Italia ’90 – The Rearcross Connection

Sometimes the numbingly mundane can foreshadow the memorably sublime. Stranded on an aircraft standing motionless on the Dublin Airport runway for an hour on Sunday 17 June 1990 was not really the stuff of legend. Not a start to be recalling for posterity a quarter of a century on yet here we are and that is how it began for us. John Carey, Noel Deegan and Séamus Taylor represented the flower of Rearcross youth back in those days before youthful possibility gave way to mature achievement and burgeoning wisdom. Newport school had caused our paths to converge and I joined them on one of Ireland’s earliest and probably most famous forays into the world of major tournaments.

From the moment Real Madrid midfielder Michel turned the ball past his own goalkeeper Barcelona’s Zubizarreta at the Havelock Square end of Lansdowne Road back in April 1989 to give Ireland a critical two points in a World Cup qualifier you sensed something in the air. Far from such thoughts we were reared with our memory of refereeing decisions in far-flung places like Sofia. All changed utterly with Euro 88 when Joxer went to Stuttgart. Suddenly came the realisation that there was, after all, nothing innate about the players of Bayern Munich or AC Milan that made big tournaments their exclusive playground with us predestined to remain slack-jawed and envious voyeurs from our sitting-rooms. Two gloriously sunny days in the following weeks saw Hungary and Malta beaten. Qualification for what was becoming known as Italia 90 was creeping closer. Long and emotional nights in Dublin hostelries invited all manner of bravado. But the end of it all anyone not going to Italy was hardly a man at all, and certainly not a proper patriot.

When the draw was made in December the nation paused for thought. Holland, England and Egypt awaited. The Dutch were potential thoroughbreds with the cream of the peerless AC Milan team in their ranks. Egypt we knew little of at that stage. England stirred many emotions. Naturally they were the old enemy and you wanted a crack at them but things were not that simple. Their supporters had spawned a poisonous legacy across the fields of Europe over the previous couple of decades. In 1980, as a young boy, I had first heard the expression ‘tear-gas’ when it was used by Italian police at that year’s Euros on unruly England supporters. Euro 88 saw them throw the gauntlet down to the German police too. The Italian solution? Place England on the island of Sardinia for the first round and defer their arrival on the mainland as long as possible.

This meant that Ireland was heading to Sardinia to play England and then for mafia-country in Sicily for the other two games. By the time we were contemplating life aboard an increasingly warm aircraft in the wilds of Collinstown, England and Ireland had played out a 1-1 draw. The song went ‘you’ll never beat the Irish’ and it had proven true once more. As we eventually hit the skies we were spearing our way into a world of real possibility. That very day we would lock horns with Egypt in the blistering heat of the Palermo afternoon. In theory at least it was a game we could look towards with optimism.

We were based at a custom-made facility near Palermo – a curious combination of man-made swimming arenas and nature’s contribution of jaw-dropping cliffs under a flawlessly blue Sicilian sky. Our delay in Dublin prompted our travel agent, Ray Treacy – he of 40-odd Irish caps, to recommend that we go straight to the match on arrival. Once we entered the Stadio La Favorita we realised that there was something different going on. The stadium swept around with a beautiful uniformity into an oval masterpiece.

This was before the post-Hillsborough Taylor Report recommendations kicked in across England so we were more accustomed to football stadiums as heaving masses of humanity where the imperative for survival trumped the desire for comfort. This stadium was embellished like a particularly self-conscious Celtic Tiger era sitting-room.  It had been redeveloped ahead of the World Cup – not that we were conscious of that – and gleamed in the sun like a 40,000 all-seater spacecraft.   

This was the World Cup – the arena from where Pele, Maradona, Charlton, Moore, Beckenbauer, Cruyff, Mario Kempes, Paolo Rossi and such names had colonised our televisions in the past. Now we were there. We consoled ourselves with that thought. Four wide-eyed, green young lads from hurling territory among the pioneers of Irish soccer supporters. We needed that psychological crutch as the afternoon heat sapped our will to live and the match stank the place out. The story goes that BBC broadcaster Barry Davies fell asleep during commentary. A dire 0-0 draw was greeted with uproar back in Ireland. Eamon Dunphy threw his pen across the desk in disgust as he rattled off a host of past greats such as Tommy Eglinton and Peter Farrell for whom he was embarrassed. It is a drum which Dunphy has beaten on many an occasion since. It was the voice of the purist versus the pragmatist that was Jack Charlton.   

The Irish style of play and reaction to it caused many a raucous debate even among supporters in Italy. I recall distinctly Noel Deegan’s bewilderment at the unwillingness of the more ‘patriotic’ among the support to even consider the possibility that Ireland was not some mutated aesthetically spectacular off-spring of the 1970 and 1982 Brazilian teams. The days between that Sunday and the game against the Dutch on the Thursday night was speckled with news from home. Reaction to Eamon Dunphy’s outburst was fermenting constant discussion at our base and by Thursday one genius was attempting to get a chant going at the match which was not exactly complimentary to Eamon. Mercifully he was given short shrift by most others.

Days were spent by the pool, watching and occasionally taking part – clumsily – in aqua-aerobics. What we later realised was water-polo was ‘invented’ by us and whiled away many an hour too as did the occasional five-a-side. One of the downsides was enduring the unfamiliar and remarkably unvarying food. Granted we were not the most sophisticated diners in 1990 – pasta, for example, was far from the staple it is these days, but little cognisance was taken of international visitors at this location. Not all was lost. White wine was literally on tap free gratis and sustained many a palate during the day before the night festivities with their more regular beverages.

We were a captive audience and the Italians did not shy back. Prices were insane, though somewhat disguised by a curious system within our complex where ‘beads’ rather than actual currency were used. You purchased a set number of beads at the reception to use in lieu of money and consequently working out precisely what you paid for anything was like splitting the atom. One of our number bought a replica of the World Cup mascot – a little figurine made of blocks in the Italian national colours and called ‘Ciao’ – and realised later, to wide amusement, that he had paid the price of a small bullock for this piece of memorabilia. Allowing for inflation the week in Palermo cost around €2,500 though it seemed like even more at the time.

By the time Thursday evening arrived anticipation was at fever pitch. This was an ideal setting for a match with an evening kick-off rather than the mid-afternoon frying-pan that was the Egypt game. Stadio La Favorita sparkled like Marilyn Monroe. One indelible memory is of Paul McGrath, during the warm-up, acknowledging the ‘ooh aah Paul McGrath‘ chant which even the Dutch fans had been trained in. The opposition supporters were charming but their team was less accommodating. Ruud Gullit, of Milan and many dreadlocks, ran the show in midfield.  “Ye’re looking at a thoroughbred tonight” opined one older Irish supporter. Few could argue. Just ten minutes had elapsed when the Dutch hit the front courtesy of the dreadlocked one.

An hour later we were just glad the lead had not been extended when out of the blue Niall Quinn produced an equaliser as the Dutch goalkeeper spilled the ball like a hot potato. We were in full voice again and growing in confidence, albeit the ‘you’ll never beat the Irish’ sort of confidence. We were hardly going to carve open the Dutch defence with our range of passing. We were now operating a total aerial bombardment policy with Cascarino and Quinn at the coalface. What it conceded in predictability it compensated for in nuisance value. With the game in its dying moments play slowed to a virtual standstill with word emerging that England and Egypt had a similar result and that                                                                          

The game against Romania bids fair for the title of the most recalled game the nation ever played courtesy of that famous penalty shootout. It also might go down on any shortlist of the most boring and sterile contests we ever had to endure. In that sense it betrays the dark underbelly of the Italia 90 experience. As a tournament, when you coldly analyse it, it was a low-point. Ireland played five matches, won none, scored just two goals, yet were on the brink of a semi-final. Both semi-finals went to penalty shootouts and the final’s only goal was a penalty which won for Germany against Argentina. Eight matches went to extra-time and four went to penalties. Neither record has been surpassed. Never again would the back-pass be permitted at a World Cup. Never again would a team be rewarded by just two points for a win at a World Cup. That is the legacy of Italia 90.

But no account of the tournament would be complete without referencing the name of the summer – Toto Schillaci. He was a something of a celebrity where we were staying as he was a Palermo boy himself. This was the most southerly venue of the World Cup, so southerly in fact that when Schillaci joined the mighty Juventus – up in northern Turin – from Sicilian club Messina in 1989 he had to take Italian lessons!  By the time Ireland squared up to Italy in Rome on 30 June in the quarter-final we were watching the game in the Royal George hotel in Limerick. A far cry from sunny Italy but we still countenanced the possibility of a trip to the semi-final against Argentina in Naples. The best part of three decades later the sound of Jimmy Magee’s commentary, describing Roberto Donadoni’s shot parried by Bonner before Schillaci struck, still resonates.

There was a sense of finality about that goal even though we still awaited the half-time break. Conjuring goals was not Ireland’s strong point and though we had managed equalisers against the English and Dutch, an Italian defence was a different animal. The Azurri played 570 minutes at that World Cup conceding just one goal. It was a lock that a thick-fingered Ireland was unlikely to pick. Still, this was the World Cup which gave birth to the Irish fan as a globe-trotting national ambassador with a pint in his hand and a song on his lips. There are worse stereotypes. Ask those Italian police with their tear-gas! It gave the Irish population a summer of fun and games. For the four of us who went to Italy together it provided memories that will abide forever and a day.

Written by Martin Ryan (July 2016)