Liam Mackey: Throwing the book at Italia ’90

Liam Mackey recalls how his first assignment as a national football reporter 30 years ago opened his eyes to a literary sensation.
Liam Mackey: Throwing the book at Italia ’90
Jack Charlton, to Liam Mackey: “it’s not going to be easy for us, but it’s not going to be easy for them either”

As always, the great man said it best. “I missed Italia ’90,” Con Houlihan confessed. “I was in Italy”.

We all know what the Castleisland Colossus meant, of course. For precisely the opposite reason, I didn’t miss Italia ’90 because I was indeed in Ireland, caught up like the rest of the country in the euphoric madness of what felt like the happiest, most fantastic summer of our lives. (And, for all too obvious reasons, seems even more like that today).

It definitely helped that I was still more supporter than reporter back then, although I had already dipped a toe into football writing as a journalist with Hot Press.

In the run-up to the pivotal World Cup qualifier against Spain in Dublin, I’d flown to Madrid and onwards to Asturias to spend a weekend in the company of Kevin Moran, then turning out for La Liga side Sporting Gijon.

The resulting cover story ran to 7,000 words, which was entirely in keeping with the generous HP house style in those days but perhaps something of a departure from the norm for footballers more accustomed to seeing their thoughts condensed in print into short and snappy nanny goats.

A couple of weeks after publication, I happened to bump into Kevin and his wife Eleanor — who were in the company of Ashley Grimes as a recall — on a Dublin street. Kevin’s verdict on the article?

“It was…” - and here he offered a contemplative pause permitting him to search, I assumed, for the appropriate superlative – “…very long”.

Following Ireland’s successful qualification campaign, I had also been asked to conduct, off camera, a lengthy interview with Jack Charlton which was filmed for use in producer/director Billy McGrath’s now celebrated documentary Que Sera Sera.

And, in an unexpectedly nice tie-in of two things that were, and still are, close to my heart— rock ‘n’ roll and football — some of Jack’s best known utterances extracted from that exchange (including such imperishables as “we will go and compete,” “we’ll inflict our game on the people”, “it’s not going to be easy for us but it’s not going to be easy for them either” and, of course, the title itself) later reappeared as his spoken contribution to Ireland’s official World Cup song, the memorable 'Put ‘Em Under Pressure’.

But it wouldn’t be until December 1990 that I would make my full debut as the newly installed football correspondent of the Sunday Press, my first assignment thrusting me right back into what would turn out to be the darker heart of that summer’s World Cup when I was tasked with reviewing a just published book which was already causing quite a sensation.

Pete Davies’ All Played Out was the product of the unprecedented access the novelist had been given to key personnel in and around the England camp for a period of nine months leading up to and encompassing the finals themselves.

And in a series of taped interviews with the manager, players and officials, Davies mined some scorchingly hot copy which, if the likes of it appeared now, would send the Twittersphere into meltdown.

Here, for example, was Terry Butcher — then playing for Rangers and speaking to the author just after an Old Firm game — making it abundantly clear where he stood on the sensitive subject of Glasgow’s great divide.

“I don’t like U2,” he was quoted as saying. “That’s rebel music, southern Irish. And Simple Minds — I found out that (singer Jim) Kerr was a Celtic supporter so all my Simple Minds tapes went out the window. Celtic, you hate ‘em so much…”

Or how about this for a considered view of the scourge of racist chanting on the terraces, as offered up for posterity by Dick Wragg, the then 78-year-old chairman of the FA’s International Committee: “They’re so used to seeing all-white football teams that they don’t like to see darkies introduced,” he patiently explained to Davies.

“But as far as I’m concerned, knowing the English players and our own dark players, they are normally better dressed and better spoken than 75% of the white people. The dark fellows who come into the England team, they are tremendously well-behaved, they really are.”

Even when it addressed purely footballing matters, Davies’ book also managed to ruffle feathers and make headlines, with John Barnes and Chris Waddle letting their guard down to express frustration with Bobby Robson’s preference for a flat back four instead of the sweeper system which both felt would allow them more attacking freedom.

“You might as well not have me in the side,” Barnes complained while, for his part, Waddle offered up one for the ages when Davies asked him about the rigours of being away from home for such a long time. “What’s six weeks away?” the winger replied. “People were away five years in the war…but they didn’t have to play 4-4-2, did they?”

(For the record, at the finals themselves, Robson did embark on an 11th hour adventure with the sweeper system and went on to confound his many critics by overseeing England’s most successful World Cup since they’d won the tournament in 1966).

Readers with green-tinted glasses would also have found much to divert them in All Played Out, not least because Davies’ access-all-areas/warts-and-all approach resulted in the usual suspension of diplomatic protocols.

So, as Robson and his players tune in to watch Ireland playing Romania on that fabled day in Genoa, we find the manager referring to Mick McCarthy as “a dirty bugger”, and Gary Lineker idly wondering if the Irish are on a fiver for every time they hit the roof of the stand.

The author appeared to share the English player’s distaste — on what were “aesthetic grounds”, he reported — for Jack Charlton’s no-frills game, and only in Ireland’s quarter-final against Italy did he grudgingly concede that the boys in green might be capable of playing a bit of ball.

But, even then, his fanciful speculation as to Packie Bonner’s likely state of mind at the final whistle in Rome would not, I suspect, have met with a polite response from the man himself: “The way Bonner smiled said it all — like, hell, it was great crack anyway, lads, so let’s all go for a beer and feel good about it.”

That lazy reversion to stereotype was probably one of the reasons why my Sunday Press piece concluded with the observation that All Played Out was a “flawed but fascinating tale” but also “unquestionably the most compulsive read of the season.”

Subsequently reissued in 2010 as One Night In Turin, to tie in with an eponymous documentary climaxing in England’s semi-final defeat to Germany — and for which Davies co-wrote the script — the book’s status as a classic has become firmly established over the intervening thirty years.

Nick Hornby, no less, has hailed it as “brilliant” and suggested that, by clearing a path for books about football that were neither sanitised histories nor ghosted autobiographies, “it helped me get Fever Pitch published.”

In my original review of All Played Out, published the day before Christmas Eve in 1990, I suggested its appearance meant that the “literary-minded football fan won’t need to ponder too long how best to use his or her book-token this Christmas”.

It might be all of three decades later but, especially in this time of quarantine and lockdown, that recommendation comes with renewed, ringing

endorsement.

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