The obvious concern with a documentary such as The Boys In Green (RTÉ One, 9.35pm) is that it will take itself and its subject matter too seriously.
Jack Charlton’s record-breaking tenure as the Republic of Ireland soccer manager began in 1986, when Ireland was still mostly poor and priest-ridden. The fear is that Ross Whitaker’s two-part film (the second hour airs next week) will use the Charlton-era as a prism through which to scrutinise our journey from backwater impoverishment to the dawn of the Celtic Tiger (followed, in turn, by our 6-0 defeat at the hands of the 2008 financial crisis). What a drag that would be.
There is some of the dreary socio-political stuff. But not as much as there might have been. The church, emigration, baton charges in Belfast are all wheeled out for our disapproval. However, the Boys in Green is careful not to be excessively po-faced about the story it has to tell. Whitaker instead captures the joy and excitement the entire country felt as, beginning with the qualification for the 1988 European Championships in Germany, Charlton’s team exceeded everyone’s wildest expectations.
This, then, is a sports documentary that never loses sight of the fact it's a sports documentary. A fighting-fit field of interviewees helps. Ronnie Whelan, Kevin Sheedy and John Aldridge are among the former internationals recalling the unlikely rise of Charlton's Ireland and the difficulties presented to the opposition by the manager's trench-warfare tactics.
Human interest is supplied by David O’Leary. The classy defender remembers how he was cast into the wilderness after falling out with Charlton. But he was brought back for the 1990 World Cup and duly scored the winner in the last-16 penalty shoot-out against Romania. Hollywood couldn’t have scripted it any more dramatically.
The Irish stars are joined by Gary Lineker. He shares his memories of losing to Charlton in Stuttgart in 1988 and of putting England ahead as the two sides clashed once more in Cagliari, in the 1990 World Cup.
“It was kind of a scruffy goal,” he smiles. “I was quite pleased with my determination and my strength to hold off big Mick McCarthy, ’cos that is an achievement.”
Charlton's old bête noire, Eamon Dunphy, has a starring role too. As was the case at the time, one of the highlights of the Boys in Green is Dunphy's epic meltdown as Ireland huff and puff against Egypt in a group game at Italia '90.
A quasi-Shakespearean soliloquy about the rich tradition of creative Irish soccer that Charlton has betrayed is followed by a pen flung across the desk. This was a national talking point. Charlton was even asked to comment at a press conference.
“It had a meaning for people of our vintage, who remembered soccer as the despised ‘foreign’ game,” Dunphy recollects of the Egypt match and his strop. “I was very proud and kind of wired a bit. We were terrible. I was raging.”
Strangely, one of the pleasures of the documentary is an effervescent soundtrack. Road to Nowhere by Talking Heads, Fiesta by the Pogues, Loaded by Primal Scream all ring out against footage of Ireland sticking the ball in the opposition net. Indeed, at moments The Boys In Green feels like Reeling In The Years meets Goal of the Month from Match of the Day. And who wouldn’t want an hour of that?