The clock behind the reception desk ticked so loudly that you could hear it on the first floor.
Its hands slowly moved past the hour of three in a grey yesteryear hotel made of granite during communist times.
It was a balmy summer’s evening in central Bucharest in 2015 and I waited — hardly taking my eyes off the old revolving wooden doors.
I fiddled with my dictaphone at a table in the empty foyer, checking my mobile every few minutes to see if the person I’d travelled over 3,000 kilometres to meet would send a message to cancel. Since I touched down 24 hours earlier the fear that this would all be in vain weighed heavy.
After all, our meeting had only been agreed to over a crackling telephone line days earlier and I started to wonder if the man I’d spoken to, with relatively little English, would show. Maybe he’d backed out, maybe he’d misunderstood.
At 3.50pm a shadow descended over the foyer.
Through the doors a large slow-moving figure entered the lobby. I strained my eyes. Was this really him? I couldn’t be sure. Daniel Timofte, the man who missed, the man who set up David O’Leary for that ‘The nation holds its breath’ moment, a sporting folklore figure in Ireland, was so much leaner in my memory.
To be fair, that was a lifetime ago.
Heavy-set and sweating, he glanced at me and smiled. “I am Dani,” he said.
The man with his hand outstretched was initially unrecognisable as the figure who turned and walked back to the halfway line in Genoa 30 years ago today as Packie Bonner jumped for joy behind him with fists clenched.
It was a surreal moment.
One born on a night out in Sligo months earlier when a colleague and friend Ciarán Byrne suggested that some journalist should go looking for Daniel Timofte.
The author Paul Howard, then writing for the Sunday Tribune, had managed to find him in Transylvania in 2002 but what had happened since? Had he managed to finally put the miss behind him? One that seemingly defined the course of life in the years that followed.
Paul helped with an old telephone number he’d written down in a notebook, but the prefixes had all changed.
Numerous Romanians living in Ireland helped via Facebook, one even getting his brother to go door-to-door in Timofte’s hometown of Petrosani until finally an accurate number was relayed and we came to this point. As I shook Timofte’s hand I thought of all of those who’d worked to make this happen.
Not knowing what to offer Daniel as a way of saying ‘thank you’ for meeting me I picked up a bottle of Jameson in Dublin airport en route. It’s a tact I used often over the years when interviewing someone on their home turf. In its green cylindrical casing, it sits there between us as we talk. I call for a couple of whiskey glasses which the bored guy on hotel reception eventually produces.
In truth Timofte is somewhat intrigued by the meeting — that an Irish journalist would travel all the way to Romania just to sit down with him. While to us he’s a cult figure, to his fellow countrymen Timofte is more or less unknown, the memory of him wiped following that miss in 1990 and eclipsed by the heroics of the Romanian side of Georghe Hagi in the USA four years later.
Despite having a fairly successful career with Turkish outfit Samsunspor between 1993 and 1999, and before that a season in the Bundesliga with Bayer Uerdingen, his career, so full of promise and possibilities as a young footballer, faded due to a mixture of injury and misfortune.
Arguably it all started in that moment in the Stadio Luigi Ferraris when Bonner pounced to repel Daniel’s tame spot-kick.
“I had it in my mind to kick the ball straight down the middle, but a team-mate told me to pick a side, it was a big mistake. If we had won that shootout, maybe we could have won the World Cup and life would have been better,” he says.
He told me that Tony Cascarino played his part in that penalty miss too.
I recall being surprised that Cascarino’s name rolled off his tongue — still clearly on his mind all those years later.
“I had bad luck, Cascarino took the penalty before me. When he kicked the ball, he took a part of the pitch on the penalty spot with it. So, I put the ball in that hole for my kick. And then I faced this wall of green fans behind the goals, that sight stays with me, green everywhere,” he says.
Maybe he is replaying the moment in his mind.
At times it seems that Timofte is uncomfortable recalling such a dark moment in his life, one that would impact his family and his health, but at other times he smiles as he recalls the chaos. In a country where so many have forgotten his footballing past it may be somewhat welcome to recount these moments, as painful as they are.
As we talk, I remember that I had mentioned to Packie Bonner a week earlier that I’d hoped to meet Timofte in Bucharest. Midway through my chat with the former midfielder, I ask Daniel if he’d like to speak with the man whose save helped to send Romania packing in Italia ’90.
Before I know it, the two men are chatting on handsfree with me as the moderator. It’s the first, and only, time that Timofte and Bonner have ever spoken.
“I made you a superstar,” jokes Timofte immediately before Bonner even has a chance to say hello, he continues: “You are the boss of your country, but here I am not.”
During an intimate conversation, which lasts no more than five minutes, Bonner asks Timofte of his memories of the penalty. When the words don’t come, I jump in to help Timofte along. The two men are comfortable with each other. It’s incredible really. Their lives have been completely impacted by the action of the other and here they are talking about that defining moment.
Bonner tells Timofte that during 1990 friends of his in Donegal named their boat ‘Timofte’, while the Romanian tells Packie that he opened a bar in his hometown and called it ‘Penalty’.
The telephone line eventually goes dead and I feel a sadness linger in that hotel foyer. While we’ll never forget those scenes of joy in Genoa when David O’Leary’s subsequent penalty hit the back of the Romanian net, some can picture Timofte‘s walk back to the halfway line, pulling at his then full head of hair.
Tormented, dazed, forlorn.
Remember, as well, that in the summer of 1990, Romania was coping with an excited and wild frenzy having toppled communist dictator Nicolae Ceauescu. On the previous Christmas Day the dictator, and his wife Elena, were executed by firing squad.
The World Cup was to be Romania’s signal to the world they were a resurgent people. So, when Timofte missed it was a body blow to the nation.
One that few would forget in a hurry, and few would forgive.
There were phone calls in the middle of the night to both Timofte and family members and digs at him in the bar he owned. Smartasses everywhere who’d remind him of the saved penalty.
Another might have brushed those off but Timofte found it hard.
When I opened my bar, I called it ‘Penalty’ so I could say ‘fuck you’ to those who kept bringing it up. I wanted to show them that I was over it, that they would not win.
A shot at redemption could have come his way four years later.
A Romanian team inspired by the mercurial skills of captain Gheorghe Hagi headed for USA ’94 tipped to do well and they didn’t disappoint, reaching the quarter-finals before they were knocked out — again on penalties, this time to Sweden.
Timofte was battling to recover from injury on time but things were progressing well and his place on the plane to the USA was all but guaranteed.
“A few weeks before my comeback from injury, my knee stalled. I had everything ready to go. But I had to stay at home. It was very difficult to take,” he recalls, looking at the bottom of his glass.
How close was he to reaching USA ‘94? Well he lined out for Romania in Euro qualifiers against Azerbaijan, France, and England in the autumn of the same year.
I want to believe that in the long run Timofte managed to put that penalty miss against the Boys in Green behind him. That as the young man gave way to the middle-aged one a gentle acceptance that this was just part and parcel of football softened the memory. That his brief spells as football coach over the last decade would have brought a maturity. But the reality is it didn’t.
After a few more whiskies we visit some bars in the local area. Over the course of a few hours he’s not recognised once. He tells me that he nearly backed out of meeting me.
“I never talk about it (the penalty miss). I have never watched the footage of the penalty.
“Now I will never talk of the penalty again, it’s done, it’s over. I think I can forget about it now; I hope I can.”
I tried Daniel’s mobile phone number again this week. It rang but there was no answer. Perhaps he’s staying true to his pledge of not speaking of the penalty miss again. Or perhaps it continues to be too painful a memory to revisit.