HE timing was certainly right for .
RTÉ’s two-part documentary on Irish football’s golden age landed just as we are set to lean heavily on archive footage for a sporting fix for the foreseeable.
Last Monday focused mainly on Italia ’90. And in these troubling times where we have no clue what the next hour will bring, there was comfort in being able to recall exactly where we were on five different days 30 years ago.
There was no harm either in a reminder that we once coped pretty well for a full month with very little that resembled football to entertain us.
There wasn’t that much analysis of the football, last Monday night. And there were manageable doses of ‘what it meant’. Because let’s face it, no sporting event in history has been more forensically probed for what it meant than Italia ’90.
In England, it baptised legions of converts into the football family with Gazza’s tears. The Germans were powered to glory on winds of change. Some even make the case that a finals debut gave the United Arab Emirates a first taste of the soft power available via football.
And if an oul’ fella plucked out of beach retirement could torment defences for Cameroon, the world’s top clubs figured they could use a few more of these African lads, however naive they were said to be at the back.
The football, meanwhile, was so terrible that the backpass law soon followed, a landmark for which Ireland must take due credit.
Our opener with England was described by Hugh McIlvanney as ‘a shameful insult to the game’.
If you were to get bogged down in pass completion, or shots on target, or actually winning matches, we were no great shakes in 1990. But when you focused on the meaning, we were operating on a higher plane altogether.
By now you can probably sing the refrain as easily as ‘We’re All Part of Jackie’s Army’. We were taking our place among the nations of the earth. We were changing the national mood.
While we were hitting the channels, we were getting Ireland Inc off the ground, the Celtic Tiger was starting to roar. We were having the confidence to stand on the world stage, if not to knock it into feet.
While Packie was launching it, we were growing up as a nation, a process officially completed 17 years later before a rugby match at Croke Park.
And while Big Mick was kicking anything that moved, we were signalling the birth of a new, post-conflict, Irish identity. In milking the granny rule, we were embracing our diaspora.
And as Declan Lynch pointed out on Monday night’s show, for the first time Irish people were borrowing money for frivolous matters such as going to football matches. So Italia ’90 probably carries the can for the credit boom and bust too.
Only later did we notice certain other patterns emerging that we would see a lot of in the decades that followed, such as this tendency to only start playing when we had fallen behind, to not really get going until we were in a bit of trouble.
Maybe we saw a little bit of that early this week too, before we knuckled down, as we blithely stood by and watched our proud raiders head off to Cheltenham.
Interestingly, for all the analysis of what it meant, perhaps the most intriguing cameo of our Italia ‘90 experience has, if anything, been under-explored.
That is, of course, the ‘truce’ we called with the Dutch after Quinny’s equaliser in Palermo.
A ‘biscotto’ they call it, in Italy, where they have some experience of such things: a result that suits everyone.
Or cheating, as they probably call it in Egypt.
For one thing, it says much about our persuasiveness, as a people, that we talked the Dutch into that one. That we convinced them to give up altogether on the prospect of beating us — and to risk an Egyptian equaliser against England dragging all four teams into ‘the drawing of lots’ (must be said in a George Hamilton voice).
On some level we genuinely convinced the Dutch that ‘you’ll never beat the Irish’. And the European champions never truly recovered.
We never showed any remorse about that episode, about conspiring to shaft the Egyptians, themselves enjoying a first World Cup since 1934. And shaft the Scots and Austrians too, who were both waiting on a ‘best third place’ finish.
Lynch, writing in, his tremendous book about those times, admits to certain pangs of guilt.
“It is remarkable indeed, and perhaps a little troubling, just how insensitive we were to the sufferings of the Egyptians. Did they deserve to get knocked out of the World Cup by this sort of blackguardism?”
In, Mick McCarthy, who brokered the truce with Ruud Gullit, offered as close to an apology as the Egyptian people are going to get.
“It seems dreadful now but it seemed like a good idea at the time.”
If we must drill into what it meant, maybe it reflected a certain ‘I’m alright, Jack’ attitude we have always had in our locker, when it comes to right and wrong. ‘I’m alright, Big Jack’, even.
We saw some of that this week in the heroes stripping shelves of a year’s supply of bog roll and pasta.
But of course the real story of Italia ’90 came in the minutes and hours after the next ‘worst football match ever’, the nil-nil win over Romania.
It was a story told by Billo’s silly hat andbeing deferred and being deferred.
It took place across the land, from the Walkinstown Roundabout to the Grand Parade fountain. Its soundtrack was blaring horns out of cars with multiple passengers piled into the boot.
The whole point of Italia ’90 was what we shared in those hours.
If Euro ’88 was the superior football experience, by almost every measure, not everyone was on board for that.
Two years before, Gay Byrne broke news onwith the words: “I have just been handed a piece of paper here which says that Jack Charlton has been appointed manager of Ireland . . . whatever that means.”
By the end of the penos in Genoa, everyone knew what it meant, even those with reservations about the football.
We badly need that Italia ’90 spirit now, albeit with less congregating in fountains. We need everyone on board.
It’s already evident in the shows of camaraderie, the constant wishes to stay well, the offers of help and support to those who will most need it.
It might be harder to communicate community spirit while in self-isolation. It might have to be done on WhatsApp or via hashtag.
But it is now ourselves we need to convince most — that you’ll never beat the Irish.