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Memories of Italia ’90 (Part 1)



To loosely paraphrase Lennon and McCarthy “It was 25 years ago today that Big Jack taught the team to play”. OK, he actually took over from Eoin Hand in 1986 and of course he had already brought us to Euro ’88. And ‘play’ is used in the broadest possible sense of the word but it was at Italia ‘90, 25 years ago this June, that we took our place amongst the great football nations of the world. Finishing in the top 8 of the world was and still is the pinnacle of achievement for the Irish national team.

Firstly, a little context. In 1990 there were no mobile phones. In 1990 there was no internet. In 1990 there was no euro. In 1990 there were no cheap Ryanair flights. In 1990 there was no Sky Sports. In 1990 there were no digital cameras. In 1990 unemployment was running at 14%. Economically, socially and politically the country was on its knees after the hair-shirt politics of the ‘80s. It seems a lot longer than 25 years ago.

‘Put ‘em Under Pressure’ had hit number one in the Irish charts when Ireland played their first game and would stay there for a further 11 weeks. New Order and John Barnes’ ‘World in Motion’ was number 1 in England but our song was better. The previous two Irish number ones were also football related (listen to them all here), ‘The Game’ by The Memories and ‘Give it a Lash Jack’ by Liam Harrison & The Goal Celebrities. Even the world’s most famous tenor, Luciano Pavarotti, got in on the act with Nessun Dorma.

Penney’s was full of football themed t-shirts, scarves, hats and boxers (I still wear have mine). Jacobs Biscuits were giving away inflatable “Shaking Shamrocks” and they were the de-rigueur accessory for any self-respecting Irish fan. Kellogg’s cereals had little profile cards of the squad players in amongst your Rice Krispies. Every kid in the country was collecting their Italia ’90 World Cup Stickers. The country was football convulsed and the tournament hadn’t even started. Surely the real thing would be a complete let-down? Well it wasn’t, and boy did it exceed all expectations. I happened to have been lucky to follow the team to Italy and here are a few of my more unusual memories from Italia ’90.


Who the f**k are Glin Rovers?

Glin Rovers
Who the f**k are Glin Rovers?

A gang of us from college (NIHE Limerick, Electronic Engineering Class of 1987) had travelled to Germany ’88. After that Italia ‘90 could only be an anti-climax. But we dared not take the chance. It was decided in The Roundhouse on November 19th 1989 in the exuberance of a 2-0 win over Malta, which confirmed our qualification for the finals, that we would arise and follow Jack the next summer. The holidays from work (“I’ll probably be gone about 2 weeks”) were booked. The travellers cheques (ask your parents) were bought. The Inter-Rail tickets were bought. The football t-shirts, shorts and flags etc. were bought. The tent and sleeping bag was checked out. The match tickets were acquired. Now where the hell exactly Cagliari?

At this time banners carrying various messages had become familiar sightings at Irish matches. We all wondered who “Davy Keogh says Hello” alluded to. Stands and advertising hoardings were being festooned with previously never heard pubs names e.g. The Thatch on Tour, Mikey’s on Tour….great free advertising. So we decided that we should follow suit. We weren’t going to advertise The Roundhouse though (we had already given proprietor Mick Portley enough of our money over the previous 6 years). No, we were going to pick some obscure local club whose name would spread like wildfire across the world (again note this was pre-internet). Who better than my hometown club, Glin Rovers? Perhaps some 1990 Roman Abramovich’s interest would be piqued, Glin Rovers would become his latest toy and they would be playing in the European Cup within 5 seasons? An Irish flag and a black permanent marker was procured and the deed done. The flag was lovingly presented across various Italian stadiums but I’m not sure if anyone ever noticed. Roman certainly never made any inquiries.


We’re up all night to get lucky

Irish Fans on the Ferry Singing
The two lads on the right were Finnish, we were just finished

I’ve always hated travelling on boats. After Rosslare to Cherbourg in 1988 (a tale for another day) I was taking no chances. This time I was going to travel in style and book a cabin, dose myself in dramamine and spend the 18 or so hours ensconced in my bed and arrive in Cherbourg refreshed for the invasion of Italy. Unfortunately, the dramamine was left unused and the bed was left unruffled. I’m not sure if it’s still the case but at the time alcohol served on the ferry was tax free and sure how could you not take advantage of some tax avoidance measures? Imagine the afters of the best wedding you’ve ever been at, the best sing-song, practically free beer, a camaraderie that comes from a common purpose and experience – then multiply it by 10. Then make it last 18 hours. 500+ fans of all shapes and sizes, dressed in the most hideously ridiculous attire, totally off their heads, singing ‘Put ‘em Under Pressure’ at the top of their voices. Nessun Dorma, how right you are Luciano? This is heaven, this is hell Who cares? Who can tell? (Anyone for an unused pack of Dramamine?)


When in Paris

Eating Strawberries in Paris
Pass the fraises Brendan


On to Paris and a bit of culture. Being Irish we had a contact there who had “offered” to put us up for a night. Niall brought us to some Irish pub that night but after paying the equivalent of 50c for a pint on the ferry we were not going to get screwed by paying 10 times that now in some poncey Parisian bar. So wine was a cheaper alternative, I forgot to mention earlier that in 1990’s Ireland wine was only something that Charlie Haughey and his ilk drank, and so copious amounts of wine were imbibed. Breakfast at Niall’s the following morning consisted of strawberries and fresh crusty French bread. The height of decadence for a boy reared on toast and corn flakes. I can still taste that breakfast on my tongue, surely this is heaven?


Genoa what I mean, like?

Uncomforable Sleeping
Uncomfortable Sleeping Positions: No. 135
Irish Fans in Genoa
Disembarking and untangling in Genoa

An overnight train to Genoa and with ferry tickets to Cagliari were secured so we set off for some cultured sight-seeing around Genoa. Now, Genoa is not what you would exactly call flat. And the temperature was in the high 20’s. So the sight-seeing was short lived. It also looked like half the Irish fans had the same idea as us and were bound for the same ferry. Much more sensible to stay indoors out of the hot sun in case we got sunstroke. Now where could we go? Ah, is that a lovely air-conditioned Italian bar I see? Oh and there are some Irish fans inside already so it must be good. The sightseeing could wait for another day. Little did we know that “another day” would come in 15 days time.

How we conquered Italy

Irish Fans and Carabinieri
Now everyone say “formaggio”


Much of the talk in the media before we had left Ireland was all about the match versus England and the incendiary relationship between the two sets of fans – The Christians vs The Hooligans. We had been to Germany with the English and pretty much knew this was overblown rubbish. The vast, vast majority of the English fans were fine, a little cocky perhaps but then the Irish love being the underdog so let them off. The Italian authorities did not know this however and were taking no chances. So no alcohol and a fan-to-carabinieri ratio of what looked like 1 to 1 ensued. And these guys were no home village Garda types. Toting berettas and looking like they would not hesitate to use them we wondered what the Italian for “Yes Sir!” was in Italian.  But the Irish had something more powerful, homespun charm! A quick gesture to my camera and some “You? Me? Photo?” finger pointing and we had overcome them. They never stood a chance.


The kick of life

Irish Team v England 1990 World Cup
What? No Whelan?



This is not a match report but suffice it to say that this was a typically dour England v Ireland affair. The gods were certainly not pleased as the heavens opened. A 7th minute sloppy early Linekar goal kept us on tenterhooks until the 83rd minute. But a route-1 kick-out from Packie (check out the pre-kick grimace), Steve McMahon eschewing the chance to clear, ball falling nicely for Kevin Sheedy and leading to what Con Houlihan called Kevin Sheedy’s “kick of life”. Time for “You’ll Never Beat the Irish”. We needed something from the game and we had gotten it. Drenched, tired, alcohol deprived – but happy.





  • Author: Carl Musgrave
Published inblogfeatureItalia '90

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