WHEN he turned 55 last May, the jolting realisation struck Packie Bonner that he was now the same age Jack Charlton was when the manager took Ireland to their first ever World Cup finals in 1990. “And I used to think he was old then,” Packie smiles.
With the passage of time also marked by a related milestone in 2015 – the 25th anniversary of Italia ’90 itself – Ireland’s legendary goalkeeper finally allowed himself to be persuaded to commit his memoirs to print.
The engaging result is his autobiography, ‘The Last Line’, a revealing account of his life in football’s top-flight with Ireland and Celtic but a deeply personal story too in which his roots in his beloved Donegal are never far from the surface.
For the purposes of this interview conducted recently in Dublin, however, we narrowed the focus to his memories of the big tournaments in which he played a central role for Ireland, first as goalkeeper and later as goalkeeping coach: from Euro ’88 through Italia ‘90 and US ’94 to Japan and Korea in 2002 – via, inevitably, Saipan.
And with the Euro finals in France next summer now beckoning for another generation of boys in green, he offers his assessment of the state of readiness of Martin O’Neill’s team as we roll into a new year full of hope and promise for Irish football.
On June 12, 1988, the Neckarstadion in Stuttgart was the feverish setting for Ireland’s long awaited debut in the finals of European Championship.
Facing them were England and, at the far end of the pitch from Packie Bonner, the renowned Peter Shilton, a goalkeeper the Donegal man had actually come up against in very different circumstances many years before when, as a raw 17-year-old, he’d been invited to play for Finn Harps in a pre-season friendly against Stoke City in Ballybofey.
“He was a big hero of mine because we got ITV and BBC at the time, and so we had ‘Match of the Day’ and ‘The Big Match’,” Packie recalls.
“I was a Spurs supporter as a boy because of Pat Jennings, and the other two big ones for me were Shilton and Ray Clemence. And I was so lucky in my career because I got to play against all three.
“Obviously Shilton didn’t know me when I played against him for Harps – I just remember shaking hands with him after the game – so to go from that, in the space of ten or eleven years, to playing against him in the European Championships - and later in his testimonial - was amazing for me.”
The great day in Stuttgart dawned bright and full of optimism for Ireland’s Number One.
“There were days you woke up and you just felt on top of the world,” he reflects with a smile.
“If this makes any sense: I remember one night before a game for Celtic, my wife made me macaroni and cheese. And the next day I just had one of those games – a ‘worldie’.
“But when I came home Ann said to me, ‘You know that cheese was mouldy’. And all I could think was, ‘can I have mouldy cheese every week (laughs).”
Well, no, Packie Bonner didn’t partake of mouldy cheese the night before the game in Stuttgart but he did go on to have another worldie the following day, defying everything England – and in particular Gary Lineker – could throw at him in the course of enjoying what he has absolutely no hesitation in calling “my best ever game” for Ireland.
“My eye was in that day,” he says.
“What I mean by that is that you stick out a hand – you don’t know why, you just do it - and the ball hits you.
“You stick out your knee and the ball hits it.
“You take up a position and the ball is hit straight at you.
“All the things you do, when the pressure is on and it’s full-blooded, is almost automatic.”
Ray Houghton grabbed the headlines with his headed winner but Bonner was by some distance the man of the match, as Ireland got their tournament off to the perfect start with a 1-0 win before moving onto Hanover and sharing a 1-1 draw with the Soviet Union,a game fondly remembered for a terrific team display crowned by Ronnie Whelan’s celebrated goal.
Brimming with confidence, the squad were preparing for their final group fixture – against eventual champions the Netherlands – when seeming disaster struck for the goalkeeper.
“My back went two nights before,” says Packie, grimacing at the memory. “I went into the bathroom to wash my hands, bent over the sink – and my back went into spasm. It was a recurring problem I had at that stage. My back would almost freeze. The result was that I couldn’t train in the run-up to the match against the Dutch.
“On the morning of the game I had fitness test, and when I tried to bend over – and I have long arms – I literally couldn’t get them past my knees.
“I knew then I wouldn’t be able to play so, at that stage, (physio) Mick Byrne, who’d been working on me for a couple of days, said that I’d better go and see Jack.
“Now whether Mick phoned Jack before I reached his room, I don’t know, but when I got there the door was slightly ajar. I called his name. No answer. So I opened it, went in and – I’ll never forget it – I found Jack in the bathroom washing his socks in the sink.
“’What is it?’ he says. No eye contact.
“‘Jack, I’m really struggling here, I don’t think I’ll be able to play.’ Silence.
“I’m serious, Jack”. The tears were almost welling up in my eyes.
“And he finally looks at me and he says, ‘Listen, if you don’t play, you’ll be letting everyone down. You’ll be letting me down, you’ll be letting the team down and you’ll be letting the country down. Now fuck off’.
“So I left, went back up to Mick and he just says, ‘Well, jump back up on the bed’ and he starts manipulating my back again. And, this is the truth, by the time I was going out to warm up in Gelsenkirchen a few hours later, I could, from a standing position, put my hands almost flat on the ground. And my back didn’t affect me at all during the game. Absolutely not. It was only afterwards that I was walking around like an old man again.”
After a cruelly spinning 82nd minute Wim Kieft goal finally brought an end to Ireland’s historic first Euro finals, Packie Bonner decided to get something done about his dodgy back ahead of the new season. He was duly diagnosed with a slipped disc and had to undergo surgery which kept him sidelined for three months.
“I never heard anything more about it from Jack,” he recalls, “until the next time I came in for a game, and he just looks at me and says, ‘I heard you had a bit of a back problem’. (Laughs).”
Ireland’s first appearance at the finals of the World Cup cemented the team’s place in the nation’s heart and, with his great leap of faith in the penalty shoot-out against Romania, changed Packie Bonner’s life forever.
But, before that, there were goals in the 1-1 draws with England and the Netherlands which confirmed the arrival on the scene of ‘Packie the playmaker’, a phenomenon immortalised in a famous picture which showed Bonner with eyes blazing and teeth clenched as he prepared to launch another missile up the pitch. It’s what he likes to call his ‘mad face’.
“What Jack always said to me was ‘don’t ever give it to them’ - meaning the centre-halves,” he explains. “He was a centre-half himself, of course, and he just didn’t trust them (laughs). He wasn’t one to take the ball out. He wasn’t a Bobby Moore. The full backs, yes, I could give it to them but only, he said, if they were in a position to take the ball, turn and travel with it.
“So hence the story about the mad face.
“The night we played Holland it was very warm, and the way you took a breather as a centre-half in those days was to come back, take the ball off the ‘keeper and then give it straight back to him – this was before the change in the backpass rule, of course.
“So Mick (McCarthy) kept coming back to me looking for the ball but there was no way I was going to give it to him.
“That’s when I made that face because if I was going to have a row with someone, I’d rather it would be Mick than Jack.”
Ireland would eventually go out of the tournament to hosts Italy at the quarter-finals stage, but not before that unforgettable afternoon in Genoa when a nation held its breath and then exploded in joy as Packie Bonner saved and Dave O’Leary scored to give the Irish victory over Romania in a heart-stopping penalty shoot-out.
In his book, Bonner reveals that he and fellow ‘keeper Gerry Peyton had come up with a plan to thwart the Romanian penalty-takers.
It boiled down to this: if a player paced back directly behind the ball, they figured he would be inclined to shoot straight, opting for power over placement. But should the player stand back at either a right or left angle to the ball, then the chances were that he would also shoot to that side of the goal.
And with Bonner going the right way for all the shots before finally keeping out Daniel Timofte’s effort to set O’Leary up for the decisive spot-kick, it looked as if the masterplan had worked to perfection. Or so Packie always thought, until a recent meeting with the man whose penalty he’d saved opened up the possibility that that things might actually have turned out very differently on the day.
“Timofte told me that one of the other Romanian players said he thought I was a bit slow going down to my right-hand side,” Packie reveals.
“And he said to me that, normally, he’d hit his penalties right down the middle – like Kevin Sheedy did for us that day.
“But, because of what the other player had said to him, Timofte changed his mind.
“And if he hadn’t, if he’d hit it down the middle, our plan would have failed and he’d probably have scored. But because of the psychological game going on in his head, he ended up fitting in with my plan. It takes two to tango.”
Two postscripts from the day of days: Packie ended up for a while as a part-owner of a boat in Donegal called ‘Timofte’, and Timofte ended up with a bar in Bucharest called ‘The Penalty’.
“Timofte got a lot of stick back home after the World Cup,” says Bonner, “and he told me that the reason he opened his own bar was so that if anyone gave him stick in it, he could chuck them out (laughs).”
Ireland’s second appearance in succession at the finals of the World Cup began with the collective high of victory over Italy and ended with the personal low for Packie Bonner of a howler against the Netherlands, as they knocked Ireland out in boiling Orlando.
In contrast to his upbeat mood going into those first Euro finals in 1988, Bonner now admits that he was not, as they say, in a good place for US ‘94.
“I wasn’t there, I wasn’t in it,” is how he puts it. “I really don’t know why except that, maybe, I allowed myself to think ‘what if it doesn’t go well?’ We’d created something special in ‘88 and carried on that momentum at Italia ‘90 – but what if it didn’t go well this time? Maybe that was in the back of my mind.
“Also, I’d put it down to preparation, something I was always meticulous about.
“It had to be A, B, C and if you took C out, that would affect me.
“And that happened in Orlando. Training was really difficult because of the climate.
“It was so humid and on many days, after twenty minutes, you’d have to leave the pitch because of thunder and lightning and these incredible downpours.
“Most of the time you were already soaked in sweat anyway. And for me, it just wasn’t right.
“Even though I was probably as fit and sharp as I ever was, the mind was playing games.” He is also prepared to concede now that the change in the backpass rule the previous year had dented his confidence.
“I remember playing Spain that year and it was almost like hitting everything with a one-iron – bang, bang, bang,” he recalls. “There might have been four opportunities to pass it to four people but the only thing in my head was: get it up the pitch, first time, as far as possible.
“I remember Jack saying to me after the game, ‘You were hitting the ball well there’ - but it was actually born out of fear of getting caught in possession.
“I remember in another game, Ronnie Whelan gave the ball to me from almost the right-back position, intending for me to take it into space, but instead I just gave it straight back to him.
“Remember that there was no coaching then around something that was going to have a dramatic effect on people who’d been in the game a long time.
“Looking back on it now, it’s been a great rule change but it didn’t seem like that at all to us older guys at the time.
“Another thing that came in at the time was the idea of the ‘keeper rolling the ball outside the box before kicking it up the pitch. And Jack asked me to do that before the game against Italy at Giants Stadium.
“I remember saying, ‘But Jack, I’ve never been outside the box in my life’. So that was another psychological thing I had to prepare myself for.”
Of the error against the Dutch which saw him allow a speculative Wim Jonk shot to slip through his hands, Bonner says: “Listen, it was a bad mistake but it could also have been part of the whole thing. I was older too and maybe I was starting to lose it a little bit. I was 34 years old and maybe I wasn’t as sharp as I might have been.”
Bonner was devastated after the game and the tournament, feeling that he’d “let the country down”.
Back at Celtic, where he was now combining the roles of ‘keeper and coach as his playing career began to wind down, football’s special brand of black humour helped him out of the hole.
“Every time I let in a penalty in training I could hear (manager) Tommy Burns in the background, going ‘Jonk, Jonk’,” he laughs.
“That’s football, and it actually helped me to get over it too.
“But I’ve been very lucky in this country too because the save overcomes everything. If the penalty save hadn’t happened, people would have dwelt on the mistake in Orlando much more.”
Packie Bonner went to the 2002 World Cup as Ireland’s goalkeeping coach, with Shay Given maintaining the Donegal line of succession between the sticks.
But after drawing with Cameroon and, memorably, Germany, and then beating Saudi Arabia to progress from their group, there was to be no repeat of the shoot-out glory of Genoa, as Spain knocked Ireland out on penalties in a titanic game in Suwon.
But before all that, of course, there was what Packie calls the “Watergate of Irish football” – Saipan.
In ‘The Last Line’, he suggests that from the moment the squad flew out from Dublin, well before things reached critical mass in the explosive encounter with Mick McCarthy, an accumulation of small details left him with the sense that Roy Keane was “a man who was not at ease with himself or his surroundings”. But Packie also admits that, even now, this can be no more than speculation on his part.
“I’ve never had that chat with Roy and I would love to ask him that: Roy, what was going through your head because what I felt from looking at you was that that was the case,” he says.
“I said in the book that I was totally faithful to Mick McCarthy. He was the manager, he allowed me to become the goalkeeping coach, and as far as I was concerned I was giving it 100 per cent to help the manager, the goalkeepers and the team, And I would expect everybody else to be going in with that same feeling – this was Ireland going to a World Cup in Japan. But it wasn’t right. Roy knows it wasn’t right – what that was down to, I don’t know.
“The Saipan thing, for me, was not the reason. The gear arriving late was not an issue for me. We all trained: there was no-one in a suit (laughs). Yes, the pitch was an issue. And Mick will say the same thing. When he saw it he was shocked because he’d been guaranteed the pitch would be in good shape. There was no grass on it - that was the big issue.
“Now, I’ll never forget in 1981 at Celtic, after heavy snow and then us training on the pitch, when the snow melted every blade of grass was gone. And yet we won a championship playing on that pitch.
So, yes, Saipan was a bad pitch but it wasn’t, in my opinion, a dangerous one.”
In the end, Bonner, like so many others, is still nagged most of all by a sense of ‘what if?’.
“We’ll never know if Roy had been there how that tournament would have turned out for us,” he observes.
“We’ll never know if we would have done as good as we did or better than we did. But I wish Roy had experienced Japan because Japan was magnificent. He missed a fantastic opportunity. From the training pitches on, everything about it was magnificent. And he missed out on that and I feel sorry for him in that respect.”
Keane also missed out on participating in some of the best performances by an Irish team seen at any of the major finals, leaving Bonner to conclude that, “Mick and that group of players never got the proper recognition for what they achieved in that tournament.”
“I think there have been a few questions answered,” says Packie Bonner, as he assesses Ireland’s preparedness for their return to their second successive European Championship finals next summer.
“One is that Martin O’Neill has been able to get the team together and structure it. I think also questions like: what happens if Robbie doesn’t play? What happens if we lose John O’Shea? They’ve been answered. We’ve seen now that we can overcome that. The guys have stepped up.
“The big question will be: can we go to a tournament and control a game?
“Yes, we’ll fight hard, we’ll always have that, and we’ll have a good structure, as we proved in the play off against Bosnia. But can we actually step up again and control a game, and control possession?
“OK, we’re never going to be a team that builds up from the back and all that, but can we control a game so that we can compete with the best and not have any fear factor?
“Now, you need results. They help, just like they helped us in our day. You get a few defeats and confidence goes down. So getting a result in the first game against Sweden will be absolutely critical.
“Think back to the first games in the tournaments I played in: England in Stuttgart in 1988 and again in Italy in 1990 and then Italy in the States in 1994: two wins and a draw.
“Then look at us losing to Croatia in the first game four years ago: if you don’t get off to the right start, then the whole thing comes down on top of you.
“So, however they do it, that first game against Sweden will be crucial. And I do think we can beat them.
“I wouldn’t be afraid of them in any shape or form.” Packie reckons this is the tournament in which a star-studded Belgian side will finally fulfill their promise: he would have them down as among the favourites to lift the cup.
“If they’re going to do it, then this is probably the year,” he says. “But I wouldn’t be overly concerned about Italy, to be honest. They’re not a Spain. They’re always a good tournament team but we’re capable of getting a result against them.
“So if we go about our business the way we did against Bosnia and Germany, we can progress in the competition.”
And as he thinks back once more to the glory days of Stuttgart and Genoa and Giants Stadium, Packie Bonner has one wish above all others for the class of 2016.
“I hope this young group of players will do as well as we did and experience what we did.”