To understand what Italia ‘90 meant to the country, to Irish football and, in particular, to Niall Quinn, it helps to begin 12 years later at the 2002 World Cup in Japan and Korea, and those chaotic days between the seismic events of Saipan and Ireland’s first game against Cameroon — a period when there was, however briefly, just a flicker of a faint possibility that Roy Keane’s departure might somehow be reversed. As a senior member of the squad by then, Niall Quinn was centrally involved in the drama and not yet ready to abandon all hope, as he would later recall in his autobiography.
“Do I think this can be turned around?”, he wrote. “Do I believe it? Listen, on 14 March 1990, I had started 14 league games in three seasons. On 21 June 1990, I scored the goal that put Ireland into the second round of the World Cup in Italy. I believe it.” As we know, Quinn’s faith turned out to be misplaced in 2002 but I’m sure no-one will object if we wait until its 25th anniversary in 2027 before we opt to tease out the ramifications of Saipan And All That one more time with feeling. In 1990, by contrast, almost all Niall Quinn’s dreams came true. To mark this month’s 25th anniversary of Italia ‘90, Quinn recently took time out to share his memories of a World Cup which saw him leave his native Dublin as a lanky fringe player and return home one month later as ‘The Mighty Quinn’.
As late as March 1990, there was no certainty you would be on the plane to Italy, even though you’d got on the pitch at Euro ’88 and Jack Charlton had regularly picked you for squads?
I had never started a qualifier, I’d only come on in a small number of games. There was the likes of myself and David Kelly who wouldhave our fingers crossed every time the squad was announced on Teletext — because that’s how we used to find out in those days. And we’d ring each other to say ‘isn’t it great we’re both in’. But, truthfully, we were hanging on, both of us. David had got his chance some time before, scoring a hat-trick on his debut against Israel, but still couldn’t break into the side. For the qualifiers, it was Frank (Stapleton) and John (Aldridge) and then Tony (Cascarino) came into vogue. So we used to be delighted just to be in the squad.
But then came the 4-1 win in a ‘B’ game against England in Turner’s Cross — in which you scored twice — which, you’ve told me before, was a performance you felt ‘rattled’ the first 11 and effectively stamped your passport for Italia ‘90.
I remember Dave O’Leary saying as much to me the next day — ‘fair play to you guys, you’ve rattled the cage now’. It was a very good England team with some top players of the time — Dalian Atkinson, Tony Adams, David Seaman. They had a proper team out but we really got into them. And that coincided with me being on a bit of a run anyway. I joined Man City when they were in the bottom three, I scored a few goals and we climbed out of it. I remember not being signed in time to play in the first game against Luton Town. Then I made my debut in midweek against Chelsea and scored. And everything fell into place after that. It definitely was a month that changed everything for me. But in terms of the squad for Italy, we were all in the same boat as Gary Waddock — and he was the one who was let go at the 11th hour. And Gary flew home and Alan McLoughlin, who’d also played in that game in Cork, came in.
What was the level of expectation going into those first World Cup finals for Ireland?
We didn’t really know what to expect. We were novices as a group. None of us had ever played in the World Cup finals before. Mick (McCarthy) as captain would have been pretty strong and vociferous in getting us to ignore the hype and to stay focused. He played an important role as a leader through that whole period.
There’s been a lot of talk since about the supposed ‘ramshackle’ approach of the Irish in those days. Did you ever feel like you were arriving at the top table as the poor relations?
Absolutely not. The only time we might have felt a bit less than anyone else was when we did our five days of warm-up at the Maltese FA headquarters. Scotland were there at the same time and, as we’d be making our way off the training ground, we’d see them coming on with bibs and cones and balls and a huge amount of staff with them. You could have filled an aircraft with what they brought out. With us it was much simpler. We had one voice — Jack’s. Interestingly, the Number 2, Maurice (Setters), did nothing on the training ground. It was quite a strange thing really. Maurice was an observer and Jack was the one who organised and conducted every training session. Whereas Scotland would have had all these willing young coaches, like Andy Roxburgh, who was at the forefront in the advancement of coaching at that point. So we were a little bit different, but did I feel that put us at a disadvantage? Not at all. Quite the opposite actually — that was a strength for us. Because we were different, nobody liked playing us. And the last thing we wanted to do was become them. We would have had a right laugh if they’d put loads of cones out and told us to go in and out of them.
So how would you characterise the Irish approach?
There are various ways of going about your business in football. That’s where Jack was outstanding. He knew two things: he knew he could not have his team playing like the others because they were better than us at that. And he knew that it was vital for us to stop the opposing No 10 from dictating the game. So for Frank Stapleton initially and me in subsequent years — and Aldo will tell you the same thing — our job was that when we lost the ball, we immediately had to become a fifth midfielder. A switch went off and you ran 40 yards to drop back in. And then you had to be ready to run another 40 yards because you knew there’d be a big diagonal ball coming up. It was tough, really tough, and you’d be exhausted at the end of a game.
But we had a nice fitness about us and everybody spurred everybody else on. If you didn’t train well, you got hammered. And you didn’t get hammered by the manager because he didn’t need to — the other players hammered you. That was a great thing about that team — everybody was at each other to give more. So, okay, sometimes the training gear didn’t fit us and the balls mightn’t have been pumped up properly — which later became a huge issue — but in those days we used to be of the opinion that, though you couldn’t win the game two days beforehand, you could do enough so that everyone would be absolutely flying by the time the first whistle came.
Remember that, in those days, for most of our international get togethers, you played Saturday or Sunday for your club and you played on the Wednesday for your country. So all those things associated with preparing teams nowadays — big coaching sessions, masseurs, physiotherapists, analysts, head doctors — there was literally no time for that (laughs). My routine would be play Saturday, spend Saturday night with the family in Dublin, have the craic on Sunday with the lads and then stay in bed until training on Monday. Jack liked us to get as much sleep as possible and I liked to take him at his word.
If people want to, they can look back and talk about the ‘ramshackle Irish team’ but we knew what the real story was. And the real story was that we prepared hard and we had a plan that Jack came up with, to get that fifth man in the middle — a plan which, 15 years later, Manchester United would introduce to the Premier League. And back at the time of Italia ‘90, the result was that every team learned to expect a tough game against Ireland — and we knew that we’d never disappoint them.
You didn’t get on the pitch for the first match against England, in which Kevin Sheedy cancelled out Gary Lineker’s opening goal. What was it like watching that game unfold from the dug-out?
My lasting memory from that game is looking at the most unbelievable fork lightning in the skies all around the stadium. It felt like such a weird night. It was warm but not raining and yet there was this spectacular lightning while the guys were playing. There was something strange about that night. And with all the stories in the build-up of possible trouble from the England fans, there were police and dogs everywhere so the atmosphere was definitely the most unpleasant of all the games. As for the game itself, when Lineker scored, I wasn’t thinking, ‘Oh no, the dream is over’. Had it gone two or three-nil, maybe I would have felt that but it very seldom did in those days. And so I was confident we’d get back in the game, which, of course, we did. I’ve seen our goal and the celebrations replayed many times on television since. And I always feel that Steve Staunton hugging Kevin Sheedy typified what we were about, the unity that was there — I mean there was a Liverpool guy and an Everton guy who were definitely on the same side. Did it help that the goal was against England? Well, of course, without a shadow of a doubt. And it was just a great feeling to come away from that game knowing we were alive and well in the competition.
The temptation for most people is to draw a discreet veil over the scoreless draw with Egypt — though not for you.
I got in against Holland because of that game against Egypt. The performance was so poor that I got my chance so, unlike others, I look back fondly on that Egypt game. The team was a bit disjointed in that match. Tony (Cascarino) was out of form and it wasn’t so much what I did in the few minutes I was on the pitch, but more what I did in the training sessions in the next couple of days before the game against Holland. Tony was flat, he’d received a lot of criticism after the Egypt game and he was at a low ebb. One training session in particular, I remember everything going for me. Everything that Jack asked me to do, I was able to do. And after that, I got the nod against Holland. So that Egypt game ain’t so bad in my memory.
Is it true that you only learned you were starting against the Dutch shortly before kick off?
Yeah. A lot of people had said to me after training that I had chance of playing but I didn’t really buy into it because I thought Jack would have said something to me. Dave O’Leary, who I roomed with, was adamant: ‘he’s going to pick you’. But Jack never said anything. So we get to the stadium, leave our stuff in the dressing room and go for a walk on the pitch, as you always do. Jack hadn’t announced the team yet. So we’re on the pitch, looking around, and suddenly he walks up to me, puts his arm around me and starts telling me what to do in the match. So I said, ‘Am I playing?’. And he said, ‘Yeah, did Maurice not tell you? That idiot!’. And to this day I believe that was total psychology on his part — sure I didn’t have a minute to get nervous then. Instead, I went back into the dressing room bouncing. Tony, as he later said himself, was lower than a snake’s belly, slumped in the corner, and I was there rearing to go.
Ruud Gullit gave the Dutch lead and then came your celebrated equaliser. Even all of 25 years on, I’m sure you won’t mind talking us through that goal again.
I’ll tell you where that goal came from. I’d scored my debut goal for Arsenal against Liverpool in 1985 and it was the exact same goal. And it came from (Arsenal coach) Pat Rice, five days a week in training, telling me I would not be selected as a striker if I didn’t start running in and taking a chance that the keeper might spill the ball. Every coaching session we had, he drilled that into me: the importance of following in. And I remember him saying, ‘You never know, one day you might be coming back to thank me for saying this because even if 99 times out of a hundred nothing will come of it, one of them will be a big one for you.’ And I got two: one that kick-started my club career when Bruce Grobbelaar spilled it and one that got my international career going when Hans van Breukelen spilled one. I’ve spoken to Pat Rice since and he said, ‘if you had listened a couple of years earlier, you might have made it quicker!’
It has been remarked many times that Tony Cascarino, who’d come off the bench for John Aldridge seemed, shall we say, a bit grudging in his congratulations during the goal celebration.
(Laughs) Well, yeah, we had a healthy competition between us and at that point it was pretty intense because only one of us was going to get in. He would have loved to get the call and now there was the realisation that I was kicking on. But we never fell out or anything like that. And when I think about the importance of that night and that moment, Tony was probably right to be begrudging because, from then on, I got picked for every game that I was 100% fit for, right up until we played Holland when Jason McAteer got the winner in 2001. So I got a 10-year run in the team out of that night.
It will also be remembered as a night when a dubious kind of peace broke out in the game once the scores were level.
The game was 1-1 and I really wanted a second one and for about a five-minute spell, I had Mick McCarthy as well as their players all shouting at me because, as we all remember, there was a stand-off. But I was still running around and everyone seemed to be giving out to me. I don’t think that was our proudest moment in the green jersey, by the way. And, also, don’t forget that if Egypt had got a goal against England, we could still have been knocked out. It was a silly thing for all concerned to do and certainly not the fondest memory I have of that World Cup.
And so to Genoa, the knockout game against Romania and that unforgettable penalty shoot-out — were you ever in the running to take one?
Nothing had really been set up in terms of who was taking the penalties or in what order. It was all done kind of last minute. I was getting treatment for cramp. (Physio) Mick Byrne was rubbing my calves with Deep Heat. And Jack saw that and it put him off me. He turned around and kind of dismissed me. And, to be honest, I was pretty tired. When they show that clip of Dave scoring the final goal and everybody takes off and runs down the pitch to celebrate, on the long version of that, just as it’s all dying down, I hobble into the picture. Even (kitman) Charlie O’Leary got there before me, that’s how bad I was (laughs). But what a great moment.
The adventure finally ended in Rome against Italy but while the view at home was that you’d all given the country every reason to celebrate, I know that wasn’t how the players were feeling in the dressing room right after the final whistle.
No, what we were feeling was serious deflation because we’d built ourselves up at the point to expect even more. In fact, I remember when we were in the dressing room before that game Jack said — and I think this was the actual phrase he used — ‘A bit of me thinks you fuckers are going to win this thing’. And that was him, inching out another bit of confidence. And we were looking back at him, going ‘You’re dead right, Jack’. Because that’s the way he had us. And, okay, we fell short. We needed a kick of the ball to go our way but when I look back on that game now, one of the things that stays with me is the sight of Franco Baresi, the greatest defender of his generation, completely harassed, kicking the ball out for a throw-in. Their composure was all gone at one point and that was when we had our chance but we just didn’t get the right opportunities — I had a header that (Walter) Zenga read and saved at the back post and then Paul (McGrath) nearly got one. But, really, we just didn’t create enough and that was part of our disappointment at the end, because we knew we were better than we’d performed on the night.
So what then, as a player, did you make of the veneration of the team back home — or did you actually have any real awareness of how overjoyed the country was as the team progressed through the tournament?
Well some media people had brought videos out to us and after dinner at night we’d watch them. I remember some incredible images: a dog running down O’Connell Street on his own and then, seconds later, the final whistle has gone and suddenly the whole street is full. Another time you had U2 sending us a video of congratulations and best wishes for the rest of tournament. All that stuff was coming into us so we understood the impact it was making alright. And I used to like pointing out to people how different it had been just a few short years before that. On the day before a game in Dublin, Jack used to let us go into town to do a bit of shopping and have a coffee in the Marie Rose Café and then back to base. I was only a young lad then and people didn’t know me but I remember the senior players getting stick from taxi drivers as we’d walk along: ‘Yiz are useless’, stuff like that. And that never left me. But then we beat Brazil at Lansdowne Road in 1987 — Liam Brady, who scored the winner, was excellent that day — and people started to take notice of us. I think that was the real turning point. After that, we got a bit of luck, developed a bit of belief — and then great things started to happen.
One other question about the aftermath of the defeat to Italy — is that story really true about what Tony Cascarino is supposed to have said when Charlie Haughey came into the dressing room in the Olympic Stadium?
Yeah, it’s true, though whether Cas was winding us up I’m not sure. But he was sitting next to me in the dressing room when Charlie Haughey came in and he asked me who he was. I told him it was The Taoiseach. And then he turns to Andy Townsend and says, ‘I don’t know who he is but Quinny says he owns a tea-shop’.
Finally there was the homecoming which brought Dublin to a standstill. What stands out in your memory from that day?
The circling of the city before we landed at the airport was the thing for me. I never saw anything like it and I never will again in my life. I remember the pilot saying, ‘Hey guys, just to let you know how the country has reacted to your performances, everybody look out the windows on the left’. And so we circled over Dublin and, genuinely, there were tears. You could see the Liffey, you could see thousands and thousands of small dots filling O’Connell Street and College Green and all the way out to the airport. It was pretty amazing. Then, as we made our way down the steps of the plane, to see my family — they’d been allowed up close to where we got off —yeah, it was pretty special.
25 years on, is there still a special bond with your Italia ‘90 team mates?
We keep in touch. For example, Gerry Peyton dropped me a line there the other day. I see Kevin (Moran) regularly. I bumped into Alan McLoughlin recently. I see Andy (Townsend) at grounds from time to time because a good few of us have ended up commentating on games. We were a good team of talkers (laughs). We’ve never done anything official but the bond will never diminish.
I know what that summer did for me and for my career. I played at the top level for 13 more years. A couple of years before it, I was not sure I was even going to have a career in the game. So it was a huge summer for me and my family. I try not to get emotional about it but it’s hard not to. When something comes up on the telly, like ‘Reeling In The Years’, and the kids are watching, laughing at my hair and stuff, there are times when, actually, the hairs do stand up on the back of your neck. Then you snap out of it and say ‘sure we were useless, we didn’t train properly’ and all that stuff. But, no — we were a bit better than that.