up in training. It spoke volumes for his character, and Byrne's treatment, that he was able to play at all, let alone cope with the England strike force led by Gary Lineker.
AIR OF MENACE
Outside and inside the Neckarstadion, sections of the English fans were chanting vicious ditties about the war, and making Nazi salutes.
They were a minority, but a sizeable minority, and the German police had their work cut out to keep the yob element in check.
The Irish fans didn't rise to the bait, even though some of the English suggested fornication with the Pope and the IRA.
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND 1
At approximately 3.36 local time, Ray Houghton headed the ball past Peter Shilton. Goal! 1-0. Cue an intense 84 minutes of heart-in-mouth tension. Bonner' s greatest game in goal, but every player gave an immense performance.
Ireland -- Bonner; Morris, Moran, McCarthy, Hughton; Houghton, McGrath, Whelan, Galvin; Stapleton, Aldridge. Subs: Quinn for Stapleton (63); Sheedy for Galvin (76).
That evening, back at the Waldhotel, the party began in earnest. Fans, politicians, celebs, officials, and the squad raised the roof.
Liam Brady, who wasn't in the official squad because of injury, led the celebrations. Kevin Moran, Mick Byrne, anyone who could sing, and even those who hadn't a note in their head, sang their heads off.
Top of the charts? Razor Houghton's carefully composed lyric: "Who put the ball in the England net? I did, I did."
On the stroke of midnight, that was it for the players. Brady stopped singing, put the MC's microphone down and shepherded the lads back to their rooms. They had a big task facing them on Wednesday against the USSR. For them, the party was over. The rest of us carried it on till half past...
HUNGOVER IN HANOVER
Monday, June 13-Thursday, June 16
Seven hours by train north to 'Hangover' as we called it, an hour and a half by plane for Jack and the players. En route we saw the wire fences and the guard posts of the border between West and Eastern Germany -- a chilling reminder that the Cold War was still going on.
On the Tuesday morning I saw Houghton hobbling painfully down the stairs. He was wearing flip-flops, and looked to have a horrible black toenail injury and various marks and bruises on his feet and legs.
Looking at him limping along like an old man I got a sense of what that match in the searing heat had taken out of Houghton and the rest of the players. "How can this guy play tomorrow night in that state?" I wondered -- but of course, he could, and did.
Wednesday, June 15
Ronnie, oh, Ronnie. That goal against the Soviets. I didn't see it. My eye was caught by the rolling Mexican wave surging through the stands, and I heard the roar and then saw the ball in the net. That was enough. Goal for Whelan, lead for Ireland. This trip just kept getting better and better.
The team played lovely passing football with Kevin Sheedy in a central midfield role vacated by the injured Paul McGrath. Again, the tension and excitement was almost too much to bear.
And that's why it felt like a giant bubble that had built around the stadium was burst suddenly when Oleg Protassov equalised late in the game.
We wuz robbed, because Tony Galvin had earlier deserved a penalty when he was hammered by USSR goalie Dasayev. Talk about deflation!
No big party that night. We were off to Gelsenkirchen the following morning to build up for the Holland game on the Saturday.
Ireland -- Bonner; Morris, Moran, McCarthy, Hughton; Houghton, Whelan, Sheedy, Galvin; Stapleton, Aldridge. Sub: Cascarino for Stapleton (80).
Thursday, June 16-Sunday, June 19
How could they keep up this pace? I'm not talking about the players, just about the media and the fans. High on adrenaline, low on sleep, German beer oozing from skin pores and livers working overtime to keep the bodies operating at some level -- it was a tough job, but sacrifices had to be made.
By then reports were filtering through about how they'd all gone soccer-mad in Ireland, but in the camp, it was hard to get a sense of that. The team trained, we watched, we had press conferences, we wrote our stories, and saw very little of the surrounding areas, never mind accessing the home news.
No Sky News 24-hour TV then, and German telly wasn't covering the Irish news. The squad were cloistered away from most of the hype, apart from the expanding international media presence as Jack's lads became 'the story' of the championships.
KEEP YOUR KIT ON
The hotel complex in Gelsenkirchen was in a lovely setting with great facilities -- indoor and outdoor swimming pools, saunas, tennis courts, the lot. And then the funny part -- there was a nudist sunbathing area, patronised by wealthy Germans.
We didn't know that -- at least not until a recce of the hotel after arrival when a few of us checked out the indoor swimming pool, and saw this naked German oul' wan stepping into the pool where Paul McGrath was having a dip.
Paul had his swimming trunks on and was completely oblivious, as we all were, that the place allowed nudity in certain quarters. I never saw him move so quickly as he did to get out of that pool.
Very soon afterwards came word that Jack had banned the team from going near the nudist section.
The British tabloids would have loved photos of the lads surrounded by German naturists. As sports reporters, we weren't interested in the titillation stuff as the team weren't near those areas.
Besides, we had important business -- our own match in the semi-final of the international media tournament against Holland on the Saturday morning in Gelsenkirchen.
We did our work, then a bit of training, much drinking, and got as little sleep as possible. Our bodies were temples which, at that stage of the trip, were operating pretty much on an 'open all hours' policy.
So near and yet
Saturday, June 18
Nine minutes left in the orange-enveloped stadium. So close to the 0-0 draw that would put us through and knock out the Dutch masters. The crowd was at fever pitch.
Once again the body was vibrating with tension. Surely we could hang on? The Irish team had been brilliant.
An English journalist turned to me and said: "Your lads are going to do it." For the first time in the game, I dared to permit a flicker of hope arise in my mind that he could be right.
Within a minute that was crushed when Wim Kieft's touch on a mis-hit shot by Ronald Koeman put a crazy spin on the ball that saw it swerve into the corner of the Irish net.
As the Dutch roars tore the skies above the stadium, we Irish sank into despair. So near, and yet so far. Devastation. Disbelief.
You had to feel for Jack and those players. They took us to levels we had never reached before and nearly brought us to an astonishing achievement for a small football nation. So hard to take.
Later, back at the hotel again. Only one option -- to drown the sorrows. The players could now give it a lash off the pitch, and they did.
Ireland -- Bonner; Morris, Moran, McCarthy, Hughton; Houghton, McGrath, Whelan, Galvin; Stapleton, Aldridge. Subs: Sheedy for Morris (h-t), Cascarino for Stapleton (82).
LEAVING ON A JET PLANE
Dublin, Sunday, June 19
On the Sunday morning, flying home from Dusseldorf on a Boeing 737 renamed 'St Jack' for the flight, the champagne flowed.
Liam Brady borrowed the captain's hat, and addressed the passengers using the stewardess' public address system. There was much regret, but the tension was being let off and we were on our way back to Ireland.
The plane was noisy with chatter, banter and craic all the way, but as we descended towards Dublin, there was silence. It was caused by a sight none of us had ever imagined. We were able to see, down below, thousands of people along the route to the airport and on the roof of the buildings and everywhere around it.
In those moments, suspended a couple of thousand feet in the air over north county Dublin, the manager, players, and those of us who had lived a sheltered existence alongside them at Ireland's football bases in Germany, realised the impact that team had on the country.
Awe-inspiring stuff. You never saw a group of tousle-haired, shirt-sleeved, well-oiled footballers grab for blazers and ties so quickly as we landed -- and when they came down the steps of the aircraft they were back in athlete mode.
For Dubliners Frank Stapleton, Kevin Moran, Ronnie Whelan, Paul McGrath, Niall Quinn, John Anderson and Liam O'Brien, the reception in their home town was a particularly emotional occasion.
Jack, a World Cup winner in 1966, was bemused.
"What would the reception be like if we actually won something some time?" he said in his impromptu speech.
Fair play to the FAI, to sponsors Opel, Dublin Bus, and the City Council for arranging a cavalcade from the airport to the city centre. The crowds lined the roads all the way in to town, where over 250,000 cheering fans were there for the speeches and reception.
There were to be other 'homecoming' receptions in 1990, 1994, and 2002, but because it was the first time, Euro '88, and everything to do with it, will always have a special place in Irish soccer and cultural history.