Soccer memories: Jack Charlton, USA ‘94, and sticker collections

Blindboy, Miriam O’Callaghan, Jacqui Hurley and more share their memories of ‘the beautiful game'

Paul Howard, writer/creator of Ross O'Carroll-Kelly
Football is the game of the people. It's played everywhere in the world. I know we get excited around Six Nations time, but rugby really is a major deal in about 12 countries. Football is a big deal everywhere.

Up until the late 1980s I think the Irish team's fortunes went in lockstep with Irish fortunes. We were plucky losers. Sometimes we were plucky losers because of our own greed and stupidity, in the case when the FAI gave away a place in the 1966 World Cup by ceding home advantage to Spain. Sometimes we were plucky losers because of horrendous refereeing decisions, such as the match in Brussels in 1981. Between the stupidity and greed, Ireland wasn't recognised as a soccer country. Fifa would much rather have Belgium or France or Holland in a World Cup.

Then something changed in the late '80s, which was that the team started to believe in itself. People have a tendency to over-intellectualise Italia '90 and the Celtic Tiger, but it was part of Ireland's growing confidence. I don't think it was a coincidence that these players were all emigrants, they had to go away to earn a living.

And then Jack Charlton gave them that confidence, saying it isn't always your fate to finish third in a group. I did my Leaving in the summer of '88, and when we were playing England all I can remember is the hell of studying for history and the unadulterated joy of winning the game.


I was 14 when I went to my first match at Dalymount Park when Ireland played Italy. There was a crush in the crowd – luckily they didn't have those pens so we weren't hemmed in. We spilled onto the pitch, and I watched the whole match sitting behind Packie Bonner's goal. My mother was watching television and could see me on the pitch. The thrill of it. Paolo Rossi was the big star at that time. I tried to shake his hand at the end, and he said, "Get the f**k off the pitch", with a brilliant Italian accent.

I think we’ll do well. The way this tournament is set up, it’s like Italia ’90 and USA ’94 again, there are a lot of 3rd-place teams in the groups who go into the second round. All you really need to do is win one, draw one and lose one. We did it in Euro ’88 and we did it in USA ’94. That’s not beyond us. We always have one really big performance, except in the last Europeans. I think we could beat any one of those three teams in the group.

I gave up my tickets during the Trapattoni years, the football was just so awful. I think that’s also down to something else. It’s a problem all over the world. Footballers kind of lost the audience. They’re very remote. It’s different to rugby. The players live here. There’s a chance you could go in to get your hair cut and you’d be sitting beside one of the players.

Trapattoni's teams always played like they were frightened. But with this team, the priority isn't to avoid defeat. Against Germany and in the play-off match as well, they were such controlled performances, no fear. I hadn't seen that in an Irish team in probably 15 years. Probably since Roy Keane was playing.

Arthur Mathews, co-creator of 'Father Ted'
I plan to watch every match of the 2016 Euros. I love the big tournaments. I'm also collecting the online Panini Euro 2016 album. I bought the "hard copy" version, and a few packets of stickers, but since there are a whopping 680 to collect all together, completing the album would cost a small fortune (about €400, I read somewhere). I got my six-year-old daughter to stick in a few Belgian midfielders, but we weren't fooling anybody. It's MY PROBLEM (I suppose I can file it under "guilty pleasures").

Three games a day is just perfect for me. Waking up knowing that England v Wales will be followed by Ukraine v Northern Ireland and Poland v Germany is terrific. I like the fact that – due to the expansion of the tournament – we'll also be seeing the likes of Albania and Iceland for the first time in the finals (and Wales too). But, like all wonderful things, this is all too good to last: I begin to suffer symptoms of wariness and unease when the tournament reaches the latter stages and we are left with one meagre game a day. How cruel of the organisers to set a limit on the amount of matches played. Why can't it just go on forever?

It's nice to have Ireland back in there. I first saw them play in 1971 (against a crack Italian side who had finished runners up to Brazil in the previous year's World Cup) and, apart from a game against Norway, I didn't miss a home match from 1974 until 1989. The fixture I didn't get to in late 1989 was the crucial qualifier for the 1990 World Cup finals v Northern Ireland. Because a win more or less guaranteed qualification, all the bandwagon jumpers do what bandwagon jumpers always do – jumped aboard the bandwagon. As a result, I couldn't secure a ticket. Life is cruel.

Although I didn’t go to any of the tournaments Ireland qualified for, I watched at home – or in a pub with close friends. I was a complete bundle of nerves before every match. These were HUGE GAMES. I couldn’t understand how the players could even take to the pitch, such was the enormity of what was about to happen. If they were as nervous as I was, surely they wouldn’t be able to kick a ball. When Ireland needed a goal, every second raced by. When they were holding on to a lead or a valuable draw, the time seemed to slow down: how we longed for the final whistle.

I’ll enjoy watching Ireland in the Euros, and I’m delighted they’re in France, but it’s not quite the same for me these days. I’ve felt an increasing sense of alienation from the national team over the past few years for a number of reasons. One of these is that I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s much more important to have a healthy league than a successful national team, but we don’t have that.

Qualifying for major tournaments has actually had little impact on football in this country. Everyone still supports Man United and Liverpool rather than their local teams. In most countries, supporting the national side is the icing on the cake for supporters. In this country – there's no cake.

So, even though the fervour I felt in my younger days fanatically supporting Ireland has decreased, I’ll still be greatly enjoying all their games – and won’t be quite the nervous wreck I used to be. (Unless of course, they reach the final). Can’t wait!

Blindboy of The Rubberbandits, comedian/musician
I know nothing about soccer or the Euros. I know so little that we once played a half-time gig in Croke Park and didn't know why everyone was so offended when we referred to the sport as "Gaelic soccer".

I do know about Jack Charlton though. When I was 10, Jack Charlton took me fishing out the side of a helicopter, up in Carrick on Shannon. I’d won a competition off the back of a packet of Odlums bran that belonged to my uncle Caviar. I’d never heard of Jack Charlton, only had him described to me by other children . “His skin tone varies based on the surrounding environment; common Jack Charlton skin tones include green, gray and blue, though black and even pale white Charltons have been sighted.” I was terrified at the prospect of meeting this mythical man.

Finally the day arrived. My mother dropped me off at the airport and I encountered Jack at the helipad. He was nothing like the other children had described. He was a polite man, with thick locks of auburn hair, and a mouthful of bright teeth like a proud tiger who is the last of his species. “Hello young lad,” said Jack. “Fancy fishing for some Pike out the side of my Chinook?”

“Yes,” I screamed. We hopped on board. Inside it was musty and hollow, like a Banshee’s womb. The aircraft was a Boeing CH-47 Chinook, a twin-engine, tandem-rotor heavy-lift helicopter. “This prick has seen battle,” said Jack of his helicopter. He explained that the helicopter was given to him by the US Navy for scoring loads of goals at soccer.

“Why did you call this your Chinook?,” I asked. Jack looked sorrowful, and explained to me that the American military like to name their imperial weapons of conquest after Native American tribes that they conquered. With scorn, he told me, “The Chinookian people come from the Pacific Northwest, where grunge music comes from. Like other native tribes, they were brutally conquered by white settlers.”

Jack was piloting the craft with one hand throughout the conversation, and was using the other to suck hot Ovaltine from a glove, because he left his cup on land. He paused mid suck, and sighed. “The f**king Yanks haven’t a clue. They think that by naming a helicopter after the Chinookian people, that it’s a compliment. It’s not. It’s colonial arrogance.” I grew confused and said, “Why are you telling me all this Jack? I’m only 10. Can’t we just fish for pike?”.

“I’m getting to the fishing bit now, I needed to explain about the helicopter and it’s colonial nomenclature before we start to fish for pike, you’ll see why in a moment.”

Jack stalled the helicopter over a lake in Meath, the noise was deafening. What he did next was so shocking that it has stayed vividly in my mind to this day. Jack Charlton removed a large hook from a tackle bag, which he drove forcefully into the soft bit of skin under his chin, and anchored it to his lower palate. Blood streamed down his neck, drenching his AC/DC T-shirt and bicycle shorts. He then carefully strung at least 100 metres of fishing line to the hook, which dangled from his mouth to the lake below. The blood dripped from the helicopter, all the way down the line, to the water.

Within moments, Jack’s head was under pressure and a hungry pike had taken the bait. With great force he flung his skull back, dragging the live pike into the interior of the Chinook. It flopped around, I could see its terror as Jack stamped on its head with his deck shoes, killing it instantly.

“Now do you see what I’ve done there?” said Jack.

“You’ve caught a fish by using your head instead of a rod,” said I.

Jack screamed in excitement “No... you don’t get it? The hook is in my chin. It’s a Chin Hook. That’s my sacrifice for the Chinookian people. It’s an act of self flagellation for their suffering. It’s the only fair way that I can fish from an American colonial helicopter that is insensitively named after their culture!”

I paused in reflection and then explained to Jack, as best as a 10-year-old could, that he had a white saviour complex. That his Chin Hook, while well intentioned, had actually reduced the culture of the Chinookian people to a simple pun, and was an act of cultural appropriation. Further, from a psychoanalytic perspective, he is the powerful Chin Hook hunter and the fish is the hunted animal, that represents the Chinookian people. The power balance lays with him. His white privilege had prevented him from realising that symbolic acts were of no real service to a colonised people. Jack did not like hearing this, and the fishing trip was called to a halt immediately.

None of the above is true. I met Una Mullaly at a party, and agreed to write an article about soccer because I was on a joint of hash. I made all of this up on the spot and wrote it on a bus. Enjoy the Euros.

Miriam O'Callaghan, RTÉ broadcaster
As a young child, I grew up in a household in south County Dublin, where my proud Kerry father made sure that there was only one sport on earth we all cared about – and that was Gaelic football, especially when the Kingdom won. Croke Park was his mecca. That changed a little when my only brother Jim became a very talented rugby player, but only a little. Soccer back then never got a look in.

That all changed with Italia '90 when we all became passionate fans of the game. I remember I was living in London at the time and working for the BBC, and as the only Irish person working on the programme, I used to drive my colleagues in the Newsnight office absolutely mad with my very noisy love for my country's exploits.

My late precious sister Anne used to keep me up to date with the great atmosphere back home, but that was the one time I really missed not living back in Ireland.

I was very lucky as well though to have got to know a lot about the game through my very first job in television, working as a researcher on This Is Your Life, presented by Eamonn Andrews. I was just 23, and one of my first jobs was researching the life of the legendary Northern Irish goalkeeper Pat Jennings.

I will never forget the excitement of that programme, meeting heroes such as George Best, Kevin Keegan, Gordon Banks and Jimmy Greaves, all of whom I had to speak to at great length to get them prepared for coming on the show. I absolutely loved George Best. He was so gentle and kind to me. The whole experience was a very special introduction to the game.

Now it all continues. I have four young sons, two of whom are soccer-mad and good players. They have zero interest in my career, but were supremely impressed when I recently had the great Kevin Moran on my radio show. I love the game and will be glued to all our matches. Éire abú!

Gavin Corbett, novelist
Nothing gets me as worked up as soccer does, not even the arts or people. The arts and people leave me feeling depressed because they make me think too much about myself. But soccer is so absorbing and distracting. I get so involved in it that I forget who I am. I'm basically a quiet person (my middle name is "Timothy"), but leave me in a pub with a match on the TV and I'll soon be shouting C-words in front of strangers.

I got into soccer in the '80s, when I was a kid. It was a time of 40-watt floodlighting, hooliganism, mounted police, and infantry on the running tracks of Minsk and Karl Marx Stadt. Everything a boy could want.

Football is a beautiful, simple sport – but there’s so much more to it than football. It’s a world and culture of itself, and one that reflects the wider world. It’s both fantasy and reality, a kind of colour-saturated allegory of the geopolitics of the day. That’s why football culture today is the same the world over – because it stands for the mush and pap of corporatism and globalisation.

What appealed to me most about it as a child was that it represented an adult world of sophistication and danger. Children were nowhere to be seen on a football pitch – certainly never walking out of tunnels hand-in-hand with footballers. The players themselves looked like adult men, not waxed, tweezed and tattooed X Factor triallists, as they do now.

The aesthetics around major tournaments likewise made no compromises. The official posters were pieces of abstract art. In the 20th century, the language of any international tournament was the local lingo. The 2006 World Cup being officially known as “Germany 2006” (compare with Deutschland ’74) was a low point in the history of civilisation, IMHO.

It's easy to forget how exotic international football tournaments seemed. Before the early-1990s, most squads were comprised of players who played club football in their home leagues. So the only time football fans got a chance to see other countries' hardware was when the World Cup or Euros rolled around. The summer of every even year brought the shock of the new. Euro '88 gave us the Dutch team of Gullit, Rijkaard and Van Basten in their amazing Condorman kit. They were my favourite team ever. I can still list all their players, the years of their births, and the towns in Holland, Surinam and (in one case) Australia where they were born.

Every country had a distinctive footballing culture, and a particular stadium typology. In Ireland we were familiar with the English grounds – poorly integrated collections of asbestos outhouses. Spanish stadia were only-slightly-off-vertical walls of death; German stadia all seemed to have poplar trees peeping over the tops of their stands; and the vast concrete bowls of eastern Europe were like open-cast mine pits.

New football stadia are crap – spiritless ovals of white tubing and glass. Everything is homogenous and sterile; all pitches mown in strips of standard width, all nets of the same weave and bagginess. In striving to be “universal”, understandable and child-friendly, football is in danger of losing one of the things that most appeals to children – the stuff that isn’t actually football.

Jacqui Hurley, RTÉ Sport broadcaster
I grew up in Australia from when I was three until I was 10, so that was in the '90s. My first memories of watching the Irish team were in Australia. My dad used to be a member of the Irish club in Canberra. We'd be getting up in the middle of the night to watch the 1990 World Cup, but it's USA '94 that to me is so vivid in my mind. I was 10, and it was first time I really cared about the football team.

I remember really feeling Irish. Mum and dad had told us a lot about Irish heritage, but you don't really understand that as a kid. When I watched that team, I felt so close to them. The main memory for me is probably that Ray Houghton goal against Italy where everything just stopped for a moment. My mum and dad were jumping up and down. I don't think I'd ever seen them laughing and enjoying themselves so much.

We used to go to Mass on a Sunday morning and then go out playing hurling or kicking a ball, but the rest of the time I was your average Australian kid. Watching those matches was a like an out-of-body experience. Everybody celebrating, this really unique moment for us in this room, right now, and no one outside gives a s**t. Then you go into school and you’re like, “Did you see the goal?” and they’re like, “Eh, no”.

I think soccer's place in our society has changed over the years. There was the bad patch, between that and 2002 where we weren't making major tournaments. In the '90s, these successes on the pitch were related to great stories of Irish people. We lost of some of that, we just went along with our lives, and we gravitated towards the Premier League for new stories.

But soccer is the biggest sport in the world. Often we only realise that big picture when the tournaments come around. You look at the scenes after the Germany game when Shane Long scored that goal, it was like going back in time to Houghton's goal. Again, time stopped. There was almost a realisation: hang on, this is our game, we just forgot how to play it for a while.