Political Football: When Jack's Army became the bandwagon that nobody could resist

Euro ’88 was Irish football’s coming out party on the world stage when politicians saw how valuable the team could be – at least in the good times

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After their great success in Germany in Euro 88, the Irish soccer team had a triumphant homecoming. An Taoiseach, Charles Haughey TD and his government were to the forefront of the welcome at Dublin Airport on June 19, 1988.

After their great success in Germany in Euro 88, the Irish soccer team had a triumphant homecoming. An Taoiseach, Charles Haughey TD and his government were to the forefront of the welcome at Dublin Airport on June 19, 1988.

Jack Charlton and Maurice Setters celebrate the famous win over England at Euro '88. Photo: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE

Jack Charlton and Maurice Setters celebrate the famous win over England at Euro '88. Photo: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE

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After their great success in Germany in Euro 88, the Irish soccer team had a triumphant homecoming. An Taoiseach, Charles Haughey TD and his government were to the forefront of the welcome at Dublin Airport on June 19, 1988.

At the start of 2020, we were expecting the month of June to be dominated by a European Championships partially staged in Dublin.

Instead, we are looking back to the six major tournament summers that temporarily stopped the nation – from Stuttgart in 1988 to Lyon in 2016.

Starting from today, and continuing across the week, the Irish Independent and Independent.ie will chart the stories around each of those Irish footballing adventures, and the significant legacy left behind.

We kick-off here with Ireland's first showing at a major finals - Euro '88...


They started as they meant to continue. The photo album of Ireland's major tournament summers would not be complete without the political figures of the day barging into the spotlight.

Fresh from his central role in Stephen Roche’s Tour de France win a year earlier, the esteemed Charles Haughey made sure to be in the right place at the right time as the nation lost its head in the summer of 1988.

When Jack Charlton and co came down the steps of the plane to enter frenzied homecoming celebrations, Charlie was waiting, ready to declare the manager an honorary Irishman.

"Saint Jack would not be inappropriate but that will take a little longer," the Taoiseach declared, before comparing the misfortune of Wim Kieft’s goal to the death of Brian Boru in 1014 and the defeat at Kinsale in 1601. The crowds lapped it up. Fianna Fáil’s role in the finals had already weaved its way into the storytelling.

On the morning after the famous defeat of England in Stuttgart, the Irish public was informed that cabinet ministers Bertie Ahern and Ray Burke had joined in the singsong at the team hotel.

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Jack Charlton and Maurice Setters celebrate the famous win over England at Euro '88. Photo: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE

Jack Charlton and Maurice Setters celebrate the famous win over England at Euro '88. Photo: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE

Jack Charlton and Maurice Setters celebrate the famous win over England at Euro '88. Photo: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE

"Labour Minister Ahern reminded everyone of the 'Dublin Aluminium' with a rendition of Molly Malone," reported the Evening Herald, explaining that the Irish political delegation then broke off to attend the crowning of the German Rose of Tralee contestant.

Meanwhile, Agriculture Minister Michael O’Kennedy, who attended en route to a vital farming meeting in Luxembourg, said Ireland had "waited 1,000 years for this victory" although Boru would probably have preferred to get one over the Vikings.

Nevertheless, the tone was set. Our elected officials were all on board the bandwagon.

This was a symbolic departure to some degree given that Euro ’88 was closer in history to the GAA's (1971) removal of 'The Ban' on their members playing or attending 'foreign games' than Saipan is to the present day.

Granted, there were Fianna Fáil politicians open about their fondness for the ‘garrison game’ when other pillars of Irish society rejected it.

Oscar Traynor's name is well known to amateur footballers who may not be aware that the man himself was Minister of Defence through the 1940s. Eamon de Valera was once roundly criticised for attending an Ireland v Poland soccer international.

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Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Republic of Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni during the 'Enda's Trek with Trap's Green Army' charity climb in Mayo back in 2012

Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Republic of Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni during the 'Enda's Trek with Trap's Green Army' charity climb in Mayo back in 2012

Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Republic of Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni during the 'Enda's Trek with Trap's Green Army' charity climb in Mayo back in 2012

Donagh O'Malley, the 1960s Education Minister remembered for making education free for all, was a president of the FAI (the slight caveat is that he got the gig before ever attending a match).

Still, it would be a stretch to say that the association was good for political capital. Sure didn’t Michael Collins hate it, after all. But that changed through the golden years.

This is why Charlie flew to Rome in 1990 and joined the post-match lap of honour in front of the fans. His arrival into the Irish dressing-room spun that old after dinner tale about Tony Cascarino not recognising his face, mishearing his job title and presuming it was a bloke who owned a 'tea shop.'

The target parish knew who it was. Haughey had flown out on the Government jet with Alan Dukes (Fine Gael) and Dick Spring (Labour), even though the opposition leaders had walked out of a Dáil session 24 hours earlier over a row based around a ruling by the Ceann Comhairle. “It would be churlish to turn it down,” explained a Fine Gael spokesperson.

Before the tournament got under way, Minister for Sport Frank Fahey was allowed to skip a Dáil gathering and fly to Italy to troubleshoot in an episode surrounding the Irish team’s access to their chosen hotel ahead of the opener with England.

Fahey later was thrust into the minefield of Irish fans seeking tickets, a recurring theme with Italy only a warm-up for the chaos of America and the FAI's storied dalliance with an agent known as 'George The Greek.'

"There is a complete rip-off in ticket sales," Fahey asserted in one front page news story. "We are dealing with a legalised black market."

They were fighting for the man.

Four years later, Albert Reynolds boarded a flight to the USA.

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Jack Charlton is welcomed back to Dublin Airport by Taoiseach Albert Reynolds back in November 1993 after Ireland's 1-1 draw with Northern Ireland in Belfast that sealed the Republic's place at the 1994 World Cup finals. Photo: Sportsfile

Jack Charlton is welcomed back to Dublin Airport by Taoiseach Albert Reynolds back in November 1993 after Ireland's 1-1 draw with Northern Ireland in Belfast that sealed the Republic's place at the 1994 World Cup finals. Photo: Sportsfile

Jack Charlton is welcomed back to Dublin Airport by Taoiseach Albert Reynolds back in November 1993 after Ireland's 1-1 draw with Northern Ireland in Belfast that sealed the Republic's place at the 1994 World Cup finals. Photo: Sportsfile

"Mr Reynolds will have a bigger team in America than Jack Charlton, with 18 civil servants accompanying Reynolds and six ministers," read the front page Irish Independent story. We were assured by spin doctors that coincidental clashes with other meetings in the US had inflated the delegation.

Reynolds was jubilant after the opening victory over Italy. "Together we'll conquer the world," he told Charlton in an embrace that was captured by news reporters. "I'll make him Minister for Fisheries, that's what I'll do."

Glory days indeed. But these were holiday romances rather than permanent unions. A few months beforehand, the announcement that Finance Minister Ahern, in continuing his ascent towards the top job, had committed £5m towards Croke Park redevelopment caused some disquiet.

The FAI's Seán Connolly protested that soccer had got less than £300,000 from the state in the previous 12 months.

Across the 1990s, the main infrastructual improvement was floodlights that were essentially paid for by Sky TV as part of a deal that allowed them to screen Sunday games in the League of Ireland's old favoured time-slot.

As we entered the 21st century, the goalposts moved to ground development. The Irish Independent of July 20, 2000 made for interesting reading.

Call it the alternative 'Euro 88 'Where Are They Now?' On one page, we had coverage of Ray Burke's conduct at the Flood Tribunal (later the Mahon Tribunal).

On another, Haughey's status with the Moriarty Tribunal came under the spotlight. His star had fallen. Burke was later sentenced to six months in jail for tax offences. Politics is a game of two halves too, evidently.

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Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, after whom the ‘Bertie Bowl’ was named. Photo: Martin Maher

Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, after whom the ‘Bertie Bowl’ was named. Photo: Martin Maher

Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, after whom the ‘Bertie Bowl’ was named. Photo: Martin Maher

Meanwhile, there was only room for a short story on a Dáil debate where Fine Gael's Bernard Allen warned the Taoiseach, Ahern, that he was going to waste taxpayers' money with plans for what soon became known as the 'Bertie Bowl' project.

This caused a football civil war of sorts, with the FAI's plans to develop their own base, Eircom Park, scuppered by Ahern's attempts to build a sports complex in Abbotstown with an 80,000-capacity stadium accompanied by a 15,000-capacity indoor arena.

To get the FAI on board, they needed Eircom Park to be abandoned and the strongest dissenting voices against that project included a young John Delaney, a tousle-haired firebrand.

Punters read well-sourced headlines about the riches that would be on offer to the FAI if they went with the Government.

There were even reports that League of Ireland clubs had been offered increased funding from the Department of Sport if they joined the anti-Eircom Park lobby. One headline in this paper screamed that the FAI were in line for a €70m windfall if they went with Bertie's vision.

As we now know, they eventually ended up with a renovated Lansdowne Road which nearly bankrupted them. The Bertie Bowl saga, which managed to spill over into an aborted attempt to stage the 2008 Euros with Scotland, was a story of its time.

Football in this country was ultimately about the big business of the senior international team and its hold on the nation. This was the news cycle to roll in.

And then Saipan came along like a hurricane. Unsurprisingly, Bertie, an avid Manchester United fan who once featured as a pundit on RTÉ's 'The Premiership' (we all partied) attempted to ride to the rescue. He didn't succeed, but his intervention proved they were tapping into the pulse of the nation.

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Taoiseach Bertie Ahern  chats with former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds  at the presentation of  the 2002 European of the Year Award.

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern chats with former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds at the presentation of the 2002 European of the Year Award.

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern chats with former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds at the presentation of the 2002 European of the Year Award.

"I wouldn't say it's a matter of state," a spokeswoman for Ahern told the bemused 'Guardian'. "But there is a lot of public opinion and a lot of people saying they want the Taoiseach to do something to get Keane back."

Alas, everyone has to hang up their boots eventually and, like his peers that went before him, Old Father Tribunal caught up with Bertie and sent him shuffling off to the sidelines.

The country had its own battles to fight as Delaney came to the fore and convinced the movers and shakers in Leinster House that the game here was in good hands. Successive ministers of sport clearly subscribed to the theory that negative stories about the FAI finances either weren't true or just weren't their concern.

Enda Kenny climbed Croagh Patrick with Trap, but he shied away from being a real big game player. At Poland in 2012, then Minister for Sport Leo Varadkar was dispatched yet it was made clear that he was footing his own bill.

Nevertheless, he did his bit by mingling amongst the masses in his green jersey. We were told of chants of 'Leo, Leo' to the tune of 'Keano, Keano.' Yes, people really were that drunk.

Five years later, Varadkar was in Canada as Taoiseach when he met a local-based Irish-born reporter, spotted a bag which indicated he was a football fan and struck up a conversation about his Euros jaunt. It duly transpired that Varadkar didn’t fully recall attending the 4-0 drubbing to Spain.

But in a way, one should applaud Varadkar for not pretending to be a lover of the beautiful game. It's just a shame that he was heading up the department that seemed oblivious to the horrendous mistakes the FAI were making with the Aviva project.

"It would be inappropriate for me to pass comment on the internal structures of a national sporting organisation," was his 2014 response to an Irish fan who wrote to the minister outlining concerns about the FAI’s governance.

Fine Gael's approach was hands off when this was actually the appropriate moment to get stuck in. But responsibility crossed party lines.

Labour's Alan Kelly viewed Delaney as an ally worth advertising. When the CEO was brought in for a 2017 Oireachtas hearing, Fianna Fáil's Kevin O'Keeffe uttered the infamous line that it would be "impossible" to criticise the FAI's CEO.

Eyes were off the ball. Maybe they had just lost interest as the football team's stock with the wider population fell. President Michael D Higgins, an actual 24/7 fan of the sport, was in the middle of things at the Euros in France.

The main political activity around sporting matters in that period was Kenny throwing his weight behind the Rugby World Cup bid, a baton that was passed onto Varadkar. That didn't go to plan.

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Leo Varadkar and John Delaney

Leo Varadkar and John Delaney

Leo Varadkar and John Delaney

At least we'd got a bit of Euro 2020 to look forward, eh? Fate had other ideas. Yet the events of the past 15 months have started a move towards righting some wrongs.

When Delaney's regime crumbled, there was suddenly credit to be gained by asking probing questions and it belatedly succeeded in bringing about change.

It has also delivered recognition that the sport with the highest level of participation has never really benefited from state funding to build lasting foundations.

Hence, the legacy of the glory years is a chronic wasted opportunity. Neither the FAI nor the political powerbrokers were ever really looking beyond the next marquee game.

That's why the state role in the rescue deal could be interpreted as an overdue act of meaningful public service.

Being there in an hour of need is more important than showing up for happy hour. Politicians have got more out of Irish football than Irish football has ever got out of politicians.

Perhaps this will be remembered as the year where that dynamic changed.

Relive the highs and the lows and read stories that were never told from Ireland's European Championship and World Cup adventures in our six-part series all this week - only in the Irish Independent and on Independent.ie

Online Editors