He’s used to people bringing up the good World Cup memory. But today is a different kind of anniversary for Packie Bonner.
It’s 20 years since that tame 25-yard shot from Wim Jonk went through his hands and rolled to the net. Twenty years since the Republic of Ireland were knocked out of the tournament by Holland. Twenty years spent trying to figure out what happened. Twenty years never quite finding an answer.
“In South Africa four years ago, when the ball was moving around all the time, I just wondered if it had moved in the air in those conditions in 1994. I don’t know. Normally, it would be such an easy save from that distance. But if you think back to the final when Brazil played Italy, the Italian goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca had a very similar situation. But it hit the post and came back into his hands. So where he had luck on his side, I didn’t. But there’s still no excuse.”
It wasn’t the first mistake Ireland had made in the game. After 11 minutes, left-back Terry Phelan tried to direct a header towards Phil Babb. But, under pressure from Marc Overmars, he failed. Instead, the ball ran loose, the winger picked it up, raced towards the penalty area before sliding it across for Dennis Bergkamp to tap to the net. The error was ruthlessly punished.
But this was the knockout stages. There were no more second chances. Behind so quickly, the Irish set-up under Jack Charlton was cruelly exposed in the heat of the lunchtime Orlando sun.
“We weren’t able to adapt that well. We wanted to keep the ball and make the opposition run around a little bit but overall we weren’t brought up that way. It was about high pressure and winning the ball back and getting it into areas where we could hurt them. Inevitably, we gave the ball away. To lose a goal very early was psychologically draining. How were we going to get it back?
“If you think of Gelsenkirchen in 1988 and Sicily in 1990, we were always in the games against the Dutch. We always had a chance to get at them. But in 1994, in those circumstances, it was really exhausting.”
Ireland had been to the Citrus Bowl before. During the group stage, they suffered a 2-1 defeat to Mexico. Conditions were inhumane. Infamously, temperatures hit 38 degrees. It was a suffocating sauna. In the milder climes of the east coast, they racked up a win against Italy and a draw with Norway. But they were forced back to Florida for the do-or- die second round tie. The players feared the worst.
“To go back down there and play Holland, an exceptional team that could keep the ball and make us run around in that heat — that was our biggest disappointment. Probably, if you look at it, we were never going to win the game because of that. Mentally it had a big effect on us.”
The conditions altered Bonner’s preparations. Usually so meticulous and well-prepared, his sessions had to be kept short because of the heat. His routine was disturbed. For such a creature of habit, it was difficult to grasp such wholesale changes.
“We trained just down from the hotel, about a five-minute walk. By the time you hit the pitch, you were absolutely drenched. Normally I’d be fairly organised in everything I did and I’d work for at least an hour. But in the US, you couldn’t do more than 20 minutes. We didn’t have the sports science back-up or the psychological back-up to say, ‘Listen, you’re fit, you’re fine, you’re in good shape’. And also, from my point of view, we had no goalkeeping coach with us. So all of those things went against us being right in the head.”
The truly obsessive never miss the finer details. At USA ’94, the Dutch were beaten by eventual winners Brazil in the quarter-finals. Four years later, that glorious side helmed by Guus Hiddink were undone by Argentina in the semis. In 2010, Andres Iniesta broke Dutch hearts with an extra-time winner in the final. But Bonner feels Louis van Gaal is immensely prepared for any eventuality in Brazil.
“I do a lot of work with Frans Hoek, Holland’s goalkeeping coach. He’s very close with Van Gaal — he’s been with him at Barcelona, Bayern Munich and now with the national side. He’s told me that they have put in a huge amount of work during the year with the team — thinking about changing systems and how they were going to play. They used to meet up nearly every Monday and Tuesday and look at the games from the weekend.
“So they’ve done their homework. That’s the meticulous way they go about it. You could say it’s a bit over the top but then you look at the way Van Gaal has changed his system during the games and how easily the players have been able to do it.”
Traditionally, the Dutch camp has been a place beset with egomaniacs, but Bonner believes Van Gaal has instilled a harmony and unity that might prove invaluable.
“The Dutch were always notorious with falling out amongst themselves as a competition went on so Van Gaal seems to have a good spirit there and they’re responding well.
“He was brave to take off Robin Van Persie against Mexico — that was a big decision.
“He’s a top coach with a strong personality and the Dutch players probably need that type of person to be leading them.”
- The 2014 Packie Bonner Golf Classic, in aid of Spina Bifida Hydrocephalus Ireland, takes place on Friday, August 22, in the K Club gold course. Contact email@example.com for team bookings and sponsorship opportunities, to help raise funds for this very worthy cause.