From a Jack to a king

Twenty-five years ago today at Italia ‘90, Brazil were beating Scotland 1-0 and Costa Rica were beating Sweden 2-1 but, putting the kibosh on what was the most keenly anticipated contest of the day back in Ireland, Jack Charlton was simply refusing to even take the pitch against Eamon Dunphy.

From a Jack to a king

The country’s best known sports writer and television football analyst had, almost overnight, become Public Enemy No 1 after slamming Ireland’s dismal performance in the scoreless draw with Egypt live on RTÉ, his new-found notoriety in large part founded on the entirely erroneous yet stubbornly widespread belief that he’d declared himself ashamed to be Irish. (When what he’d actually said was: “Anyone sending a team out to play that way should be ashamed of themselves.”).

Now Dunphy was in Palermo, wearing his Sunday Independent hat and attempting to cover Jack Charlton’s press conference on the eve of Ireland’s crunch Group F qualifier against the Netherlands. By his own admission, Dunphy’s was a provocative presence but, also, an entirely legitimate one. Except that Charlton was refusing to play ball. When Dunphy started to ask a question, the manager immediately cut him short. “You’re not allowed to ask a question...you’re not a proper journalist. We’re not answering questions.”

And that was that. Charlton stormed off, saying he’d talk separately elsewhere with senior Irish journalists, leaving something of an unsavoury media skirmish in his wake. (Unlike all their Irish counterparts, some English journalists present stood with Dunphy in what he would later describe as “a rare example of water proving thicker than blood”).

A headline-grabber for one day, in the grand scheme of Italia 90 – and all that it would mean to this country – the row was ultimately a minor affair, a blip quickly eclipsed by the following night’s draw with Holland which would see Ireland through to the knock-out stages of the tournament and reset the nation’s collective spirit to euphoric.

Still, the spectacle of a World Cup manager, in a grandstanding display of petulance, refusing to accept a journalist’s right to ask a question was, nonetheless, a low point for Charlton at the tournament, not that he probably saw it as such. And it was all the more striking because, most of the time, Charlton tended to get things exactly right, even if there would always be those who couldn’t condone his footballing methods.

John Givens, brother of former international striker Don, was close to Big Jack throughout his heyday as manager of Ireland. The Media Sports & Leisure company run by John and his colleague Trevor O’Rourke handled the Opel account when the car manufacturers became Ireland team sponsors in 1986, looked after the players’ pool at Euro ‘88 and worked closely with the media at Italia ‘90. And from ‘88 onwards, at Charlton’s request, it was John who negotiated the commercial deals which increasingly flowed the manager’s way.

“I just found him very direct, very straight,” John tells me over a cup of coffee, robustly defending Charlton against the charge that he was grasping in the way he maximised commercial opportunities while in the Ireland job. “No, not at all. Honestly. He’d never say how much is in it. He had one saying when it might be a bigger job and there’d be a bit of discussion. He’d say: ‘Get what you can - but don’t lose the job’.” Which, when you think about it, was not too far removed from his philosophy of football. Looking back on those days, John recalls that as the Irish game moved into unchartered territory under Charlton, the experience was a steep learning curve on all fronts.

“The players were less aware of sponsorship then,” John notes. “It was a job to get them to wear the shirt with the Opel logo on. You’d be rushing down to them with a shirt when you heard they were about to do an interview. Whereas nowadays they’re all fully aware of what they have to wear. In general, we were more relaxed about things back then. The fans were still able to get in the team hotel at Italia 90 and, before that in ’88. And I don’t think it was necessarily good for us when, later, the fans would have to travel on different flights and all that.”

One of the memories from the build-up to Italia’ 90 which remains with Givens occurred on the very eve of the tournament when Charlton made his controversial decision to replace Gary Waddock with Alan McLoughlin.

“We were waiting for the luggage to come through on the carousel when Jack went over and called Gary aside and told him,” says John.

“His logic was that if anyone got injured we had no other right-sided midfield player. And it was something I always admired him for because it would have been much easier to leave things as they were. And it was nothing against Gary Waddock. It was just he thought he needed Alan McLoughlin in the squad. Knowing Jack, it was probably only something he thought about for a day or two but, once he realised it was a weakness, he just went for it. And I’ve great admiration for Gary that he didn’t come out afterwards and slaughter Jack about it.”

For John, as for so many others, there was one moment early in the tournament when he feared that Ireland’s first World Cup might be over before it had even properly begun. When Gary Lineker gave England the lead in Calgiari, he simply felt “sick” and retreated down into the bowels of the stadium, missing Kevin Sheedy’s celebrated equaliser.

“Then I heard the roar and ran back up.” By the time the adventure had reached the stage of the penalty shoot-out in Genoa, John, a knowledgeable football man, was no longer able to keep his emotions in check.

“If I’m watching a match I’m as likely to applaud the opposition if they do something good,” he muses. “But, after Dave O’ Leary scored, I remember throwing my arms around a pal of mine from Pembroke Cricket Club in Dublin – and I’d never thrown my arms around anyone. It was just the emotion of it all. It was amazing.”

Speaking of matters spiritual, he also had a ringside seat for the famous Papal audience during which, Charlton later liked to claim, he had fallen asleep and woken up to see, as he thought, the Pope waving at him. And so Jack waved back.

“Well, it did go on for ages because it was done in a number of languages,” John remembers.

“But I don’t think he really fell asleep. I remember from our point of view we were really pleased the next day when (kitman) Charlie O’ Leary appeared in a picture with the Pope in the papers and he was branded with Opel. Charlie, not the Pope! We were delighted.”

He also recalls a meal with Charlton and other Irish parties on the eve of the quarter-final against Italy when, he says, Jack “agreed and accepted that because we were playing the hosts, there was no way Ireland were going to be let win. And though there were no big decisions that went against us in the match, nothing obvious, my feeling at the time, having heard this conversation the night before, was that the referee gave them free-kicks for a lot of what looked to me like straightforward challenges in the air.”

In the end, it was one Toto Scillachi who did the terminal damage, of course, his opportunistic strike bringing an end to Ireland’s glorious Italian summer.

“My final abiding memory of Italy is that there was a party on the night we got knocked out,” John Givens recalls.

“Jack wasn’t ever one for being the last to leave a party so at some point he went off up to bed. There was a square in front of the hotel and it was full of Irish fans. And I remember the windows opened in Jack’s room – he was on the first floor – and he appeared briefly and gave a little blessing to the crowd.” When in Rome...

The time of our lives at Italia ‘90

One of the unsung heroes of Italia ‘90 was the RTÉ employee who put together a 10-minute piece of film which was broadcast on the eve of the quarter-final against Italy. That the story had by then moved decisively beyond the sports pages was something underscored, first, by the appearance in studio of Christy Moore performing an updated version of ‘Joxer Goes To Stuttgart’ and then by a beaming Bill O’Herlihy teeing up a greatest hits package which, all of 25 years on, still has the capacity to raise a smile — and a tear.

It begins with the innocence of the youngest supporters (“Oirlent is goin’ to win de World Cup. Dey’s goin’ to beat Manchester”), encapsulates the definitive birth of the ‘moral victory’ (“If it wasn’t for Kevin Sheedy we wouldn’t have won,” exults a girl in a pub).

It progresses through scenes of ferocious tension and joyful release before ending, unforgettably, with the deeply moving sight of the great journalist John Healy wiping away free-flowing tears with a big paw of a hand, as an EU meeting in Dublin Castle breaks away from trivial matters to join the rest of nation in watching that heart-stopping penalty shoot-out live from Genoa.

The soundtrack to all this is ‘(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life’, by no means a personal favourite but, in the setting in which it is put to use here, was a positively inspired choice.

But don’t take my word for it. YouTube it. It’ll do you good.

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