Euro 88: When everything seemed possible
In six days in Germany in 1988, Ireland learned we could do a little better as a country
Republic of Ireland fans at the European Championships in 1988. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Famous as the win over England may have been, it’s not my favourite memory of Euro 88. The real high point of that glorious week was three days later, on a balmy evening in Hanover, when a Tony Galvin-inspired Ireland played an empire formerly known as the Soviet Union off the pitch and were very unlucky to have to settle for a 1-1 draw.
That was to become the default scoreline of the Jack Charlton era and afterwards, giving rise to the strange chant, as defensive as it was defiant, “You’ll never beat the Irish.” More often than not it involved us going a goal down early on and then fighting back to avoid defeat, allowing fans to claim moral victory.
But in Hanover Ireland played some outstanding football and led deservingly until late on, before Oleg Protasov pilfered a 74th-minute equaliser and a point.
I recall a Dubliner standing on a bar table and, to the tune of ‘Oops Up Side Your Head’, leading a chant of ‘Who’s / at / the top of the group? / I said who’s at the top of the group?’
One of the English papers that reached Germany the next day suggested the indignity for the Soviet superpower in being so outplayed by a country not much bigger than any of the Baltic republics (which, along with Protosov’s Ukraine, were still part of the USSR then). “The Russians, so calm under the sophisticated pressure applied by Holland on Sunday, looked shocked and slightly offended by the sheer velocity of the Irish approach.”
In a tournament of only eight countries – even that seems a quaint idea now – the result was still enough to leaving Ireland sharing leadership of one of the two groups. Another draw would put us in the semi-finals. So Hanover was a heady place that night.
It was especially enjoyable for those of us who had made the mistake of staying in Stuttgart after the game three days earlier. Expecting the greatest party ever then, my three friends and I had deliberately missed the last train back to our campsite, an hour to the north.
Then, too late, it dawned on us that trouble from England fans earlier in the week had taxed the locals’ patience for football supporters in general. The party would be more like a hangover.
One small pub that braved the postmatch celebrations ran out of beer glasses, adding to the surliness of an England fan with a T-shirt that boasted of winning two World Wars and one World Cup.
But in general the bars closed early and nightclubs were off limits. It was a long wait for the first train out in the morning, by which time the afterglow of the most celebrated result in Irish football history had burnt out.
Hanover was different. There were no opposition supporters there, for one thing. It was just us and the Germans, who had enjoyed the Stuttgart result (memorably summarised in one local tabloid headline: “Irland Schlug England”) almost as much as we did.
This was an era before Ireland supporters learned to admire ourselves quite as much as we do now, so our welcome from the locals came as a pleasant surprise. But it was probably also the beginning of a phenomenon now standard when Irish fans gather abroad: mass-performance drinking.
Among the many chants of the night, I recall a Dubliner standing on a bar table and, to the tune of Oops Up Side Your Head, with suitable dance moves, leading the assembly in a chant of “Who’s/at/the top of the group?/I said who’s at the top of the group?”
This didn’t wear off as quickly as you’d think, because, crucially, there was also a second verse: “Who’s/at/the bottom of the group?/I said who’s at the bottom of the group?” It didn’t scan as well, but it was just as popular.
It’s a popular parlour game to speculate about whether Euro 88 helped create the Irish economic miracle. Probably not
That was the other enjoyable thing about Hanover. Earlier in the day the two losers from round one, England and the Netherlands, had met in Düsseldorf. We watched it in a packed hotel bar, where viewers included the BBC commentator Barrie Davies, who was covering our game later.
For thinking Irish fans, a draw in Düsseldorf, or even an English win (which would leave the Dutch with nothing to play for against us), were the best possible results.
This and a certain politeness towards the BBC man meant that, when England came from behind early in the second half to equalise, there was a respectable level of applause for the old enemy.
But it didn’t last. As with the scorpion and the frog, Irish fans couldn’t escape their nature. So when Marco van Basten scored his second goal to put the Dutch back in front, there was a roar of approval, and there was an even bigger one when he added a third.
England were out after two games. The Dutch would do for us as well, eventually. But in the meantime we had that night in Hanover, when everything seemed possible.
It’s a popular parlour game to speculate about whether Euro 88, or Italia 90, or both, helped create the Irish economic miracle that started to take hold in the years following. Probably not.
There were lots of more credible explanations, from the slash-and-burn economic reforms of Ray “Mac the Knife” MacSharry at home to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of globalisation abroad.
Maybe we can claim some of the credit for the wall. Perhaps the already crumbling communist system was further undermined by Ronnie Whelan’s goal. (Which, by the way, many of us who were there didn’t see at the time. We were at the opposite end, doing a newfangled thing called the Mexican wave when we noticed the Irish players celebrating. The rumour was that it had been a header, and there were no smartphones to say otherwise. Only when seeing a TV replay in a shop window the next day did we witness the volley in all its glory.)
But the sporting successes of the mid- to late 1980s, from Barry McGuigan’s world boxing title, via Steven Roche’s miracle year, to Euro 88, did at least hint that we could do better as a country. If nothing else, as the mass homecoming celebrations revealed, they provided a much-needed distraction from reality.
Ireland’s dire unemployment figures of that decade had actually bottomed out in 1987, but there were still 250,000 out of work. I know this because my own job then was in the Department of Social Welfare’s unemployment section, where problems from the country’s labour exchanges were referred.
Among the management crises of early 1988 there was one precipitated by RTÉ’s Today Tonight programme, which revealed that the country’s most notorious criminal, Martin Cahill, was claiming the dole in Werburgh Street. The exposé led to his being struck off, although the colleague who had to sign the decision would be subsequently shot in both legs for his trouble.
As the Northern Troubles dragged on, meanwhile, the spring of 1988 had seen one of the worst fortnights in the entire 30 years, starting with the assassinations of three IRA members in Gibraltar and progressing in a downward spiral through Michael Stone’s attack on the funerals, and then the semi-televised lynching of two British army corporals on the day Stone’s victims were buried.
On a more positive note, although its significance was not realised then, John Hume had just embarked on what became the Hume-Adams dialogue.
We paved the way for future generations of impeccably behaved Irish supporters, wishing our conquerers well in a mass exchange of flags, scarves and addresses
And some early signs of economic recovery in the Republic were also visible, even if you had to be a statistician to see them. A small airline called Ryanair was bigging itself up, for example, although you could still count all its planes on two hands.
So if it didn’t help to cause it, Ireland’s Euro 88 experience certainly coincided with a take-off in national self-confidence. Jack Charlton hitting his head off the roof of the dugout while celebrating the goal in Stuttgart – this is why the TV cameras had him rubbing his heading afterwards – might in retrospect be considered a metaphor.
My friends and I had taken the overland route to the tournament, not in a van, a la Joxer Goes to Stuttgart, but in a Ford Escort, from Holyhead to Hull and Rotterdam to Stuttgart.
I was relief driver, on one of the provisional licences with which Ireland was papered at the time. And I had little experience of driving on Irish roads, never mind motorways and Autobahns. But somehow only the overcrowded Dutch section of the journey, where the cars seemed to be awfully close together, was nerve-racking.
Even with just three games it was an epic trip. And when the prospects of a semi-final, unplanned and unbudgeted for, arose, we had very mixed feelings. It would have meant another long trek, north to Hamburg or south again to Munich.
My meagre Civil Service holiday allowance was already used up. Where the money for another week would come from was another question.
On the other hand it would have been unbearable to go home while the team marched gloriously onwards, and to meet thousands of Johnny-come-lately fans rushing to the front line to take our places.
In the event we got within seven minutes of having to face that dilemma when a freak Dutch goal, spinning past Packie Bonner like a cricket ball, knocked us out of the tournament.
England fans would have been expected to riot in the circumstances. There was no danger we would do that, at least in part because many of us were secretly relieved to lose. Instead we paved the way for future generations of impeccably behaved Irish supporters, wishing our conquerers well in a mass exchange of flags, scarves and addresses.
We were in Amsterdam three days later when the Dutch beat West Germany in the semi-finals. It was their version of Stuttgart. There were beers on the house that night.
Our group provided both finalists, the Netherlands going on to beat our old friends the Soviets in the decider. By then we were back in Dublin, which was about to celebrate a marketing wheeze called the Millennium, with the Floozie in the Jacuzzi and other excesses.
If a new self-confidence was stirring, it wasn’t obvious yet. But perhaps it was no coincidence that, somewhere in Dublin that July, a baby called Conor McGregor was born.