Capturing Italia 90 on camera: The joy, the heartbreak, the tears

Billy Stickland looks back on his favourite shots from one of Ireland’s greatest moments

Ireland fans sleep on benches in Cagliari before the game against England. Photo: James Meehan/Inpho

Billy Stickland is the owner and founder of Inpho Sports Photography agency and he covered Italia 90 from the pre-tournament training camp in Malta to the final in Rome. Here, he speaks to Malachy Clerkin about some of his favourite photos from the time.

Jack Charlton, pre-tournament training camp in Malta

Ireland manager Jack Charlton at the pre-tournament training camp in Malta ahead of the 1990 World Cup. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho

“They played a friendly in Turkey and basically stopped in Malta on the way back to get ready for the tournament. It was great. There was no sense of pressure, no fans, no great mass media or anything like that. The players were very relaxed, just sunbathing, doing their thing.

“Jack never bothered about banning you from training or any of that sort of stuff. He would tell you to f**k off if he didn’t like what you were doing but that would be as far as it went. It would never have occurred to him to stop you taking pictures or to send you away after the first 15 minutes of training like they do these days. If you were annoying him, he’d just go, ‘What the f**k are you doing? Get the f**k out of it.’ But 10 minutes later everything would be fine.

“For us going along to cover it, the mood of it all was just so perfect. Even then, so close to the tournament, there was no sense of what a phenomenon it as all going to be. Any fans that were going headed straight to Italy obviously so it was basically just the team and the press and the photographers. We got up in the morning, had a game of football amongst ourselves, went and covered training, sent our stuff and then went somewhere nice for dinner.


“In those days, we weren’t wiring pictures home. I would go down to the airport with a bag of film and find out which flight was going to Dublin and basically rock up to somebody in the queue and ask if there was any chance they could take it back for me. And then, at the other end, somebody would pick it up.

“Those pictures from Malta are exactly how it was. Jack was relaxed. The players were relaxed. The media was relaxed. It’s kind of amazing to think now that everybody was about to head into the most incredible few weeks in the country’s history. You had no sense of that at the time.”

Fan asleep on bench, Cagliari

Ireland fans sleep on benches in Cagliari before the game against England. Photo: James Meehan/Inpho

“There was a real element of being in a bubble. You weren’t as connected to home as you would be today, obviously. You didn’t really realise what was happening in Ireland. Even those first few days in Italy, it still didn’t feel like anything too much out of the ordinary. But then the fans started arriving in the days before the England game.

“The weather was good and it was obvious from very early on that a lot of them didn’t really mind where they stayed. A lot of them slept on park benches and nobody really minded. There was lots of drinking obviously but it was all so good-natured and it took the locals by surprise.

“The police were ready for massive fighting between Ireland fans and England fans. And the English press were too, to some extent. I remember a couple of the heavy-hitter news photographers from the English papers arriving over full sure that it was all going to go off.

“But the Irish fans were just so benign and so happy and friendly that it never happened. There were helicopters buzzing overhead and Alsatian dogs alongside the police but the Irish fans were just singing songs and having fun. England played Holland a few days later and it was a different story. It got a bit nastier then.

“The thing is, Irish people couldn’t believe their luck really. It’s that phrase, ‘happiness is when expectation matches reality.’ That’s what the whole Italia 90 thing was about. Reality didn’t just match expectation, it exceeded it.

“When Jack took over, he had high expectations, and Irish people basically had none. When Euro 88 came around, expectations were rising. And by the time Italia 90 happened, they were sky high – and the Irish team met them and passed them. At that World Cup, we were all together – Jack, the team, the fans, the country. That was the beautiful thing about it, everything came together for this one brilliant month.

“It was such a happy time for everyone who was there. Nobody minded if they slept on a bench and nobody minded them sleeping on it. it was just part of it all.”

Eamon Dunphy press conference row, Palermo

Eamon Dunphy (right) speaks to the media after manager Jack Charlton had left the press conference. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho

“That came out of the most banal press conference you could imagine. It was after the Egypt game and there was really nothing to talk about. Jack was very relaxed and it was all kind of dull. I wasn’t really thinking there was very much to be there for, to be honest.

“But then Eamon Dunphy went to ask a question. He had thrown a pen on television back at home and now here he was, asking a question from the back. And Jack just said, ‘You’re not a journalist.’ And Eamon wasn’t having it and tried to ask his question again and Jack just went, ‘Nah, that’s enough from you.’ And he walked out.

“The thing was, it really pissed off all the journalists. There was their copy disappearing through the door. And they turned, a lot of them, on Eamon. You can see it in the expressions on their faces. Cathal Dervan, Peter Byrne, a few others.

“Eamon was very resilient. He wouldn’t back down to that kind of thing. Even going back to Jack’s first press conference in 1986, Jack offered to take him outside for a fight. He had very strong views about everything. He didn’t feel cowed by what was happening. he wasn’t going, ‘Oh shit.’

“The press pack generally got on fine with each other but because it was becoming such a big deal at home, you could sense tensions starting to grow. Press conferences were held in the morning but there was a tacit agreement at the time that people wouldn’t send copy back until around six o’clock so that everything wouldn’t appear in the evening papers.

“The Evening Herald and Evening Press were big papers at the time and there was an incident at one stage where one of the evening papers ran a story earlier than they were supposed to and the rest of the press pack went through him for a short cut. So eventually, they got Jack to change the press conference times and they were all moved to the afternoon.”

Packie Bonner saves Timofte’s penalty, Genoa

Packie Bonner saves Daniel Timofte’s penalty during the last 16 match against Romania. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho

“Genoa was interesting because it was such a celebration for us to have even got that far. The ground was absolutely packed with Irish fans. There were virtually no Romanians because they were just coming out of communism and hardly any of them could travel.

“So the whole place was rocking with Irish fans singing Irish songs for a good hour before anything even happened. Every last traditional Irish song you’ve ever heard got an airing. And I remember standing there with the hair on the back of my neck standing up and that really doesn’t often happen.

“I had a stroke of luck for the penalty shootout. We had been told by the organisers where we were supposed to be, which was behind the goalline. But that’s not a good place to be for a penalty shootout because you’re looking out from behind the goal. So as soon as extra-time finished, every photographer in the stadium played dumb poured down the sideline to get a good angle.

“The poor guys organising us couldn’t handle it. They did their best to push everybody back but the clock was ticking because the shoot-out was about to start and they really had to get everybody in place or there’d be complete chaos. They managed to get everybody back behind the goal but somehow a couple of us escaped their notice. I don’t really know how it happened but myself and a guy called Simon Bruty from Allsport found ourselves as the only two who got to stay on the sideline. So we were in the perfect position for what happened.

“Without getting too overwrought about it, I’m a great believer in the fact that sometimes you’re in the right place, the right zone for what you’re good at in your work. It applies to every walk of life – some days you’re just in the right mindset and things just work. That 1990 World Cup for me, I really felt that. I was so confident going to matches and things were happening in front of me. I didn’t know – I just believed they wouldn’t have happened if I had been in a different frame of mind.

“Anyway, I had the perfect angle for Packie Bonner’s save. He dived the right way, not just for the penalty but for the photograph. He dived right into the spot where I had pre-focused the camera.

“It became a famous photo. The Irish Permanent had a campaign – ‘Packie Bonner Saves With The Irish Permanent.’ I sold them the photo. You wouldn’t believe how little I got for it!”

Jack Charlton after losing to Italy, Rome

Jack Charlton with an Ireland flag after the quarter-final loss to Italy. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho

“The Italy game was where Ireland’s luck ran out. We had had so much luck up to then, everything had gone so well for us, that people actually didn’t mind that we lost. That was the over-riding feeling in Rome that night I thought. It was like, what a celebration we can have here.

“All the things that had gone right for us in the pool stages and against Romania went wrong for us against Italy. We should have scored, Packie made a mistake, Schillaci scored into an open goal. The little things that had worked well for Ireland up to then just didn’t work that night. And everyone was basically fine with that. I think everyone kind of knew we were on borrowed time in a way.

“Every half-arsed politician in Ireland who could be there was there. Charlie Haughey was there obviously but you could see the rest of these Irish politicians in the crowd with big green and gold rosettes on their suit jackets. Bono was there, all those kinds of people. That’s what it had become by then.

“I don’t know how Jack Charlton felt but I got the sense that he was reasonably okay with it and realise what he had achieved. I remember four years later when we lost to Holland in Florida, it was a completely different atmosphere. It was, ‘It’s all over lads, we’ve probably gone on a couple of years too long, let’s get the hell out of here and go home.’ But in Rome that night, it was still a great feeling of celebration at the month everyone had just had.

“And that was the big thing, the experience of it. The football itself had been poor. Of the teams that had made the quarter-finals, Argentina scored seven goals, Yugoslavia 11, Italy seven, Czechoslovakia 11, West Germany 13, Cameroon seven and England six. We scored two! It was extraordinary to carry the whole country that far and bring so much joy on the back of two goals in five games.”

Gazza’s tears, Turin

The famous photo of Paul Gascoigne’s tears at the end of England’s semi-final loss to Germany. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho

“There’s nothing really special about the photograph. The only thing that was in any way remarkable about it was that it seemed to sum up Gazza in a way at a particular moment in his life. He was kind of unknown before that World Cup and then he just had this unbelievable tournament and it brought on this sort of hysteria that continued more or less for the next decade. Nobody knew how sad and tragic his life would turn out from this point onwards.

“He was so emotional. The game had ended and England had lost the penalty shootout and you could see he was crying. There was the famous scene during the game itself of Gary Lineker turning to the bench and saying somebody needs to have a word with him because he was gone, his head was gone after he got a yellow card that was going to keep him out of the final if England got there. So you had to keep watching him.

“After it all ended, they were walking around the pitch. Terry Butcher put his arms around him and he really started crying. The game had gone on late and with the penalties and everything, by the time they were going around to wave at the England supporters, most of the photographers had packed up and rushed off. He came walking towards me – obviously not at me but towards the fans that were still in the stadium.

“Then he pulled his jersey up to wipe the tears out of his eyes and he kissed the shirt. I was always amazed that nobody else got it but I guess most of the rest of them had packed their stuff by then. I tell my photographers all the time about being in the right frame of mind and if you’re confident, things happen for you. It seems a bizarre way to think about taking photographs but it’s the only way I can explain getting a picture like that. It was there for anyone to take.”

Kevin Sheedy’s goal against England, Cagliari

Kevin Sheedy sends the thousands of Irish fans wild with his goal against England. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho

“There’s no elation as a photographer. You’re not tied to the result in any way. You don’t react for good or bad when a goal goes in. It’s all about, ‘Did I get that?’ And if I did, it’s relief. And if I didn’t, it’s ‘Oh f**k!’ You’re never thinking, ‘Wow, this is amazing.’ Or, ‘Thank God Ireland scored.’ It’s about getting the job done.

“Both of Ireland’s goals in Italy came the same way. A big hoof the length of the pitch by Packie Bonner, a mistake from an opposition player and one of the Irish players getting onto it to score an equaliser. This one fell to Kevin Sheedy and it was a matter of catching him as he struck it.

“Your position in the stadium as a photographer wasn’t much different in those days to what it is now. A lot of things are different in terms of access in general but that has more or less stayed the same. Soccer is all orientated towards one end or the other because the goal is the big thing obviously. Our access was good. You weren’t frustrated or penned in the wrong place, as sometimes happens.”