The Republic of Ireland’s first experience of the World Cup saw them drawn in Group F alongside Egypt, the Netherlands and England. Group games were played on the islands of Sardinia and Sicily against the backdrop of running battles between the Italian Carabinieri and Dutch and English hooligans.
The Irish fans behaviour was impeccable and in stark contrast to that of their fellow European qualifiers even though much of the Group F football on display turned out to be dire.
Sardinia / Sicily
The Republic’s opening World Cup fixture took place on June 11,1990 against England in Cagliari. The highly anticipated fixture turned into a damp squib with a thunder and lightening display the one highlight of an otherwise dreadful encounter.
Gary Lineker bundled the ball over the line from close range to put England ahead in the 8th minute and Ireland looked set to taste defeat until an error by substitute Steve McMahon allowed Everton winger Kevin Sheedy to fire home with 17 minutes remaining. It ended 1-1 but the result felt like a victory for Ireland who earned a draw from the jaws of defeat.
The action moved to the Stadio La Favorita in Palermo six days later when Ireland were expected to defeat an Egyptian side despite the Africans holding a star-studded Dutch outfit 1-1 in their opening game. The less said about the encounter the better as both sides struggled in the searing heat to even string a succession of passes together.
A horrific encounter ended 0-0 and RTE’s Eamon Dunphy gained much notoriety for his after-match analysis and scathing criticism of Jack Charlton’s long-ball tactics. Dunphy’s rant would see Charlton refuse to answer questions from the Sunday Independent journalist at a stormy press conference in the Irish squad’s hotel a week later.
The final round of Group F matches were completed on June 21 with England finishing top following a 1-0 win over Egypt thanks to solitary Mark Wright header.
Ireland and Holland drew 1-1 on the same evening in Palermo. Charlton’s side came from behind for the second time in three matches with Niall Quinn capitalising on a Hans Van Breukelen goalkeeping error to cancel out Ruud Gullit’s 10th minute opener.
The game descended into farce with Captains Mick McCarthy and Ruud Gullit meeting in the centre of the pitch and seemingly agreeing to play out the remaining minutes as a practice match. Both sides were fully aware of the score in the English game and knew they would finish level on points if the score remained 1-1.
FIFA had to draw lots to see who finished Group F runners-up, as both Ireland and Holland’s records were identical. Lady Luck smiled on Jack Charlton once again with Ireland drawn against Romania in Genoa and the unlucky Dutch travelling to Milan to face the powerful West Germans.
Ireland and Romania squared off in the first knockout round on June 25 in a packed Stadio Luigi Ferraris Stadium in Genoa. An enthralling battle ended scoreless after ninety minutes and extra-time resulting in a penalty shoot-out to decide who progressed to the last eight of the competition.
The shoot-out was tied at 4-4 when Daniel Timofte nervously placed the ball on the penalty spot. The Romanian’s kick lacked conviction and Packie Bonner dived brilliantly to divert the ball away from the goal. The Celtic shot-stopper jumped in the air, arms aloft with delight but quickly calmed his team-mates as David O’Leary strode forward to take the decisive kick.
The Arsenal defender had suffered under Charlton’s regime for years after refusing to play in an Icelandic pre-season tournament and deciding to go on holidays with his family instead.
Jack rarely considered O’Leary for selection after that episode but also pointed to the fact he had the likes of Paul McGrath, Kevin Moran and Mick McCarthy as ample centre-back cover. It was now time for redemption and RTE commentator George Hamilton summed up the moment perfectly as O’Leary began his run-up for the decisive kick when he uttered the immortal line: “A nation holds it breath… We’re there!”
Scenes of utter pandemonium ensued with the entire Irish squad and back-room team racing onto the pitch to embrace O’Leary. Images of Irish fans in a state of utter delirium in pubs dotted all over the country were screened on RTE that evening as the nation geared up for an unexpected quarter-final trip to Rome to take on the hosts.
Prior to the Romania game, Jack Charlton joked with physio Mick Byrne that he would take him to meet the Pope if Ireland qualified for the quarter finals. Monsignor Liam Boyle was travelling with the squad and arranged the Vatican meeting following Dave O’Leary’s heroics just 24 hours before the Italian showdown.
The entire Irish squad was granted an audience with Pope John Paul who offered his best wishes despite Charlton nodding off in the Vatican auditorium.
But not even a Papal blessing could prevent the host nation from knocking Ireland out of the World Cup 1-0 on June 30th thanks to a solitary \’Toto’ Schillaci strike.
The magnificent Irish fans remained loyal to their players, singing and chanting throughout the game and staying on long after the final whistle to acclaim their new hero Jack Charlton.
The summer of 1990 will be remembered by any Irish soccer fans lucky enough to have experienced it as one of the best months of their lives.
GerMcCarthy is author of the book entitled \’Off Centre Circle’, published by the Evening Echo, which chronicles the curious life of a West Cork amateur soccer player.