In a pre-Bertie Ahern version of Public/Private Partnership we had traveled with a group who worked in the Revenue Commissioners, the link being that I worked with one of the group’s brothers (thanks Mike). This guaranteed tickets for the Irish games and also a roof over our heads for the duration of the group games. Having made our way independently to Cagliari we hooked up with the Tax lads after the English game for the next 10 days. Our first port of call together would be a three-hour windy mountainous bus journey to Cala Gonone in Eastern Sardinia (no, I had never heard of it either).
The next match wasn’t for 5 days and after pretty much roughing it for the previous 5 days Cala Gonone was a chance to re-charge the batteries. By re-charge I mean taking on copious amounts of beer and sun. So much so that the bar we frequented frequently ran out of beer (the sun never ran out). To be honest we weren’t drinking that much as it was too bloody hot – it was more that our hosts were completely unprepared for the appetite of the Irish for beer.
The Girl with Three Fingers
Our hosts were a family who showed admirable patience through 5 days of Irish revelry and knew ‘Put ‘em Under Pressure’ word for word by the time we left. One of the few details I recall is that their daughter had only three fingers on one hand (the cause is lost in the mists of time for me). I often wonder if they still speak about those 5 days we spent with them in June 1990 and what ever became of the three-fingered girl.
Calamari and the Flight from Hell
One of the lads, Sash, was a tennis fanatic and he had made some vain attempts to follow in Boris Becker’s footsteps. Sash was also a rugby fanatic and had brought the odd shaped ball with him. I credit him with introducing rugby to Italy and their rise through the rugby ranks. Other than tennis, throwing the odd shaped ball around and some leisurely walking the time was spent chilling with a beer and a book. I had brought ‘Shout! The True Story of the Beatles’ by Philip Norman with me. I had read it already during Euro ’88 and being a superstitious type and an advocate of the “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” code I decided to read it again throughout Italia ’90 in the hope that it would bring similar success. The fact it is a fascinating read also helped.
Now, living on an island, Sardinians liked their seafood (though that logic doesn’t work in the case of Ireland). I discovered calamari and after overcoming some initial doubts it became my order of choice while on the Italian islands. Deep fried calamari and chips – a long way from bacon and cabbage. The only downside was that it did strange things to my insides and the resulting powerful emanations drove my flat mates to refuse to share a room with me. Still can’t figure why.
Fully re-charged, we bid an early morning emotional farewell to our hosts and headed back to Cagliari. We were to fly to Palermo and arrive on the morning of the Egyptian match. The storms that rained down during the English game were still hanging around Cagliari and the plane we were on was of World War II vintage. What followed was two hours of stomach churning and heartfelt prayer. I felt like doing a Pope John Paul II at Dublin airport and kissing the ground on arrival at Palermo. There is still a set of my nail-prints embedded on the armrests of some plane on the islands of Italy.
Il Meglio Per Un Uomo
The match against Egypt was always the banker. Take something from England, beat the Egyptians, take something from the Dutch and we were into the last 16. England had drawn with Holland the night before, leaving them both on 2 points. Beat Egypt and we had one foot in the knock-outs.
However, nobody had told the Egyptians. Ireland do not do ‘favourites tag’ and lacked the belief that they could beat Egypt. The Egyptians parked the bus and Ireland could not shift it. Whereas previously Irish players had played beyond themselves and with a sum greater than the individual parts, this time they barely got out of 2nd gear. Blame it on the weather, the weight of expectation, poor individual performances, the Egyptian tactics…. whatever…. this was Ireland’s Italia ’90 low point. We were later to find out that the media at home had turned on Jack and the team also. Egypt had done an ‘Ireland’ on us.
Our next base was to be Marzamemi in South East Sicily, a four hour journey after the match ensued. The family of the three fingered girl had obviously rung ahead and the bar was generously stocked with Stella Artois. The match against Holland was on June 21st and so we only had three days to match their expectations – it would have been rude not to. I recall little apart from more calamari, some midnight dips in the pool (fully clothed), lots of soccer on TV and an ad for Gillette with the catch-phrase Il Meglio Per Un Uomo which seemed to play every 5 minutes.
The most important game we have ever played, again
We had played Holland in Euro ’88. At that time the Dutch fans were a close second behind the English fans when it came to trouble. I recall heading from Gelsenkirchen to Amsterdam for a few days between the Russian and Dutch games. On the return trip for the Dutch match we had neglected to realise that the train would be crammed with Dutch supporters. We cowered in our carriage waiting for the inevitable moment when the Dutch fans would spot us, tear us limb from limb and perform all sort of unmentionable acts to us before casting us overboard. Instead they gave us Heineken, swapped scarves and taught us their favourite football chant which goes Hop Holland! Hop! – it made We Are The Boys in Green sound like something Dylan had written. We were looking forward to re-acquainting ourselves with The Oranje at Italia ’90.
Bags were packed and goodbyes said to the complex staff. Another 4 hour bus trip to Palermo ensued. The tediousness was punctuated by a distant sight of Mount Etna. With smoke pluming from it, I was glad it was at a distance.
In Palermo the bus threw us out on some barren wasteland which acted as a car park. This is of no consequence except that it resulted in what is my favourite photo from Italia ’90.
We merged with the other Irish and Dutch fans shuffling towards The Stadio Renzo Barbera. Then a crescendo of boos began to emanate from the Irish fans. What the hell was going on? Over to the left we spotted someone familiar. Isn’t that the guy who used to play with Milwall and appears on RTE as a football analyst? In this pre– internet age we had not heard about the “pen hurled across the studio” and “ashamed to be Irish” incident on RTE’s Italia ’90 panel after the Egyptian game and just assumed there must be a lot of Milwall hating fans amongst the crowd.
Niall Quinn I love you!
If the Irish players under performed against the Egyptians they overperformed against the Dutch. Maybe it was a reaction to the feeling that they let themselves down in the Egyptian game. Maybe it was a reaction to the negative comments in the media. Maybe it was the fact that the Dutch actually came to play a game. The 15,000 Irish fans out-sang our Dutch compatriots. The Black Pearl, Ruud Gullit, scoring early brought out the best in us all. The chants were belted out even louder. I recall the gladiatorial Paulus McGrathius bringing a tear of pride to my eye with his imperious performance. Every Irish player found reserves of character previously untapped. When Niall Quinn’s typically Jack Charlton era equaliser came in the 70th minute, the relief, the exultation, the joy, the pride was tangible.
Telepathically, both teams played out the last 15 minutes in the knowledge that with England leading Egypt 1-0, a draw suited both teams. People recall Packie’s save or Dave’s penalty as being the height of Ireland’s Italia ’90. For me it was the capitulation of a truly great Dutch team that night in Palermo, willing to settle for a draw against the Irish. We were certainly at the top table of international soccer.
The top two teams from each of the six groups went through to the last 16 along with the four best third placed teams. We had finished second/third with an identical record to the Dutch. Jack’s luck once again triumphed and with the toss of a lira (OK I actually haven’t a clue how they drew the lots) we were drawn to play Romania in the next round. The alternative was some team called West Germany. If the coin had spun 180 degrees more we would never have seen Frank Rijkaard spit onto Rudi Voller’s hair and the world would be a poorer place?
Are you English in disguise?
That night in Palermo will never be forgotten by anyone who was there. The drink ban had been lifted. The Irish were floating on air. The Dutch were relieved to be through and seemed to hold no fear of the impending match against the West Germans. The two sets of fans mingled with joy unrestrained. I recall two incidents in particular from that night.
We had encountered this guy from Dublin after the Egyptian game. He had this wondrous party piece. He would find a convenient open air high point and break into song:
A couple of thousand fans would join in at that point with a repeated:
A massed choir of Irish fans singing ‘Runaround Sue’ in the middle of a square in Palermo, led by a Dubliner standing on a statue plinth – pure unadulterated joy. The poor guy would be called upon at least once every 30 minutes for an encore and every time I hear ‘Runaround Sue’ it takes me back to that wonderful night in Palermo.
The second memory involves a mate of mine – Daithi, from Lahard Upper, Killorglin. At some point in the night poor Daithi accidentally dropped his glass to the ground. A chant of “Are you English? Are you English? Are you English in disguise? Are you English in disguise?” broke out. It spread across central Palermo. It was as if everyone was waiting for the opportunity to arise. Daithi – wish – ground – open – swallow – up.
- Author: Carl Musgrave