My favourite sporting moment: The day Pfaff’s long fingers denied Ireland
A packed South Terrace, a gifted Ireland side and an inspired Belgium goalkeeper
Belgian goalkeeper Jean Marie Pfaff claims the ball ahead of Spanish forward Emilio Butragueno during the World Cup quarter-final in Puebla, Mexico in June 1986. Photograph: AFP via Getty Images
Easily the most thrilling 45 minutes I’ve ever known – up to April 1987 – is spent standing behind Jean-Marie Pfaff. Actually, I’m perched slightly above and to the right of the curly blonde Belgium shot stopper.
Inching through the feral crowd, under and into the South Terrace, I realise this is the most significant moment of my life. Far superior to last year’s First Holy Communion bonanza.
It’s the best day imaginable because I am inside Lansdowne Road, who I am with and how it all ends up.
Here we are, spitting distance from Pfaff – the future Caitlyn Jenner of Flemish reality television – as he puts on an exhibition of mesmerising dexterity.
The Republic of Ireland went to Brussels and “beat them 2-2” (love stealing that line) but defeat to Bulgaria in Sofia makes this the golden ticket. And I am Charlie Bucket.
The second half becomes a total assault on Pfaff’s goal. Down our end. The aggression coming from Dad and others proving addictive. We wail as Grün overhead kicks Mick McCarthy’s header off the line.
Ronnie Whelan clips the wall with a free kick but Liam Brady scurries to beat Scifo to the rebound. “Italian old and new,” says Jimmy Magee, a wink and nudge to the residency of Internazionale’s No 10 shirt. Brady’s delicate flick between two bodies leads to Kevin Moran throwing his noggin at Ray Houghton’s sliced ball.
Pfaff’s long fingers rescue Belgium. The terrace expands and deflates.
Kevin Moran’s a Gah head. Turns out you can play for the Dubs and Manchester United. I might do that. Nah, Liverpool. Why didn’t Ronnie win an All-Ireland before moving to England?
“He’s a soccer man.”
We are all from different tribes. I love that too. Makes this gathering so fascinating, so important. It is my job to transcribe all their places of birth from the New Testament (match programme) into an unrolled copy book.
“Put that away or you’ll lose it.”
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‘Aldo, ya scouse c***,’ a neighbour reliably informs me.
What’s a scouse c***?
“Someone who can’t score in a green jersey.”
Considering the otherwise prolific John Aldridge is blue tacked above my bed, I strenuously object.
“Be quiet or I’ll put you down.”
My perch on a steel barrier, essential to see Pfaff, was only attained following tetchy negotiations with heavier accented gentlemen behind us. By committee it is decided I can stay, but at an altered angle. Silence also being part of the terms.
“Now I can’t see,” comes another menacing voice. “Move.”
“Shut your hole,” says our chief.
Unreal tension now. On the pitch too. Brady draws a beautiful rainbow into the six yard box. “Left footed,” I whisper. “So are you,” Dad whispers back, “and that’s rare.” McCarthy slams the header downwards but Pfaff parries the hop.
Exhaled groans. “That was the chance!”
We head home sated. Singing ‘still alive, alive oh’ in the car while sucking on a vinegar drowned bag. “Nil-all win” I announce at the hall door saturated in alcohol, reeking of smoke. Later that night I receive an awful belt from the teenage sister for casually telling her to “shut your hole”.
“And that was the chance” I conclude the next day, scarf still around head, holding court at the blackboard with my newly discovered inner city brogue.
Besides summer detours to Croke Park all the journeys that matter lead up Lansdowne Road.
First sight of All Blacks comes two years later. Leinster steamrolled. High up in the West Upper, giddy twin brothers allow the 10-year-old a “sip now, just a sip” from their hipflask. A gulp has their laughter numbed by volcanic throat.
I see Frano Botica removing Fergus Dunlea’s gumshield after a gruesome collision. Inga da Winga – before Jonah Lomu there was Va’aiga Tuigamala – also hobbles off but Dunlea’s arm hangs limp from the stretcher.
What’s wrong with him?
“Stay here we’re going to the Wanderers bar for refreshments.”
Same place, different tribe.
“Don’t move Gavo!” smiles uncle Brian, handing over the empty hipflask.
The order is disobeyed, teaching the 41-year-old brothers a valuable lesson in supervising a delinquent, who is immediately drawn towards the seats with long wooden tables. An ancient scribe offers lukewarm tea and a biscuit. Now this is living.
The old ground gets remade into a shiny horseshoe, and we return every winter to file memories, but Jean-Marie Pfaff, unbeatable in his glistening blue strip, soars above them all, because of who I was with and how it all ends up.
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