That was a nice little slice of history on RTÉ on Tuesday evening, wasn’t it? In case you missed it, it was called Euro 88: We Can Beat This Lot and — well, the title says everything.
It lasted for half an hour, it was bilingual and it was cheap and cheerful in the best sense of the term. There was lots of footage, some from surprising sources and angles, and not too many talking heads. Mercifully the programme makers had sufficient cop-on not to allow David McWilliams to pontificate, yet again, on how Jack Charlton was one of the midwives of the Celtic Tiger.
Instead we saw a young and fresh looking George Hamilton, the late and lamented Vere Wynne-Jones was prominent reporting for RTÉ in Germany and near the end a piece of footage surfaced that was so transcendently bizarre I half wondered if I were hallucinating: Charlie Haughey, fresh from his Tour de France triumph the previous summer, watching the Dutch match at home in Kinsealy with Charlie Bird sitting beside him on the sofa skulling tinnies. It was the first time in my life I felt sorry Charlie. Haughey, obviously.
My own memories of that week in high Germany as someone who’d foot-soldiered on the campaign, starting on the night in Brussels when Liam Brady’s late penalty gave Ireland an improbable 2-2 draw at the Heysel?
(This, it’s crucial to remember, in an era when Ireland didn’t get away draws, still less late penalties.) Getting off the train in Karlsruhe the afternoon before the England match and hearing some unknown female — obviously young and American — at the Nelson Mandela concert in Wembley sing about a boy and a fast car that was gonna get them out of there.
Sitting behind the goal in Stuttgart next day, confident that England wouldn’t equalise because Packie Bonner looked in the mood to repel not just Gary Lineker but the armed might of the entire Warsaw Pact.
The purity and poetry of the football Ireland produced against the USSR on the Wednesday in Hannover. (The reason? Kevin Sheedy was in midfield instead of Paul McGrath.) Being stuck down the far end in Gelsenkirchen on the Saturday, feeling helpless and sensing the afternoon wouldn’t finish before Holland had scored.
There was more. Much more.
There was the adventure of it all and the fun and the good humour. This was before Jack’s army had become Jack’s Army [TRADEMARK SIGN???], the soi-disant “best fans in the world”, full of cheap patriotism and braying self-regard.
There was the size of the London Irish contingent and its significance.
Ireland’s presence at a major tournament was finally allowing these children of the 1950s emigrant generation to express their heritage and — yes — their nationality.
Also notable was the youthful nature of Ireland’s support, overwhelmingly in their 20s. By the 1994 World Cup corporate Ireland was firmly on the bandwagon and Orlando was teeming with business wankers on junkets.
The programme the other night dug up a nice exchange on ITV from before the England match, Ian St John musing that Ireland had a good chance because their players were “playing at the top level every week with the top sides” and Brian Clough nodding that “everybody knows everybody”. This chimed with my own outlook. I travelled less in hope than in reasonable confidence.
All 11 starters in Stuttgart were either playing for or had played for Manchester United, Liverpool, Spurs, Arsenal or Celtic. Frank Stapleton, indeed, had played for both Manchester United and Arsenal. Now he was on the books at Derby County. These days half of the Irish squad seem to be on the books at Derby County. But none of them have played for Manchester United and Arsenal and, it’s pretty safe to say, none of them will.
That we didn’t make the semi-finals didn’t matter in the end. Something about Ireland and Irishness changed that week in Germany and changed for the better. Ireland was at last making international headlines for the right reasons. This time the tricolour was not spattered in other people’s blood.
It was impossible not to think of Robert Emmet. “When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth” indeed.
So: We are the Boys in Green, the best you’ve ever seen/We’ve just repeated history, we’re off to Sandenny. How will we do?
My days of foot-soldiering may be long gone but I reckon we’ll be okay.
Forget this Group of Death nonsense for one thing. Ireland’s group is nothing of the sort.
Subtract Ibrahimovic — a substantial deduction, admittedly — and Sweden are no better than Ireland. The time to be wary of Italy in the opening phase of a tournament is never. As for Belgium, so hyped yet so insipid in Brazil two years ago, they’ll only be a championship-winning side when they go and win a championship.
Ireland will be cohesive and coherent and organised and committed and spirited. In a 24-team tournament that gives them a jump on half of the field. We can beat this lot? We can certainly not lose to them. That’ll do for starters.
Desire is choice for any Derby hipsters
Apologies if you’re familiar with it but on a day like today there’s no reason not to exhume the words of the great Italian breeder Federico Tesio, the man ultimately responsible for the Northern Dancer line.
“The thoroughbred exists because its selection has depended, not on experts, technicians, or zoologists, but on a piece of wood: the winning post of the Epsom Derby. If you base your criteria on anything else, you will get something else, not the thoroughbred.”
It’s an improbably open looking race — the bookies go 4/1 the field — and, as such, liable to be won by an outsider. Naturally Aidan O’Brien is mob-handed, but that’s a sign of weakness rather than of strength. As the old saw had it, if Vincent O’Brien thought he had four Derby winners in the stable he probably had none.
(The modern version of that? If Willie Mullins reckons he has four Cheltenham bumper winners in the stable, he has none.)
Anyway, for hipsters there can only be but one choice. Wings of Desire is named after a Wim Wenders film. What more could you ask for, man?
Heroes & Villains
Derby day for the canines as well and Paul Hennessy has the favourite, the black dog that — Pogues fans ahoy! — will race out of Trap Six.
All kinds of wrong. And the IABA voted for this?