Italia 90: An immense escapade that left an indelible memory

The whole trip to Sardinia was like being beamed up and down in Star Trek

Ireland’s Andy Townsend, Kevin Sheedy (centre) and Steve Staunton after Sheedy’s equalising goal against England. Photograph: Peter Thursfield

Ireland’s Andy Townsend, Kevin Sheedy (centre) and Steve Staunton after Sheedy’s equalising goal against England. Photograph: Peter Thursfield

 

Sardinia – in Italy on Monday 11th June? What I had imagined would be a hot, balmy evening started to rain, not the explosive falls you sometimes get on the continent which feel like a beating and make you flee for cover but a relentless shower that soaked everyone, evaporated in the heat and persisted.

Rinse and repeat.

Italia 90 represented my World Cup peak. The tournament obsessed me from childhood going back to when I was nine in 1970. I have graphic recall of all of those summers up until and including 30 years ago.

Ever since work has obstinately got in the way of every final – even the morning one in 2002 when battling a hangover, I had to do a match report from the previous evening before heading off to see Waterford winning a first Munster title in 39 years.

Yes, I picked up scraps of extra time and the penalty shoot-out in 2006 but in terms of sitting down and watching a final undisturbed start to finish, it hasn’t happened since 1990. I was set fair in 2010, having asked for the early provincial final in Croke Park to enable a quick return home.

It happened to be Meath-Louth and I’d have been quicker doing the four o’clock Munster final in Thurles.

Yet work brought me to what for my younger self was the Grail of Ireland’s first appearance in the World Cup. I remember a few months into my journalism career when the draw was made the previous December – the day after the 1989 All Stars – there was trepidation once Luciano Pavarotti had drawn Ireland to face England – and Holland – again.

I worked on the Sunday Tribune’s World Cup supplement that summer with various contributors and it was hardcore stuff in those pre-internet days, surfing through soccer magazines in order to acquire knowledge of the likes of Costa RicaJuan Cayasso! – and the USA – Tab Ramos! – and loftily ordain their players to watch.

Vincent Browne rewarded me and the sports editor Ger Siggins with places on the paper’s travelling party to Cagliari, seats made available on a charter by the Tribune’s chair, the late Gordon Colleary, who had founded USIT.

On the day of the match, early in the morning the airport was thronged and giddy. One of the party, whose identity discretion will preserve – we’ll just call him “Frank” – arrived in a green trilby emblazoned with “Kiss Me, I’m Irish”.

He would return around 24 hours later restored to a wearier version of normal but bearing no hint of the eventfulness he had brought to Cagliari – from some edgy heckling of then presidential candidate Brian Lenihan senior at a reception to attracting the attention of a jumpy police force.

The whole trip was like being beamed up and down in Star Trek except, defeatingly, far slower. Airport to airport and then bus straight to the stadium where we were to be detained until the gates opened some time later.

In other words the feet hardly touched the ground from Dublin to Stadio Sant’Elia.

For Cagliari authorities of course this wasn’t the trip of a lifetime; it was their first encounter with an invading force, whose reputation was summed up – and not contentiously – by Kevin Myers, then writing for this paper: “The record of English fans on such occasions is quite awesome; they would happily start a riot in a leper colony.”

Ireland fans entering the stadium before the game against England. Photograph: James Meehan/Inpho
Ireland fans entering the stadium before the game against England. Photograph: James Meehan/Inpho

Local law and order was taking no chances. “I have 1,600 hooligans. All of them in uniform,” promised one of the police chiefs.

The idea was to get supporters there early and corral them until the gates opened and then funnel them into their designated sections. The circular flow of the stadium was cut off by a cordon of police on either side to prevent supporters “meeting each other”.

I just can’t remember how successful the segregation was except that there appeared to be little trouble on the night. The menacing security phalanx discouraged all – apart inevitably from “Frank” who wanted to go through to the other side but was restrained by his long-suffering guardian angel, “Tom,” panicked into action by the snapping into plain view of guns.

Schillaci

Ger and I were on the uncovered side of the ground and in the sunny late afternoon – kick-off wasn’t until nine – were simply happy to be there. The World Cup was in full flow. On arrival the Italian papers were full of the hosts’ opening victory against Austria: 1-0, the goal scored by someone, who would end up central to all of our memories of 1990, named Salvatore Schillaci.

On the scoreboard in Cagliari flashed news of the latest missteps on Scotland’s World Cup via dolorosa. Defeat by Costa Rica – 1-0, Juan Cayasso! – in their opening match ushered the Scots to what would be a seventh group exit in seven Fifa tournaments.

For all the schadenfreude, Ireland were belatedly at a first World Cup and despite the national excitement, a few of those who had been watching internationals for a while remained unconvinced that it was “our place” to be handling the likes of England on a regular basis and that the deliriously scrambled win in Euro 88 had created some sort of karmic debt.

Strangely enough, at present Ireland haven’t lost to England in 35 years, a sequence of seven matches, including four competitive, which equals the run England enjoyed in the fixture from 1949 to 1988.

I remember little of the match’s detail. The broad brush version has been reinforced by playback and tricks of memory but there was a perverse kind of relief when England scored so early. It’s hard to explain but the dull anxieties of chasing a goal against the clock are somehow less agonising than living in fear of an equaliser or worse.

Gary Lineker’s sixth-minute goal seemed to relax England. Ireland plugged away. As an Everton lifer, I was pleased to see Kevin Sheedy play so well and score a fine equaliser with little more than a quarter of an hour left.

I ended up “interviewing” him for an Everton night in my brother Matthew’s pub. Sheedy unsurprisingly remembered it as a high point of his international career. What did emerge indignantly through his reserved and quiet demeanour was that he was particularly pleased that it was Steve McMahon who he had dispossessed before firing off his angled deliverance.

The rest of the night is a blur, apart from the nice restaurant in which the travelling party whiled away time before the dawn flight home. My initial recall is that one of the local papers described the match as “stone-age football” but I don’t have enough Italian to have read that myself.

Further, when home reading the papers, in whose pages all praise and sleights directed at Ireland by foreign media are lovingly curated, there was no sign of such a description. Anyway, they weren’t impressed.

We got home on Tuesday morning, leaving Dublin airport like particles that had been shot around in some furious experiment but now released into the atmosphere with the whole immense escapade an indelible memory.

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