Through The Mists Of Time…The Irish Italia ’90 Odyssey

There are swathes of people reading this article who will have no idea how big a deal it was for Ireland to qualify for Italia ’90….

  • England fans who expect to be at every World Cup. Admit it, you do.
  • Younger Ireland fans who are ‘accustomed’ to seeing the Irish at major tournaments. Listen to your Da…it wasn’t always this way.
  • Non-football fans who don’t care one way or the other (whom I would encourage to visit this website:

However to a core group of Irish people, lucky enough to have been around (and old enough to understand the enormity of the situation), the summer of 1990 was an event that transcended anything since the formation of the state, and anything that has happened since.

Yes, even bigger than Riverdance…

Hyperbolé? It would be easy to dismiss that statement as just that, but I beg to differ. The socioeconomic situation in Ireland up to that summer was a bleak, depressed story of recession and struggle for generations of Irish men and women. The 1980’s in particular had seen the country suffer a long, crippling recession, with hundreds of thousands of its young people leaving its shores in search of work, hope and a future. They even made a movie about it…

The Commitments
An Irish Graduation Ball in 1986. All dressed up and nowhere to go…

The fate of the Irish football team had seemed to mirror that of the country’s economy in the years leading up to the Jack Charlton era, with disallowed goals, play-off defeats and hard-luck stories in abundance. However after the appointment of the genial Geordie, the fortunes of the Irish football team improved, leading to qualification for Euro ’88 in West Germany (that was an actual country at the time kids, look it up). As glorious as that summer was, it was ‘just’ a European Championships. The World Cup remained the holy grail…

Indiana Jones World Cup

The qualification process for the 1990 World Cup pitted Ireland against the football behemoth that is Spain, as well as the Magyars of Hungary, near-neighbours Northern Ireland and the customary whipping boys of Malta. The ‘style’ of play preferred by Charlton was by now ingrained into the Irish players, and can be summed up as being an early version of the Klopp ‘gegenpressing’, without the need, nor desire, to actually pass the ball around that much. Ireland defended from the front, hurrying and hassling the opposition when they had the ball, and then wasting no time in putting the ball into dangerous areas (and as far away from the Irish goal as possible) whenever Ireland had possession. It may seem crude, but it was extremely effective as the qualifying table for Italia 90 shows:

Italia 90 Qualifying Table

Look at that ‘Goals Against’ column. Just the TWO goals conceded in the whole qualifying process, and both of those came in the teams only defeat, away to Spain. Startlingly, the qualification process had actually started poorly for Ireland as they picked up just two points from their first three matches away to Spain, Hungary and Northern Ireland. What followed was a run of victories at Landsdowne Road that swept the nation into near-euphoria.

Father Ted Careful Now
Not everybody felt that this was a good thing…

The magical spell began with a 1-0 victory at home to Spain on a gloriously sunny late April afternoon in Dublin (Landsdowne Road didn’t have floodlights, so all home matches were played in the afternoon, typically on a Wednesday – which still remains the most popular day for ‘work absenteeism’ according to the Central Statistics Office).

Michel Goal
Ireland’s Biggest Hospital…

The Landsdowne Road pitch was shared with the Irish rugby team, and wouldn’t have been considered the most ‘pristine’ of surfaces, much to Jack Charlton’s satisfaction. To put it bluntly, the Spaniards didn’t fancy it, on a dry bumpy rutted pitch in front of 40,000 passionate Irish fans cheering their heroes on. An own goal by Michel from a Ronnie Whelan cross-shot proved to be decisive.

Home wins over Hungary, Northern Ireland and Malta all followed, meaning a victory away to Malta in their final qualifier would ensure Ireland’s first ever qualification for a World Cup. The stories about the fans’ sojurn to Valetta have gone down in history as Irish football fans begged, borrowed and stole to ensure they were on the small Mediterranean island to witness this historic moment. There are now-legendary tales of men heading off to ‘work’ with their packed lunch, lovingly prepared by their better halves, and returning three days later after ‘neglecting’ to mention that they were heading to Malta that day. In fact Dublin Airport was fog-bound for two days prior to the game and the fog only lifted just in time to allow the legions of Irish fans to travel.

St Brendan
Right lads, pray in this order: 1. We win. 2. We get there. 3. Our wives don’t kill us if we get home.

Another little footnote to that historic game involved John Aldridge, the predatory Liverpool marksman who had yet to register a goal for Ireland in  19 previous competitive appearances, an incredible fact considering how lethal he had been in his club career up to that point. He picked this day, of all days, to finally break his duck, scoring both in a comfortable 2-0 win to send Ireland to their first ever World Cup.

John Aldridge
Calm down John, it’s only Malta…

So the qualification mission was complete. Next was the little matter of Italia ’90 and Ireland’s first ever appearance on the world stage….

To say that the build-up to the tournament consumed the nation would be an understatement. Everywhere you looked, everywhere you went and everything you saw and heard was about ‘Italia 90’ and ‘The Boys In Green’. You could collect coins, each with a players head on them, at petrol stations. The music charts were dominated by one of the (in my opinion) finer football songs of all time – ‘Put ’em under pressure’ was produced by U2’s Larry Mullen and there isn’t an Irish person over the age of 30 today that doesn’t know the words. Seriously, find one and ask them…we ALL know it by heart.  In fact, if you’ve ever wondered why an Irish crowd, anywhere in the world, even to this day, erupts into chants of ‘Olé, Olé, Olé’, this song is the reason why. Personally I’m stunned we didn’t have a referendum to change the constitution and make it our national anthem at the time.

Mass In Ireland
Even Fr. O’Flaherty replaced ‘Our Lords Prayer’ with ‘Put ’em under pressure’…

You must remember that in 1990 the ‘Republic of Ireland’ as a nation was at most 68 years old (The ‘Irish Free State’ was founded in 1922, ‘Ireland’ as a nation was founded in 1939 and the ‘Republic of Ireland’, finally cut off from the Commonwealth was only established in 1949). This small country on the periphery of the European continent was, in historical terms, still a fledgling nation, eager to step out of the shadow of our nearest neighbour and to proclaim to the world that we were a people and a nation in our own right. This World Cup, the pinnacle of ‘The Worlds Game’, was the most glaringly obvious opportunity for a nation to stand up and introduce itself to the world…and by God did Ireland do just that.

World Map

Heading into the tournament, the Irish squad picked itself, given that you were only allowed 22 players. Just the two goalkeepers were allowed, but Ireland, ever the cute hoor, really had three with young Niall Quinn in the squad, who was only marginally a better striker than he was a goalkeeper. In fact Quinn famously supplemented his Manchester City wage by taking on players in training in a ‘Penalty Challenge’, where he would save countless penalties and pocket the loot. ‘Mother Teresa’ my arse. The only drama surrounding the squad came when Jack made a very late decision to drop Gary Waddock, a loyal servant to the Irish squad, and replace him with young Alan McLoughlin of Swindon Town. In fairness McLoughlin turned out to be a national hero…four years later (but that’s another article). Just look at the quality in this squad though….

Ireland Squad.PNG

Steve Staunton was only knee-high to Mick McCarthy. Mick McCarthy was the natural leader, warrior and all-round gruff Yorkshireman. Ronnie Whelan…Paul McGrath…Ray Houghton…John Aldridge…Kevin Sheedy…Niall Quinn…Jesus wept, how did we not win the whole damn thing?

Ireland went ‘Back To The Future’ for Italia ’90. Confused? Don’t be. In a four-team group, they were drawn alongside the same teams as they had been two summers previously in England and Holland, and this time they swapped Egypt for Russia, or the USSR, or whatever they were called back then. I swear FIFA were taking the mickey ensuring Ireland kept drawing England in major tournaments, especially with English World Cup Winner Jack Charlton at the helm of the Irish team. Hilarious FIFA, bloody hilarious.

Back To The Future.jpg

As with two years previously, England and Ireland met each other in their opening game of the tournament. Once more the Irish fans travelled in their droves to support their team. Credit Unions the length and breadth of the country were suddenly faced with thousands of loan requests for ‘home improvements’. Amazingly the building trade never did experience a boom…at least not for another 10 years…

For those of us who remained on the island of Ireland, this wasn’t an event that could be watched from the comfort of your own couch. This was an event that had captured the nations hearts like no other, and we were all in this together. From Donegal to Dingle, the people of Ireland gathered in public places to watch the events unfold. Pubs and clubs invested in the biggest TV’s they could afford. The RDS arena in Dublin was set up to cater for 7,000 fans to watch the game together. This was new, this was unique, and to be quite honest this was the first time I’d ever experienced public hysteria before. Basically it was similar to what happened in England when Princess Diana passed away…but way more craic, obviously.

Ireland Fans in Pub
A pub in Ireland four hours before kick-off….

Finally it was time for the talking to stop and for the football to begin. Ireland met England on a hot, stormy night in Cagliari, and things did not start well. England, hell bent on revenge for Stuttgart in 1988 came out of the blocks quickly. Ireland made the fatal mistake of not playing to the whistle, as they believed the ball had gone out of play on the right wing. Chris Waddle played on and put Gary Lineker through on goal to put England ahead in just the 8th minute. What followed was a typically tense, gritty affair, lacking in any real quality, and for a long, long, LONG time I had the horrible feeling that Ireland were going to lose to their biggest rival, their greatest enemy, on their debut on the biggest stage of them all. You have no idea how gut-wrenching that feeling is, particularly when you’re staring it in the face for over an hour, until….

Kevin Sheedy. Two words that are guaranteed to make an Irish person smile from ear to ear. You don’t need to mention dates, times, venues, teams…just his name will do it. He robbed Steve McMahon 30 yards from goal in the 72 minute, advanced a few yards and unleashed a sweet daisy-cutting left foot exorcet into the corner of Peter Shilton’s net to draw Ireland level. It’s reported that the wave of relief in Ireland washed up in Boston the following day. It’s a particularly memorable moment for me as a fellow Irish fan spilled a full pint of Guinness down my back as the ball hit the back of the net. It may be a cliché but it’s 100% true and it was 100% worth it.

Kevin Sheedy Celebrating

So our first game on the world stage was done and dusted and we had done ourselves proud. The bandwagon moved onto our second game v Egypt just a few days later in Palermo. The most memorable thing about this game actually happened in Dublin, in the studios of RTE, when Eamon Dunphy, the Irish version of Gary Neville (ish), threw his pen in a fit of pique and proclaimed that it was an Irish performance of which he was ashamed.Not like Eamon Dunphy to overreact or make statements which he may later retract (the same man proclaimed a certain Cristiano Ronaldo to be a fraud. He’s like Alan Hanson on acid, for those of you who’ve never seen him).

The final group game was v Holland, again in Palermo, and the stakes couldn’t have been higher. Every team in the group was level. Same number of points, goals scored, goals against. Stalemate. No margin for error. Everything to lose, but also everything to gain. The only problem for Ireland is that they were playing the reigning European Champions and one of the favourites for the tournament itself. Van Basten/Gullit/Rijkard v Moran/McCarthy/Morris. Pffft, no problem…apart from the fact that Gullit put the Dutch ahead in the 11th minute.

Once more Ireland faced an uphill battle to keep their World Cup dream alive. Once more they were up to the task. Packie Bonner launched a goal-kick deep into the Dutch half (I know, weird, right?). Van Aerle attempted a volleyed cushioned back-pass to his goalkeeper (this was in the days when goalkeepers were allowed pick them up too), but only manged to put in quite a decent effort on goal for the Irish team. Van Bruykelen saved, but spilled it and there was the Mighty Niall Quinn sliding in on the rebound to smash the ball home and keep Ireland in the World Cup. While I avoided a pint of Guinness being poured over me this time, I recall being lifted high into the air in the ensuing pandemonium. We were back in it…and then the news came through…

England were beating Egypt in the group’s other game, thanks to a Mark Wright header. As things stood, England topped the group while Ireland and Holland were dead-level in every respect. Points, Goal Difference, Goals Scored and Goals Conceded. Soon after the Irish equaliser the ball went out of play and Mick McCarthy had a quick chat to Ruud Gullit. The mind boggles how either understood the other, but the message got through, and what followed ensured that FIFA altered the points system in group games forever. Ireland and Holland stopped playing. That’s not an exaggeration or a euphemism, they ACTUALLY stopped playing. Both sides knocked it about among themselves, nobody tried to tackle and the referee actually tried to lecture both teams to get on with it. ALL THE LOLZ.

And that was that. The Group had ended, but both Ireland and Holland would qualify…either as a 2nd place finisher, or one of the best 3rd placed teams. The big question is who would be 2nd and who would be 3rd? Well, FIFA decided to just draw names out of a hat to decide. The 2nd place team would face Romania while the 3rd placed team had a nice easy last 16 tie with West Germany…Cue the luck of the Irish as we were drawn to face Romania in Genoa.

World Cup Group Table

So the ‘Boys In Green’ steadied themselves once more for a last-16 encounter with, well, Georghe Hagi and some friends, to be honest. While Romania were in all honesty a one-man team, what a man he was. However the Irish defence had got them to Italy in the first place, and had conceded just two goals to England and Holland, so they were prepared for the challenge. On a roasting hot day in Genoa both teams huffed and puffed but eventually fizzled out in the wilting heat, and the game finished goalless after 120 long, excrutiating minutes. Onto the lottery of penalty kicks, with all the focus on the goalkeepers: Bonner for Ireland and Lung for Romania.

The standard of penalty taking was high on the day, as Ireland scored their first four through Sheedy, Houghton, Townsend and Cascarino, who had the sneaky plan of slamming both the ball AND the penalty spot at the Romanian goal to put off their keeper. It worked. The scuffiest scuffed scuffer of all time scuffed its way into the net and Ireland led 4-3 as Daniel Timofte strode forward for Romania….

Packie Bonner in the Irish goal had gotten close to a couple of the Romanian efforts, but had no luck thus far. That all changed as he pounced to his right to claw away Timoftei’s effort and suddenly the Republic of Ireland were one kick away from the quarter finals of the World Cup. THE QUARTER FINALS!!!!!!!!!!

By the way, if you’re not religious, just consider Packie Bonner. The man blessed himself more often than the Pope with Parkinsons, and he had a small bottle of ‘holy water’ in his kitbag in the back of the net. No, that’s not a joke, he really did. Food for thought…

3.5 million Irish eyes turned to the centre-circle to see who was entrusted with without doubt the most important kick of a football in the history of the country. No pressure….

7 million eyebrows were immediately raised as David O’Leary marched forward, ball in hand, to take the vital kick. This was an incredible development for two reasons:

  1. David O’Leary and Jack Charlton had a ‘strained’ relationship, to put it mildly, yet here he was, entrusted with the most important kick of Charlton’s managerial career
  2. David O’Leary doesn’t take penalties. EVER. This was his first one in professional football.

I don’t mind admitting to having an immediate and total nervous breakdown at that moment. My mind couldn’t cope with what my eyes were seeing. I suspect the majority of the country were the same. Then….silence….

There are moments of sporting commentary that stay with you forever. ‘They Think It’s All Over’, ‘Agueerrrooooooooooo’, ‘Michael Thomas….It’s up for grabs now’…..Well, if you’re not Irish you may have not seen what I feel is arguably the greatest piece of sports commentary in the history of the world ever. Step forward Mr. George Hamilton of RTE.

‘The Nation Holds It’s Breath…YES, WE’RE THERE!’

Cue delerium…pandemonium…ecstasy…The nation erupted in unbridled joy. Every street in the country was filled with celebrating fans. My father drove us into Cork City centre to sample the atmosphere, which he may have immediately regretted as THOUSANDS were on the streets, dancing on moving cars, jumping in fountains and generally LOSING THEIR MINDS….I loved it.

Millions On The Street
The queue for the bar was horrific….

And so the country tried it’s best to gather itself for yet another match at this World Cup. Deep down we all knew it wasn’t meant to be like this. We got knocked out of the 1988 European Championships in the Group Stages yet the team returned as heroes and legends. We all assumed that something similar was likely in this world cup, yet here we were, in the top eight sides in the world, about to take on the host nation in their own backyard…and we fancied it….sure didn’t we have the backing of the Pope himself…

Pope Meets Jack
‘I used to be handy in goal, you know…’

The Olympic Stadium in Rome, the venue for the final, was the stage for Italy v Ireland. The top marksman at the World Cup was a gentleman by the name of Salvatore ‘Toto’ Schillachi, who had come from nowhere to become the hottest striker on the planet. Having only made his senior Italian debut in March of 1990, he came on as a sub in their first group game, scored the winner, and the rest is history. He was a clinical finisher, a real footballing assassin.

Schillachi Chris Morris

Italy also had ‘The Divine Ponytail’ Roberto Baggio, then regarded as the heir to Maradona’s throne as the world’s finest footballer, and he had lived up to expectations so far, steering his side into the quarter-finals with the minimum of fuss. The final major obstacle for the Irish team to consider was Italy’s 12th man….The Referee….

Now this may sound like sour grapes, and maybe it is, but on the night the Irish didn’t get one decision. Nada. Nowt. Yet Andy Townsend placed Baggio securely in his pocket all night long, Mick McCarthy kept a close eye on Schillachi and Ireland put in one hell of a shift, deserving of at least extra-time. All of the above is true except for one solitary moment….

Roberto Baggio rampaged through the midfield, the ball found its way to Roberto Donadoni, who unleashed a venomous drive, but Bonner had it covered and got two strong hands to the ball. Unfortunately in parrying the shot, he parried it back out into the area and then proceeded to stumble to the side of the goal, leaving a yawning chasm for Schillachi to slide the ball into on the rebound. He didn’t need a second invitation.

Ireland were by no means outclassed on the night, but this time they couldn’t find an equaliser, and when the final whistle blew, the dream was over. While there was a tangible sense of disappointment at the defeat, there was a far bigger sense of pride that swept over the nation that evening. Ireland had arrived on the world stage, and had made a major impact. Two of their four opponents in Italia ’90 got to the semi-finals (England & Italy), and they also had to face the reigning European Champions, so to play five games and lose just one was a phenomenal achievement for a nation of just over 3 million people in their first ever World Cup.

The Irish team arrived back to a heroes welcome where an estimated 500,000 people rammed Dublin City Centre to acclaim their heroes. That may not sound like a lot of people, but it was comfortably 1 in every 7 Irish citizens at the time…

Ireland Homecoming
I’m the fella 345,762nd from the left…

So there you have it, the story of Ireland in Italia ’90. It remains the pinnacle of Irish footballing achievement to this day, and a glance back through the squad reveals a plethora of squad members who have gone onto management…with varying degrees of success: McCarthy, O’Leary, Hughton, Staunton *shudder*.

It’s ironic that the Irish ‘World Cup Song’ for the 1990 team has done exactly what it says on the tin for future Irish teams…they have indeed ‘Put ’em under pressure’.



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