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Memories of Italia ’90 (Part 4)

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Squeaky Bum Time

With 4 days to spare until our next rendezvous in Rome we decided to take in some of the sights of Northern Italy.  Venice – Tick. Milan – Tick. Monza? Monza proved the low point of our trip. When inter-railing you become quite proficient at navigating your way round. Maps are skilfully mastered. Public transport timetables are decisively interpreted. The camp site recommended in your ‘Let’s Go’ is efficiently located. In Monza we failed all the above. We arrived too late. There seemed to be no public transport operating. We were tired and couldn’t agree on what to do. We ended up sleeping in the entrance to a shopping center. This is something I do not wish to do again.

Lost, episode 20
Lost, episode 20
St. Peter's
Sorry lads ye can’t get into St. Peter’s, as your knees are exposed.

After doing Venice we took the train to Rome and arrived on the 28th, two days before the game. What do a group of good Catholic boys do but visit the Vatican of course. All lovely, only we weren’t aware that you there is a maximum amount of exposed flesh that can be displayed. We were deemed to be over exposed and I still haven’t seen the interior of The Sistine Chapel or St. Peter’s Basilica. No worries. OK, if a Christian can’t get into St. Peter’s surely they will let us into The Colosseum. No luck there either. It was closed for renovations they told us. I must visit Rome some day.

Heavy traffic, sweaty people

Rome is hot. No, I don’t mean the women – though “Ciao Bella” was uttered more than once. It never seemed to get cool in Rome in late June 1990. Polyester jersey’s and shorts are not the most conducive to comfort in 30+ temperatures. Somehow one of my main memories of Rome is sitting on the buses in total discomfort. The seats were of basic plastic sort and exaggerated any perspiration effect. When you managed to peel your sodden body from the plastic seat and got off the bus it was the same as just stepping out of The Trevi Fountain. After three weeks rotating the two sets of clothing you had brought, trying to maintain any degree of cleanliness proved extremely difficult.

The other recollection of Rome is that the Italian drivers did live up to their reputation. Bumpers are used to literally bump other cars out of the way when parking. Rules for scooters riders are:

  1. Red lights are just a suggestion.
  2. Designated scooter lanes are any space wide enough between two cars.
  3. Pavements can be used to drive scooters on.
  4. It is acceptable to swerve into oncoming traffic when overtaking.

Celebrations back home

The number of Irish fans swelled considerably as, seduced by the hysteria in Ireland, previously sane people made the rational decision to spend the money they had been saving for years for their children’s college fees or perhaps that house extension and splash it all on a flight to Rome and a ticket to the game. For the fans already ensconced in Italy, the new recruits brought with them manna from heaven in the form of recent editions of The Irish Press or The Irish Independent. Single copies of these papers would pass between perhaps over 50 fans. If one was put down it was seized upon with “Any chance I can have a look at the paper?” and scoured for news of home. Some were even rescued from bins outside Irish fans’ hotels such was the anxiety to see what was going on at home.  Nell McCafferty had been doing a roving reporter piece for the media back home, I think it was for The Pat Kenny Show, and she would show up sporadically and try to interview fans about their experiences at Italia ’90. More often than not it was Nell who was interviewed about ‘things back home’.

Kick-off for the quarter-final against Italy wasn’t until 9pm. There was a dreaded drink ban in place so the only way you could get a drink was by having a sit down meal. So pizza and pedrotti was consumed heartily before the game. With mounting anticipation we made our way to The Stadio Olimpico. The carabinieri buzzed about above us in their helicopters. It was all a little surreal as if we didn’t really belong here. Little old Ireland playing against the aristocrats of Italy in a World Cup Quarter-Final. Soon we would be woken from our reveries to find that it had all just been a cruel dream.

The Italian job

Brazilians
We tried explaining to these Brazilian fans that Ireland had gone further than their team in the World Cup.

On approach to the stadium we crossed a bridge over the Tiber. Two Irish guys were busking on the bridge but most fans, in their anxiety to get to the game, just walked by them. Three weeks into the trip we had little money to give them anyway. Daithi and I joined one of the security check queues holding onto our precious Category 4 tickets. A group of Irish fans ahead of us turned to us and one of them asked us if we were OK for tickets. “Thanks but we’re sorted.” we replied. “These are Category 1 tickets though,” he said. “How much are ye looking for them?” we countered. “Nothing, they’re spares” he said. “You’re on.” we said. We offered our Category 4 tickets in exchange but they declined. That June evening, on counting their takings, two Irish buskers on a bridge in Rome found two Category 4 tickets to the biggest match the Irish Senior Soccer Team has ever played in their collection cap.

We took our Category 1 seats in plenty time for kick-off. Hey look, there’s Chris De Burgh 10 seats to our left. And isn’t that the Fianna Fáil guy – Noel Dempsey I think his name is? And look there’s some of the U2 guys. And isn’t that that guy who’s always on the telly? Nice seats. Things just kept getting better.

Proud Irishmen

Ireland Teamsheets v Italy - Italia '90
Ronald Whelan doesn’t get into the starting line-up but Raymond Houghton does.

But could we dare to dream? Italy had won their 4 opening games without conceding. They were tournament favourites and playing in their national stadium. We were difficult to beat though. They had to win or lose everything. We had nothing to lose. We even had the blessing of a former goalkeeping priest from Krakow the previous day. We gave it a damn good shot. It’s a pity the goal we conceded was so scrappy. We deserved to be beaten by one of the goals of the tournament. Still, we performed magnificently and we would get a sort of revenge 4 years later.

15,000 Irish fans stayed on after the game as if we had won the match. The over-riding feeling was one of deep pride in the team, in us as fans, in our country. And of course in Jack. That feeling of pride came back to me at the recent friendly against England when Big Jack was introduced to the crowd before the game. For an Englishman to be held in such affection by the citizens of 1990 Ireland is still incredible, given most Irish peoples distaste for the English at the time.

“We want Jack! We want Jack!” Jack came out, folding his comb-over back in place as he had the habit of doing. The team came out. We sang. We laughed. We clapped. We swelled with pride. We wept. We left.

That night after the game was another all-nighter. I recall ending up at 5am, half awake, half asleep, on a row of about 20 steps with 20 other fans. A pile of empty cans and cigarette butts lay scattered around. I always imagined it was at the Trevi Fountain or at very least The Spanish Steps until I looked up on the internet just now. It wasn’t. I must visit Rome.

The aftermath

You may have noticed a paucity of photos at this stage. Two reasons explain this. The first was that while waiting for a train late one evening we had decided on a quick power nap. One of our group, Brendan, woke up to find a piece of cord hanging around his neck. Unfortunately, whereas a camera had previously been attached to either end of the rope, there was now no camera attached. The second reason was much more pressing. I was bloody skint. We had budgeted for three weeks but were already 24 days on the road. What little that was left was for food. Man cannot live on rolls of camera film.

To be honest, I was relieved it was all over. So many inconceivable things had happened in the last 24 days that I wouldn’t have been surprised if we had beaten Italy. But if we had to go out, what a way to go out? Dunphy and Keane would argue that under a better manager we could have gone further. When they achieve 1/10th of what Jack Charlton has a manager I will give some credence to their words.

I was a shell of a man by then. Hardly any money left, clothes going through their 12th re-use, thoroughly exhausted, interminably covered in sweat and longing to experience some of Italia ’90 at home. So on July 1st I took a train to Florence, then one to Cologne and then one to Ostend. From there I took a hydrofoil to the UK (I have no recollection how I managed to pay for this). My sister was working in London at the time and staying with my Aunt Lizzie. Time to drop in unannounced. As I exited Baron’s Court tube station and walked down Lille Road the mile to my aunt’s house I bumped into my sister. Another incredible incident on this incredible journey.

Back to reality but oh the memories

After spending 4 days recharging the batteries under Aunt Lizzie’s TLC and sponging the cost of a flight back to Shannon from my sister I arrived back in Limerick on Sunday July 8th. This happened to be World Cup Final Day. In a last effort to fend off a return to reality I headed straight to The Roundhouse (proprietor Mick Portley mentioned in part 1) to watch the final between West Germany and Argentina. Surely some of the lads would be there? They weren’t. They had already re-embraced reality. I set my rucksack down and took a seat at the end of the bar. I shouldn’t have bothered. In a poor and cynical game, which saw the first ever World Cup Final sending off, Anders Brehme scored an 85th minute penalty to clinch the cup for Germany FR.

Much has been written about the impact Italia ’90 had on the country over the following years. It was as if all the pride of Italia ’90 was bottled and used to buoy Ireland through the next 15 years. It seemed to release a latent energy and belief in our citizens. Demons from out past were exposed and the process of gradually purging them from our national psyche begun. It’s a big step to say Italia ’90 was the spark that started this sea-change but it certainly was a big part in fuelling it.

Con Houlihan wrote “Italia ’90? I missed it…I was in Italy at the time.” Modern Ireland is too cosmopolitan, too spoilt, too self-aware, too over-analytical, too sophisticated and too expectant to ever experience a summer like that of 1990 again. It is all the poorer for that. I for one am glad I experienced Italia ’90 in Italy.

  •  Author: Carl Musgrave
Published inblogfeatureItalia '90

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