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Sunday 19 November 2017

Vincent Hogan: Italia 90 - The tension was an animate force, intimidating us, wreaking terror

Vincent Hogan recalls the fractious build-up to the famous shoot-out win over Romania - secured by the forgotten man of Irish football - and the stifling atmosphere in the Genoa stadium as penalties loomed
Glory days: Mick McCarthy and Kevin Moran celebrate progress to the quarter-finals of Italia 90 in Genoa. Photo: Ray McManus / Sportsfile
Glory days: Mick McCarthy and Kevin Moran celebrate progress to the quarter-finals of Italia 90 in Genoa. Photo: Ray McManus / Sportsfile
Ireland's homecoming from the Italia 90 World Cup. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Time commits a gentle swindle now, colouring the memory of our treks out into the opulent hills of Rapallo with a lyric tranquillity that skirts the truth.

Fevered images from home had begun bringing to mind the streets of Buenos Aires after Mario Kempes danced through a field of confetti to win the World Cup for his dark, conflicted nation in 1978. RTÉ television tapes of a teeming O'Connell Street, horns blaring with daredevils perched on the roofs of moving cars, Irish people child-like in happiness over the deeds of men still without an actual win after three World Cup games, became the backdrop to every conversation.

Gone ballistic at home…

Schools closing for a half-day on Monday…

Credit unions swamped…

Flights through the roof…

Even talk of a homecoming…

Ireland's team base on the Ligurian coast was beautiful compared to the sweaty, faintly run-down, slightly pungent Portorais Hotel in Mondello on the outskirts of Palermo that had been their base since the opening draw with England. There, players had grumbled about the absence of air-conditioning and some about having to even sleep on camp-beds.

Now they'd found five-star elegance maybe 15 miles south-east of Genoa, the sense finally finding traction that they they'd become globally relevant to the biggest show on earth. Even Jack Charlton's temper seemed momentarily to have been decommissioned.

The day before Ireland played Romania, he sat on a table alongside assistant Maurice Setters, joking to journalists about the quality of his suntan. Jack actually hated the heat deeply but, having safely navigated escape from a cagey Group F, in which all but one of the six games played had been drawn, he knew he was in bonus territory. A 1-1 draw with Holland at Stadio La Favorita one week earlier had essentially flipped the national mood on its head.

He'd been sucked into a juvenile squabble with TV pundit Eamon Dunphy after the failure to beat Egypt, the mood around the team, back then, irrationally bleak. I was ghostwriting Kevin Moran's column for this newspaper and, before we sat to talk after that Egypt stalemate, he and striker John Aldridge had an unguarded exchange in my company.

Aldridge was exasperated. The role Jack sought from him was one of incessant running, closing down defenders in a relentless one-man gegenpress. Even had a decent goal chance presented itself that day (and one didn't), Aldridge expressed doubt that he'd have had the requisite sharpness in his legs to convert it.

An assumption was palpably growing that we'd soon be heading home. On the media bus to the Holland game, I recall one Irish journalist musing aloud that he might "take the wife and baby to Dublin's game with Wicklow on Sunday". Nobody questioned such pessimism. This was the Dutch team of Rijkaard, Gullit and Van Basten about to come our way. Football men of a higher caste.

So in Rapallo, all had now become convivial and expectant. On the surface.

There were, actually, two parallel groups within that Irish squad as the biggest day in our football history edged nearer. There was Jack's XI. And there was the group of senior players he'd essentially forgotten.

I particularly remember a stone-faced Frank Stapleton through those days, then 33 and letting it be widely known that he was furious over his apparent invisibility to the Irish manager. Frank had experience as a big player in big leagues, playing for Arsenal, Manchester United and Ajax between 1974 and 87. But he was at Blackburn now and resigned to a World Cup experienced largely in sweatshirt and runners.

And the odd comic with media accreditation could be overheard poking this bear with a stick, by musing "Well Frank, will you think of this when you're travelling to play Tranmere next season?"

Then there was Ronnie Whelan. A central talent at Liverpool, where titles were still being won, but struggling for fitness now after an injury-compromised season.

Those who'd enjoyed watching Whelan captain the best club side in England believed that everything he represented as a footballer was a gentle repudiation of the more primitive tactical aspects to Ireland in Jack's care.

Trouble was, Jack knew this. And it seemed to make him bristle. Before the Egypt game, someone had blundered innocently into the propellers of this resentment with an innocent query about Ronnie's fitness. The question was intercepted by the verbal equivalent of a pin being pulled from a hand grenade.

"Look," boomed Jack. "I will tell YOU when he's ready, okay? There's no point in you keeping asking me about it five or six times a day. I'LL tell YOU!"

There and then, I suspect we all realised that Ronnie's World Cup race was already run.

Then again, we'd believed much the same about Dave O'Leary. He looked an uneasy tourist from the outset of Italia 90, surplus to Big Jack's central defensive requirements in which Mick McCarthy and Moran were automatic selections.

O'Leary had been a largely subdued presence in Palermo, banished seemingly forever from Charlton's favour four years earlier by sticking with a family holiday instead of playing for Ireland in that now famous Icelandic invitational tournament. He'd missed Euro 88 as a consequence and went to Italy on the outer margins of the manager's attention.

The Dubliner was 32 during Italia 90, still a revered figure at Arsenal, but a largely despondent presence within the Irish camp. Football aesthetes considered it an abomination that the more robust, less refined McCarthy was selected consistently ahead of O'Leary.

They read maybe more than was wise from the fact that, a decade earlier, McCarthy (while playing with Barnsley) and Charlton (while manager at Sheffield Wednesday) had lived in the same Yorkshire village and drank in the same local pub.

But cold statistics justified Charlton's favouring of McCarthy. For all the grumbles, Ireland arrived in Rapallo having lost just two of their previous 32 assignments. Even O'Leary's most vocal supporters by now recognised that the war for his re-instatement was over.

So how much did we know about Romania? Well, we knew that Gheorghe Hagi's nickname was 'The Maradona of the Carpathians'. Beyond that? The bulk of Emeric Ienei's squad came from Bucharest where the old Dinamo club had recently restored its name to Unirea Tricolor: a simple gesture to celebrate the despised Nicolae Ceausescu's passing.

The feeling was that most of their players, maybe just Hagi apart, would be actually playing for their livelihoods in Genoa. They represented a country that was in visible turmoil. The word coming our way was that their circumstance had created a deep bond within the group, that they would be fiercely driven to reach a World Cup quarter-final for their people.

But Jack seemed to see them as almost perfect opposition.

"Our style is well suited to playing East Europeans," he told us at his final pre-game press conference. Some of us swallowed hard on hearing that. It might have been an English World Cup winner's way to shout the odds, but it somehow sounded reckless to an Irish ear. My memories of the game itself can probably be condensed into two simple sentences: We kept kicking Hagi. He kept coming back for more.

The tension was extraordinary, a realisation dawning within the packed Stadio Luigi Ferraris that this would be, at best, a one-goal game. Through extra-time, that tension all but became an animate force. Bullying us. Intimidating us. Wreaking terror.

I was sitting next to our veteran football correspondent, Noel Dunne, a man still in the midst of recuperation from major surgery. And I was familiar with the specific nature of his predicament as my own father had recently undergone a similar procedure. Noel was already finding the heat a challenge. But now the air around us had the consistency of soup.

We both gasped audibly when O'Leary came on in extra-time for Steve Staunton, Jack perhaps suddenly seeing value in the veteran's capacity to protect possession. The natural thing was probably to think of him as grateful to be finally getting game-time. We had forgotten who Dave O'Leary was. Because when the referee's whistle finally signalled a penalty shoot-out, it was O'Leary who took control, canvassing the team for volunteers. It took some time to nail down four, and that was when he nominated himself to take the fifth.

Two and a half years later, I would be in Glasgow, listening to Packie Bonner talk about how he had a fishing boat at home in Burtonport that he'd christened 'Timofte' in recognition of the young Romanian whose penalty he would so famously save. Packie's moment left Ireland on the edge of delirium.

"A nation holds its breath…" as George Hamilton declared.

And, of course, that was when David O'Leary, the forgotten man of Irish football, sent a Romanian goalkeeper diving the wrong way, to turn O'Connell Street into Avenida de Julio again.

And in Genoa, even in the press seats, all decorum evaporated. Ireland were going to the World Cup quarter-finals, the challenge of rationalising that story now stiffened by a penal newspaper deadline that loomed before us like a sheer cliff-face. Perhaps the best moments of on-field colour were even lost to us in those seconds of unhinged celebration. It might have been a full minute before I remember turning to my senior colleague to co-ordinate the angles from which we would retell this story.

And Noel Dunne, a famously implacable soul after decades of chronicling Irish football disappointments, was crying. Gulping back tears of the most uncomplicated joy.

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