LIAM MACKEY: Time to revisit Irish glory days

Excuse me while I remove this bit of grit from my eye.

I’ve just been revisiting Italia ‘90, in the form of a glorious highlights reel which was originally assembled by some unsung hero in RTÉ for broadcast on the eve of Ireland’s quarter-final against Italy in Rome.

I remember video-taping it at the time and, every once in a while over the years, I have dug it out just to revel in the sheer nostalgia of it all. That old VHS tape has long since worn thin but, happily, via the medium of YouTube, those who were there can watch it all again in pristine quality, while those who weren’t can check it out to get a good idea of what bliss it was to be alive in Ireland in those golden days of the summer of 24 years ago.

Indeed, I’m sometimes of a mind to think that this inspired piece of work might be the single greatest contribution to the life of the nation ever made by the national broadcaster.

I say ‘highlights’ but, actually, there’s little enough action from the field of play in the compilation. Which is probably just as well. There’s Kevin Sheedy’s goal against England and Niall Quinn’s against Holland, obviously, and Packie’s save and O’ Leary’s penalty, of course, but that’s about it. There’s nothing at all from the horrible scoreless draw with Egypt, for example, the game which almost drove poor old Eamon Dunphy over the edge.

Instead, the compilation puts the emphasis on the gathering emotional reaction at home to the team’s progress and does so with such a winning eye, that you can finally begin to fully appreciate what Con Houlihan meant when he said he’d missed Italia ‘90 on account of being in Italy.

It begins with the camera going into the classroom to see what the country’s youngest citizens were making of it all. First, there are the almost innocent battle hymns of the day — serried ranks of nippers festooned in green, white and orange, belting out ‘Que Sera Sera’, ‘Ole, Ole, Ole’ and ‘Ooh, Ah, Paul McGrath’ — and then the interviews. “Oirlant”, says a little girl when asked who will win the World Cup. A young lad offers a tad more in the way of sophisticated punditry: “Ireland are going to win 5-0. They’re playing against Manchester.”

Not that the adults were necessarily always a whole lot better informed. Amid scenes of demented joy in a jam-packed Dublin pub after the 1-1 draw with England, a beaming young woman tells the camera: “I think it was a brilliant match. If it wasn’t for Kevin Sheedy, we wouldn’t have won.”

The first time, perhaps, that the very definition of a ‘moral victory’ had been captured live on tape, and in its natural habitat, as it were.

But all this was only by way of a minor prelude to that unforgettable day in Genoa, when Packie made his great leap of faith and Dave O’ Leary finally came in from the cold. And it’s when the latter’s penalty hits the back of the net, that RTÉ’s little film achieves its own kind of greatness.

’(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life’ would not ordinarily be a song for which Id have much time but, here, as the chosen soundtrack to images of unbridled and utterly infectious joy on the streets of Dublin, it pretty much defines what Noel Coward was getting at when he observed how potent cheap music can be.

And as the music swells to a crescendo, the final, lingering and deeply moving shot is of the celebrated journalist John Healy, a great big bear of a man, wiping away uncontrollable tears with the back of his hand, as he watches the celebratory scenes from Genoa being beamed live into an EU summit at Dublin Castle.

And, well, dammit, there’s that bit of grit back in my own eye again, too...

“The country has never seen anything like it,” was Bill O’Herlihy’s summation in studio that night. Which was true — and we haven’t really seen anything like it since.

Sure, Irish football has given us some more great memories to cherish — from the win against Italy at USA ‘94 to Robbie Keane’s equaliser against Germany at the World Cup in 2002 — but nothing that has come close to matching the euphoria generated by Italia ‘90.

Which was why it was interesting to hear Roy Keane say recently that the reaction to John O’Shea’s goal against Germany last month put him in mind of the summer of 1990. And, certainly, the uplifting drama of that last-gasp equaliser sparked the public imagination in a way that was entirely at odds with the RTÉ panel’s coldly forensic dissection of the team’s performance on the night.

In rightly stressing the importance of the opening win in Georgia, Martin O’Neill recently let slip his nightmare vision — that with three away games in their first four qualifiers, Ireland’s Euro campaign might have been over before it even before it got started.

Instead, thanks to Aiden McGeady’s genius in Tbilisi and O’Shea’s opportunism in Gelsenkirchen, the Irish will go to Glasgow next week with confidence high, in a much better than expected position in the group, and with a genuine buzz surrounding the team for the first time in a very long time.

It’s still early in the campaign, of course, and events at Celtic Park are likely to have a massive impact on Irish prospects, for good or ill, but how nice it feels right now to be able to look back on the glory days while looking forward to at least the distinct possibility of their return.

Roll on Friday...


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