“It won’t be long now…”
In the run-up to Italia ’90, my good friend and former colleague Arthur Mathews would arrive into the Hot Press office each day and offer the same salutation.
Not ‘hello’, not ‘good morning’ and not even, ‘Has Niall’s latest editorial forced the resignation of the Pope yet?’ No, it was always just a simple, heartfelt: “It won’t be long now…”
And when I say “in the run-up” to Italia ’90, what I really mean is that he took to reciting this mantra pretty much from the moment the final whistle blew on the 2-0 win in Malta in November 1989 which ensured that Ireland would be taking its place among the football nations of the earth for the very first time the following year.
Arthur, like so many long-suffering Irish football men and women, had never really thought he’d live to see the day, so to finally get the opportunity to luxuriate in the anticipation of what was to come in the summer was the very stuff that dreams are made of.
And when the tournament finally did come around, well, the reality exceeded even our wildest imaginings.
I’m not talking about the football, obviously, which under Jack Charlton was only ever a not always particularly edifying means to an end. But did we care that we grinded our way to a quarter-final without actually technically winning a game? Did we object with every moral fibre of our being when ourselves and the Dutch agreed to a spot of entente cordiale which effectively stitched up the poor Egyptians?
Did we hell?
In a collective mental state composed of equal parts feverish excitement and brutal anxiety, Arthur, Declan Lynch, and myself had hunkered down in my flat in Dun Laoghaire to watch that one, and when Kevin Sheedy’s equaliser hit the back of the England net we celebrated like five-year-olds on a sugar high on Christmas morning, running amok around the room and screaming our heads off.
Only when we’d calmed down a bit did we realise that someone’s lit cigarette had gone AWOL, and it was only some time later again — when we observed a plume of smoke rising from the back of the sofa — that we knew where it had gone.
Happily, the hurried application of quantities of beer ensured a major conflagration was averted but, in any case, we all agreed that not losing to England in the World Cup — emphatically beating them 1-1! — would have been worth any number of destroyed household items and maybe even a singed eyebrow or two.
After that, everything else was pure gravy — the brain-freezing draw with Egypt notwithstanding — as the country’s summer of joyous madness peaked with the penalty shoot-out win in Genoa.
Con Houlihan famously wrote that he missed Italia ’90 because he was in Italy, and there’s a great compilation piece in the RTÉ archives which explains better than anything else exactly what he meant.
Originally broadcast on the eve of the quarter-final against Italy, just after Christy Moore had performed an updated ‘Joxer’ in the studio, it pulled together all the highlights of the previous few weeks when the nation happily took leave of its senses: Bill O’Herlihy in his daft hand-clappy hat, the weather forecast charts festooned in green, white and orange, the hysterical scenes in jam-packed pubs and the beautiful innocence of the kids. (To the question ‘who is going to win the World Cup?’ one shy little girl replies in a barely audible voice: “Oirlent. Dere goin’ to beat Manchester…”).
A memorable package concluded with footage of those unprecedented Mardi Gras-type scenes on the streets of Dublin after Dave O’Leary’s penalty hit the back of the Romanian net, the pictures sound-tracked by Bill Medley’s ‘I Had The Time Of My Life’.
Rarely has Noel Coward’s line about the potency of cheap music felt so apt: It was as if this undistinguished, middle of the road movie ballad had been waiting for just this moment to reveal and proclaim its hitherto hidden, majestic glory. “I’ve never felt like this before…” indeed. (Pauses to remove piece of grit from eye).
And we won’t be feeling that way again this time around, more’s the pity. Now that we’ve tasted the finest wine on three occasions, can there be any upside at all to Ireland not qualifying for the World Cup for the fourth time in succession? Not really, unless it’s to try to locate some consolation in the truth that if you’re not in you can’t lose.
Somewhere in the pit of my stomach there is still a hard little knot yet to be unravelled from that moment all of 28 years ago when Gary Lineker bundled the ball into Packie Bonner’s net. Ah, I can feel the chilling horror of it surfacing again even now.
So there’s that, there’s the fact that Irish football supporters can approach this World Cup entirely free of angst.
It will still be painful, of course, to see the Danes going about their business but, on the other hand, we can relish the prospect of Brazil getting their mojo back after the cataclysm of four years ago or maybe even Messi taking Argentina one step further than he did in the Maracana in the final of the same tournament.
And, best of all, we will be perfectly at liberty to cheer on our dear Panamanian soul brothers when they take on England on Sunday, June 24th.
Yes, I know, I know, we’re all grown up as a nation and Lizzie has been over to say the cupla focail and, agreed, we should be long past the juvenile stage of ABE by now, but still…it’s Panama’s first ever World Cup, their Italia ’90 if you will, and if Harry Kane does to them what Gary Lineker did to us, then I doubt that I will be very much alone in hoping that a Panamanian Sheeds comes to the rescue to send the folks back home deep into the throes of, well, Panamania.
We shall see. But, as a man called Arturo doubtless like to say on his way into work in ‘Prensa Recargada’ every morning: It won’t be long now.
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