For the newest generation of Irish football fans, Euro ‘88 belongs to the remote past. France 2016 will be their first time, and just maybe, let’s hope, the best of times too.
Long before he did the world no little service by co-creating Ted, Dougal, Jack, Mrs Doyle and the rest of the Craggy Island crew, comedy writer Arthur Mathews was a colleague of mine in Hot Press, where we were among a group of like-minded souls hopelessly devoted to the beautiful game.
Except that, where Irish football was concerned, I recall that it was easier in those days to discern more things of beauty in our domestic affiliations (Drogheda United in Arthur’s case, Shamrock Rovers in mine) than in the misfortunes of the national team, where the pain of defeat — especially of that uniquely brutal kind occasioned by those dodgy refereeing decisions which must haunt Eoin Hand to this day — tended to be the norm.
All that changed on one night in November in 1987, of course, when a man with the almost perfect name of Mackay scored a goal which gave Scotland an unlikely win in far-off Sofia and, even more improbably, propelled the Republic of Ireland to their first ever European Championship finals.
I happened to be a long way from home that night myself, sitting in a bar on an island in the Aegean in a state of suppressed hysteria, while a local painstakingly translated the international results being read out on the television.
A week or so later, a postcard bearing the image of a pint of stout and inscribed in Arthur’s fair hand arrived at the local post office.
“The International Bar rose six feet off the ground,” he reported, referring to the out of hours (and, indeed, quite frequently, in hours) Hot Press office in which we’d all sat through so many long dark nights of the soul watching the Irish football dream turn to ashes, again and again.
By the time the great day of our first Euro finals game dawned, I was still on a backpacking career break, still in the Greek islands and once again in a small bar — though not the same one; I did manage to get out a bit, you know —where, on this occasion, there was simply no hope of even pretending to suppress hysteria.
Instead, I proceeded to provide endless amusement for the couple of ancient fishermen present by, first dementedly celebrating Ray Houghton’s header hitting the back of England net, and then suffering prolonged agonies of despair as it seemed impossible that Packie Bonner and Mick McCarthy and Kevin Moran would be able to hold out for another 94 minutes against a relentless onslaught of English attacks.
But they did, Ireland won, and nothing was ever the same again.
Italia ‘90 was even better, of course. This time, I was back home in Dublin, back among my own and able to immerse myself fully as a pure supporter in Ireland’s debut appearance at the World Cup finals.
In the run-up, Arthur had developed the habit of arriving in the office every day with the same greeting: “It won’t be long now.”
And when I say run-up, I mean that he was saying this pretty much from the very first morning after John Aldridge had finally stopped keeping clean sheets —as we wags liked to joke at the time — by scoring a brace in Malta in the final qualifier the previous November.
Italia 90 was one of those rare occasions when, sort of like ripping open the wrapping to discover what was under the tree on Christmas morning, the delirium of the reward turned out to be even greater than the almost unbearable joy of anticipation.
Of course, people who really knew their football were never going to need the benefit of hindsight — nor, for that matter, Eamon Dunphy’s daring to speak the truth at the time — to recognise that what Jack Charlton’s team brought to the party, for all the admirable qualities of the fine players at his disposal, was not even a distant relative of the beautiful game.
But the real beauty was that it didn’t matter. All that mattered was that (a) we didn’t lose to England, (b) the very dubious detente with the Dutch paid off and (c) that most unforgettable of penalty shoot-outs went our way (so at least, technically, we won something).
And did I mention that we didn’t lose to England?
By 1994, and the World Cup in America, I was an accredited reporter, an unexpected change in my personal and professional circumstances, which significantly altered how I experienced Ireland’s involvement in a big tournament. (And, yes, I accept that being paid to write about football is an enviable job — but it does, believe it or not, involve a certain amount of not entirely stress-free work).
Since then, Irish football as a whole has lost a lot of the innocence and wonder which we tend to associate with the first time at the Euros and the first time at the World Cup.
USA 94 had the giddy high of Giants Stadium, true, but it also had the squirming low of Packie’s howler against — them again — the Dutch.
And, thereafter, from the uncivil war of Saipan, through being on the wrong end of a penalty shoot-out in Suwon, to the strictly no-fun zone that was Euro 2012, there have been enough shocks to the system to make everyone keenly aware that not all dreams can come true.
But then you recall the explosion of mad joy unleashed by Shane Long’s shot hitting the back of the net against Germany — a moment which, I’m happy to confirm, engulfed even the solid, sober ranks of the press box — and you realise that the old capacity for undiluted magic still exists.
My eight-year-old daughter was at the Aviva that night to watch her first-ever football match and, suitably enthralled by the whole experience, is now beside herself with excitement at what the next few weeks might have in store.
Even that cracking 3 ad on the telly is enough to brew up a storm in our house now.
It’s a reminder to her seen-it-all Da that, for the newest generation of Irish football fans, Euro ‘88 belongs to the remote past. France 2016 will be their first time, and just maybe, let’s hope, the best of times too.
It won’t be long now...
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