Following the harrowing news over the weekend of good auld Jack’s demise, a deluge of memories of those heathy days have come swirling back to me. As they did for us all who were privy to those times, I’m sure. It shook me more than I’d anticipated. Italia ’90 was the first real time I discovered the magic of football. What a time to be alive.
That match against Romania will always be the stand out one (for the occasion and outcome more-so than the actual football). I’m not sure why, but everyone assembled in our home. Well, all the mothers and us kids that is. The men I can presume were in the boozer, having downed tools a bit early.
Even at the tender age of six, I could see that the penalties were impeccable. One after another they darted past the despairing keepers. Then came the immortal sentence; ‘Timofte against Bonner”. It’s funny, even at such a young age his demeanour had me thinking this could be it, mind you I felt like that, with my youthful exuberance, for the previous four. However, this time my gut was right, a frenzy of jangling nerves and excitement ensued.
Bonner saved it, making that purple jersey permanently imprinted in my brain. George Hamilton’s now immortal commentary has stayed with me ever since. Never has the phrase ‘a nation holds its breath’ been so accurate. O’Leary dispatching his adeptly, sent us into pure ecstasy. The house went berserk. We immediately went outside to mimic saving the penalty.Everyone was so caught up for the time after that, the poor wee dog from next door managed to scale a wall four times his size into ours, given how hungry he was. He was well looked after that evening, following this temporary neglect.
Seeing my mother bound joyfully into my father’s arms on his arrival at the front door, brought home how massive this really was. Having never had my mother down as a football fan, I quickly realised my youthful enthusiasm was not misplaced. Even to a six year old it was clear, these were exceptional times to be savoured by us all.
Waiting for hours to catch a glimpse of our heroes at the airport on their arrival home, dressed in our full kits of course, and enjoying the festivity of it all, further compounded this feeling. What a time that was! An awakening.
Great Days Indeed
Following this, great days did indeed ensue. Two World cups in four years? Unheard of, before or after the great Jack. Running home from school for qualifiers with my thirty pence bottle of cadet cola was now the norm. Relentless excitement, and it all stemmed from Jack and his players. What a team, and Jack was the rightful conductor.
I don’t know what life was like prior to these days but during and since you’d have to say Jack and his army brought about an inherent pride and belief in ourselves. Throughout my life we have always struggled to qualify for the major tournaments, however, once we got there, man oh man, we don’t just show up, we compete (2012 aside). I still hold the belief that were we to qualify for a major tournament anything could happen.
Letting the expectation grow, and then have this hope rewarded was nearly taken for granted. Such rock solid performances, where our boys regularly upset the apple cart was something to savour. Jack fostered this culture.
The music that accompanied these days only served to heighten our Irish slant on an English sport. Hiberno-football if you will. Christy Moore’s Joxer goes to Stuttgart really captured the craic of the time. Football and storytelling, I’m in heaven:)
I had been guilty of looking back and at times thinking, maybe with a team full of top players from Liverpool and Man. Utd. they could have done more with different tactics. However, given the recent upsurge in use of the press by my beloved ‘Pool and other such teams, it is clear now Jack was really on to something.He spotted a weakness at international level at the time, and exploited it. I may have been guilty of thinking I knew more than I did. We were lucky to have him and who am I to question the great man anyway?
Posterity of Time
I could look back with the usual what ifs, but realistically where is the value in that? The reality is what happened, happened…and what happened was amazing, and so special to be part of. Jack gave us a sense of pride and belief that wasn’t there I’d imagine, after the battering travails of the 1980s. A time when everything was about getting on with it. Suddenly the team was qualifying and rattling all sorts of cages. They didn’t believe anyone’s hype, they just went to work, particularly against Jack’s native land.
Such was the charisma of the man, he managed to traverse the potential quagmire of not only being Ireland’s first foreign manager, but an Englishman at that. Given the strained Anglo-Irish relations of the time on account of the troubles, it is a pure testament to the man, that he seemed like on of our own from the start. He unearthed some players who may never have played for us. He built a serious camaraderie, not only amongst the players, but between the players and us. Events on the pitch informed the stands, and vice versa, it was a match made in heaven. The diaspora now had a whole new voice, you didn’t have to be born here to acutely feel that sense of Irish-ness.He helped build that.
We all got caught up with his charisma. In an era prior to celebrity culture and social media, he was the first real star I knew. The sense of pride I gained from being told his birthday was the day after mine was immeasurable. Yet, his demeanour was so down to earth, honourable and decent that you felt you knew him personally. Footage of his storytelling skills on The Late Late are legendary. Furthermore, footage of his rage after his own went rioting in Lansdowne at that friendly was affirming, he was our leader and embodied all our hurt and rage that night.
I distinctly remember in 2016, as Ireland headed into battle with France in the Euros, being reminded of those early years. We were racing down the road to make the pub in time for kick off. As usual, we were going to be a few minutes late, no big deal. As we arrived at the traffic lights just before entering The Roost, all the cars started beeping as if on ceremony. This made our haste turn to panic. Something has happened already!
Yes indeed, Ireland scored an early peno. Queue absolute scenes. It got me thinking, I couldn’t possibly imagine any other team uniting the nation as such. We were all in this together, our hope, belief, and above all pride all intertwined for those wonderful few moments when the team is doing well. The emotion a few days prior during our victory over Italy was another serious case and point. What other team could evoke this complete coming together?
I became a season ticket holder following another emotional night at Lansdowne soon after…Proof it really does send us barmy. As I cheer on Shane Long from Tipperary or Aaron Connelly from the Galway, the latest of our talents, I can’t help but wonder, would football have been as connected to rural Ireland was it not for Jack’s influence? Or would Kilbane and others have felt that keen sense of Irish-ness that saw them reject England call-ups to play for their true nation? I doubt it.
Jack got me hooked on football, through that sense of belonging and pride that we all had when we held our inflatable hammers aloft. Thank you Jack for restoring our nation, for uniting us in hope not fear, and giving us that undying belief (sometimes misplaced), that on our day, anything is possible.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.