A World Cup in the US was always going to appeal to the travelling Irish supporter. Daniel McDonnell hears tales of the off-field dramas that left their own legacy
Johnny 'Porridge' O'Connor is a farmer from Kerry that very much sounds like a farmer from Kerry.
So when he was leaving Windsor Park on that epic night in November 1993 and was asked by a random Northern Ireland supporter if he knew the result of the Spain and Denmark match that would confirm if Alan McLoughlin's late equaliser had put the Republic into the World Cup, Porridge knew that he had to improvise. The spoken word was not his friend.
Thinking on his feet, he used the fingers of both hands to create shapes that reflected 0-0, successfully got the message through with a nod, and swiftly headed for the exit.
For the 25th anniversary of that encounter, this paper carried a feature about four Irish supporters that had gone undercover in the home end on a hate-filled night.
There was a fifth 'Fenian' next to them who only communicated during the game by stepping on the toe of another Kerryman, Tim Doyle, at hairy moments.
No words were exchanged, but Tim was convinced this fella was from Killorglin and involved in local politics. Porridge called our office when the piece was printed to confirm he was the missing link.
He had a travelling companion from Limerick elsewhere in the ground and they'd crafted a layered entry and exit plan, with the two men walking individually to a carefully selected meeting point and proceeding from there to their car.
A few miles out the road, close to Long Kesh as Porridge tells it, he felt safe enough to open the back window and let out a roar to release all the tension that was bottled up during the game.
Thus started a circuitous journey back to Dublin via Armagh and Keady where pints were consumed in well-researched locations. There was even a chance encounter with soldiers that was safely negotiated.
Porridge eventually reached the capital sometime around 9am and called Radio Kerry to chronicle his journey. It must have went well because they asked him to do a similar travel diary if he ended up going to America.
After getting through Belfast, he was never not going to America.
When Ireland qualified, the young Dubliner Graham Coughlan promised himself he would start to put some money aside with a view to travelling. His best pal and Cherry Orchard colleague James Smith was in the same boat.
"I was trying to save, but being young and free and single, it was very, very hard to save your money in those days," Coughlan laughs. "I didn't want to live like a monk."
His parents eventually came up with the balance and the duo were a last-minute addition onto a travel package run by ex-Irish international-turned-travel agent Ray Treacy.
Coughlan travelled on a high. He was 19, and coming off the back of a trophy-winning Leinster Senior League season. The promising centre-half was starting to turn heads, but the only thing on his mind on the plane was securing access to all of the games.
"We went over to New York convinced the Italians would outnumber us," Coughlan says. "But going up to the stadium, we knew it was going to be different. Everyone was chasing tickets and there was plenty going around. You could pick them up in bars, they weren't hard to get hold of."
He recalls the TV screens trained on the aftermath of OJ Simpson's car chase rather than the World Cup. Watching Franco Baresi in the flesh was a thrill, but it was Ireland and Paul McGrath that won the day.
Orlando was next on the list, and the sweltering conditions for the lunchtime kick-off with Mexico. "Being a red lad, the heat was absolutely unbelievable," he says. "I don't know how we stuck it. There were buses going to the stadium and once we got off it, the Irish all made a dash to the shade under the flyover. Lads got their drums and bodhráns out and started banging out the songs in there."
Coughlan stayed on for the concluding group match with Norway, but couldn't afford to stick around for the round of 16 game with the Dutch.
In the winter of 1995, he did get to see the two nations meet; he was a spectator at Anfield for Jack Charlton's final game as manager - the painful Euro '96 play-off loss.
By then, Coughlan was a professional footballer at Blackburn Rovers. He went from Cherry Orchard to Bray Wanderers before entering the full-time game, making over 500 appearances in the Football League with a variety of clubs.
Coughlan is now one of the few active Irish managers in the English game having dropped down a division from League One Bristol Rovers to join ambitious League Two outfit Mansfield last December.
The hardened football professional is a different animal to the raw teen that boarded the plane in '94, yet the national team remains a form of escapism. "I always try to get to our games," he says. "We love our country, we love our flag, but we follow them in hope rather than expectation."
That story of Ireland's struggles with the Orlando heat is often accompanied by the picture of Steve Staunton in a hat. Or Jack Charlton and John Aldridge raging in the Orlando sunshine at the delay in allowing the Irish sub to enter the fray against Mexico. As a trivia aside, the FIFA official in the yellow hat, the Egyptian Mustapha Fahmy, was a big player in African football that ended up organising the 2010 finals.
Phelim Warren was already out of the game when Aldridge was introduced. And he's got the picture to prove it. It's the image of a healthy 27-year-old from Dublin hooked up to a drip after losing his battle with the conditions. Ok, so he'd enjoyed a drink or two the night before. And the early local starts to suit the European television audience placed undue strain on players and fans.
Warren, a friend of Kevin Moran's brother Brendan, was 'up in the gods' as he puts it. At kick-off, he wasn't feeling too sharp. "As the half wore on, I was feeling even more unwell," he explains. "There was no cover in the Citrus Bowl, the sun was beating down on us. I felt a tingle down my arm and that was it. I said that I needed to go. I looked for a steward and he brought me down to the stadium paramedics and they hooked me up to a drip. Then, they called for an ambulance. There was a camera crew there when I was getting wheeled onto it.
"Us Irish aren't used to the heat and humidity," he said, in a brief interview, before being whisked off to undergo treatment for dehydration. "I didn't see Aldo's goal." In his attic at home, he's got a newspaper clipping that functioned as the alternative match report under the heading 'Friday's World Cup scorecard.'
It gave the health statistics, and temperatures. 34 degrees in Orlando and 43 degrees on the pitch. Of the 61,219 present, 213 were treated by paramedics (90 per cent for heat-related problems) and eight were brought to hospital. He wasn't alone, at least.
Warren has countless other memories from the trip. As a musician, he'd brought his piano accordion with him and ended up on stage with the Dublin City Ramblers in Fort Lauderdale in the build-up to the Mexico game. Watching McGrath hold off Italy will live with him forever.
But a detour to hospital during a World Cup game wasn't on his bucket list. He was released in the evening and bumped into a group of Irish players the following day. Denis Irwin explained that he'd found the heat impossible, and that was a factor in his sluggishness before Mexico's decisive second goal. Warren never doubted that the excuse was genuine.
If missing a portion of a match is bad, then imagine how it felt arriving in America to be told your tickets didn't exist and your accommodation booking had disappeared. Joe McCarthy from Cork remembers the horror of landing into a hotel lobby in Orlando and quickly realising that something was up.
The plight of 600 or so fans affected by the behaviour of a London company, Sportex, became a sub-plot to the finals. They were primarily from Munster and had paid in advance for their World Cup dreams through travel agents that had bought packages from Sportex who, as it transpired, had gone bankrupt and closed.
It was a nightmare in real time. McCarthy and his pals went to a waffle house to get away from the chaos of a fraught situation and take stock. Remembering a previous experience overseas, he took it upon himself to seek a number for the Irish Embassy, made a call and within 15 to 20 minutes there were plain clothes detectives at their hotel.
Emergency measures were required, but there were no easy solutions. A couple on their honeymoon ended up having to share a room with McCarthy and his friend Michael 'Mogs' Moynihan as a short-term solution. Attempts to track down Sportex head honchos were unsuccessful, and a rep was arrested with news coming through that another Irish group in Boston were caught up in the same mess.
McCarthy and one of the plain-clothes detectives struck common ground talking about a hotel manager who was drawing suspicion. "I didn't like the look of him," he says. "The place was like Fawlty Towers."
Tensions flared. A father of four that had shelled out five grand for a family trip went for one of the Cork travel agents, an innocent party, and was restrained by McCarthy and others.
Sections of the trip were valid, and it emerged that a charter flight from Orlando to Newark for the Italy fixture was legitimate. They just didn't have tickets to get into the match.
Eventually, the shifty hotel manager said a couple of hundred had emerged from an 'anonymous' source and calls were put in to FAI contacts and other avenues to see what could be rustled up. They got to 300 and McCarthy organised a raffle, although a portion of the group, including the furious father, opted to stay behind feeling they couldn't risk any more disappointments. The draw took place in the airport and there were tears and cheers as names were called. McCarthy and Mogs missed out but decided to take their chances at Giants Stadium.
Indeed, the Sportex party stuck together to try and get through the outer barricades, passing tickets back and forth, before eventually doing deals outside the ground to pick up spares. "There was a great atmosphere in our group, even though we all got shafted," McCarthy laughs.
But the joy of the night quickly turned to more despair when the return flight didn't turn up. Kids were forced to sleep on the airport carousel at Newark while a solution was sought.
Their plight made international headlines, albeit from local acorns. 'Irish Examiner' staffer Seán O'Sullivan was in the party, and rounded up the Cork media, with Eddie O'Hare's photo of the forlorn supporters making the front page of 'The Echo' and then spreading from there into a major news story.
Back in Orlando, Brendan O'Carroll dropped into the hotel and donated a few bob. Police officers went out and bought McDonald's for the kids. "We were interviewed by Sky," adds McCarthy. "By hook or by crook, our lads managed to get into all of the games."
His crew made the best of a bad situation. Roy Keane was an acquaintance from home, and the pair drank with his father Mossie in New York before spending three hours with the man himself in Orlando.
All things considered, they came home with a few tales to tell, but their World Cup story didn't officially end for another two-and-a-half years. Fans that pursued legal cases arising from the Sportex debacle eventually received settlements for monies lost at Cork District Court. McCarthy thinks he received around a grand but the detail was insignificant. The adventure itself was unforgettable.
Porridge had no such hassle. He had the connections to comfortably secure tickets for all four games, and even got to spend some time in the company of Taoiseach Albert Reynolds and his press secretary Seán Duignan. The dispatches for Radio Kerry at various hours of the day attracted a following.
His wife was intrigued by a colourful description of a dog walking through New York with a umbrella tied to it by its owner. "You had never seen anything like it," Porridge explained. "I wasn't giving any match updates. What I used to talk about was what had happened the day before, where we went, who we met."
Porridge met a lot of people. A call came through to his hotel from home. It was his local vet, Owen Mangan.
"Johnny, what's the craic like out there?" he asked. "You wouldn't believe it, Owen; get on the next flight."
Owen did just that. There was a bar called Kate Kearney's run by a Kerryman, Mike Riordan, which became a hive of activity. On the night of the Italy victory, Porridge got the bus back into New York and wound up in an establishment that was disappointingly quiet.
His group went out onto the street to hail a cab and head for Kearney's in search of life and were shocked to be greeted by a shout from a passing car.
There was Paudie O'Connor, the basketball legend from Killarney that had relocated to the West Coast of America to make a new career as a golf tour promoter. His highest profile client was Michael Jordan with Paudie (who sadly passed away in Las Vegas two years ago) behind the superstar's 1999 trip to Ballybunion and beyond.
"Will you give us a lift," Porridge shouted. "Sit in," Paudie replied.
And off they went. The trip is a blur of anecdotes. There were card games in Donald Trump's casino, a first-class detour to Daytona Beach on account of overbooked flights to Orlando, overcrowded hotel rooms, ticket trading and fluid travel plans.
He recalls a Sunday morning between the Mexico and Norway games watching coverage of Cork nabbing a late goal to defeat Kerry in the Munster Championship. "There was a better atmosphere in the pub than any Munster final I was ever at," he laughs. It was another planet to Windsor Park.
He did have an exchange with a police officer in the midst of an Orlando singsong following the decisive defeat to the Dutch. Porridge had the flag he'd worn throughout the competition wrapped around his head. The cop was looking for a swap with his Orlando Police Department tunic. Porridge said he'd only consider an exchange for his gun.
Negotiations stalled there, but then the Tricolour was never really available. "It had gone to every game with me," Porridge asserted. "I told him I wouldn't swap this for the world."
The Nation Holds Its Breath
IRELAND can now truly consider themselves among the leading football nations of the world. We can play below our best and still beat Italy and beat them comfortably with a total of arrogance added at the end for good measure.