A thank you for the days

NOTWITHSTANDING the one about the risen Lord, it is perhaps the greatest story ever told.

I refer to the strange and terrible saga of the Dublin man who was down in the pub preparing for the shoot-out against Romania in Italia 90 when the call came through from a neighbour that his wife had gone into labour at home.

What was a poor boy to do? Kevin didn’t have to think twice. “Tell her I’ll be up when the penos are over,” he said.

Once he’d seen Packie and Dave do the business, our exultant hero wasted no time in racing home to find that his wife was by now in the advanced stages of labour. By the time he’d helped her into the car and begun the drive to the maternity hospital, the streets of Dublin were full of riotous celebration, people embracing complete strangers, clambering up on statues, dancing in and out of the traffic, draping cars in tricolours.

“Where would you get it, eh?” beamed Kevin, taking in the unprecedented scenes of Mardi Gras while his wife, by now weeping with agony in the back seat, rolled down the window and attempted to gulp in some fresh air between contractions.

In O’Connell Street, where the madness was at its height and the car was reduced to a slow crawl, a sympathetic reveller spotted the woman in distress in the back. And, sticking his big, beery head through the open window, he offered her these heartfelt words of consolation: “You’re alright there missus, sure didn’t I shed a few tears meself.”

Where would you get it indeed? Well, for more where that came from and a lot more besides, I warmly refer you to Days Of Heaven – Italia ’90 And The Charlton Years (Gill and Macmillan), a new book by Declan Lynch.

At this point, I should, as they say, declare an interest. Declan is an old friend and colleague but, fortunately, as his many fans will attest, he is also a wonderfully gifted and very funny writer, which means that I’ve never been put in the embarrassing position of having to feign enthusiasm for his work. Indeed, I can even recommend his latest book despite lowering its tone by making a few appearances in it myself, one of which recounts the tale of how your correspondent once found himself running through Newbridge at three in the morning in his socks, carrying his shoes in a biscuit tin.

Astonishingly, there was no drink taken at the time. You would be entitled to expect that such a midnight run would be booze-fuelled but because, back in the era covered by Declan in his book, the whole island seemed perpetually afloat on a vast sea of gargle.

So, even though this has Packie Bonner’s great leap into immortality on the cover, you should correctly surmise by now that the book is about much more than football, if indeed it is ever really about football at all.

Of course, all those indelible moments from between the white lines in Italia 90 are present and correct, as they would have to be — Sheedy’s sweet strike, Quinny’s long leg, Packie’s save, Dave’s peno — and they are all put in the proper historical context of an impoverished football nation which, up until the seismic breakthrough year of 1988, had only horrible, heartbreaking stories of despicable refereeing decisions to show for its occasionally heroic endeavours on the international field of play.

But if all that changed under Jack, so too did the manner in which we finally set about achieving success, Lynch persuasively arguing that Charlton’s gameplan appeared to owe as much to gaelic as to association football, what with its dependence on high, lobbing balls effectively making a playmaker out of the only player on the pitch who was legally allowed to use his hands.

At the time, Eamon Dunphy was perhaps the only man in the country who found this version of compromise rules football a tad controversial, or at least the only man brave or foolish enough to say so on live television, throwing down his pen in disgust after the excruciating 0-0 draw with Egypt. The Dunph duly paid for this by being accused of treason and having his car surrounded by outraged citizens at Dublin airport.

As a football man, Dunphy, of course, was in the right. But he was also, at the same time, entirely in the wrong because, to repeat, Italia 90 was only almost peripherally about football. What it really was about, was a whole country taking leave of its senses for a month-long holiday in the kind of good times it had never experienced before, young and old and men and women and football vets and rookies alike, all united in the sheer infectious joy of the greatest show on earth.

Lynch understands the true dimensions of the story which is why, as well as the likes of Jack Charlton and Liam Brady and Paul McGrath, Days of Heaven can seamlessly accommodate such diverse personalities as U2, Shane McGowan, Charlie Haughey, Mary Robinson, Dermot Morgan, Colm Toibin and Fr Michael Cleary.

Even now, just recalling the glorious madness of those years can still bring a sloppy grin to the face followed quickly, like a devastating hangover, by the depressing realisation that the dastardly Henry has done out us out of a chance to resurrect it all this summer.

But of course, there could never be another first time, which is why the days of heaven of Euro 88 and Italia 90 will forever retain their lustre. And as Lynch points out, at least the Hand of Gaul has left us with something precious to get us through the days of hell: the ecstasy of victimhood.

Yes, whatever about the football, we’ve always been world-beaters at that.

- liammackey@hotmail.com

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