The Boys in Green: ‘It felt as if we had been in recession my entire life when Italia ’90 happened’

The Irish team in an open-top bus are welcomed by the crowds in Dublin on their return from the 1990 World Cup in Italy. Photograph: Inpho

Ughhh, the 1980s: those doomed, filthy, thrilling 10 years when dear old Ireland was irretrievably broken and improbably rescued by the most unexpected of heroes: association football, soccer, the garrison game: the Republic of Ireland football team.

There’s a moment in Ross Whitaker’s new documentary, The Boys in Green, which catches a fleeting moment when Ireland seemed poised between two distinct eras. It’s late into the unexpectedly rollicking, boozy and out-of-the-blue Jack Charlton period in Irish sport and Irish life. Big Jack himself is sitting in a hotel room, the décor lush and garish, surrounded by cameras and press men and speaking on an enormous cellular phone, still a futuristic instrument then.

Nothing symbolises what awaited society a quick decade ahead like that image. The Charlton era was as much a social revolution as a football story. From the unexpected qualification to Euro ’88 to the World Cup quarter-finals in Rome two years later and, in 1994, actually beating Italy, with their football heritage and beauty, in Giants Stadium, it was one mad adrenaline rush.

Ireland happily took leave of its senses and its psychosis for those few years. And then it ended, quite quickly and sombrely. And Charlton, intractable son of England, of Ashington collieries stock, lion of 1966, took his peaked cap and fishing rods and left. And there’s been nothing like it since.

Paul McGrath waves to the crowds outside the GPO on O’Connell Street in Dublin after the Irish team returned from the 1990 World Cup in Italy. Photograph: Inpho
Paul McGrath waves to the crowds outside the GPO on O’Connell Street in Dublin after the Irish team returned from the 1990 World Cup in Italy. Photograph: Inpho

“It kind of touches you on a number of levels,” Whitaker says of the feelings he experienced while taking a deep dive into the trove of archive footage which he has used along with a series of terrific interviews to produce the two-part film about Ireland’s football story from 1986-1995.

“One of those is that it was just great fun. We were being very funny and it gave great licence to act like eejits. Also, it is very emotional to think of those times, particularly around Italia ’90, when it all came to its head at a time when the country was very much together and all eyes were on one spot.

“And you can feel tremendous nostalgia for even that being possible. I don’t know if there are going to be those moments ever again when everyone is kind of on the same page so clearly. And that is quite moving for me. It is quite an emotional thing to think of a country completely together. But I do think that there is tremendous fun in it.”

Republic of Ireland goalkeeper Packie Bonner saves a penalty during the shoot-out against Romania at the 1990 World Cup. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Republic of Ireland goalkeeper Packie Bonner saves a penalty during the shoot-out against Romania at the 1990 World Cup. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Life-or-death significance

As Whitaker points out, no period in Irish life was as intensely archived or recorded. And it’s all there: the big hair, the mad fashion, the cracking soundtrack, the wide-eyed disbelief, the giddy sense of adventure and an excuse for a tear, the gravity which characterised tense qualification games and the sense of a country without a bean in its pocket somehow cobbling together enough to have a good time.

In the Charlton era, every Republic of Ireland game acquired a huge significance. They became national events: all eyes glued to the screen. And everybody was too busy following the team to think about why these games had suddenly acquired a life-or-death significance.

“I guess I feel that the context is so important,” Whitaker says. “If you think back to those days in school what you were listening to on the news. It was recession, immigration, IRA, the church. That is what it meant to be Irish. Those were the things that are deeply ingrained on your consciousness. It was an absolute tragedy.

“I actually almost feel emotional about it now: that is who we were. And people that are growing up or in school now don’t think about those things really. It felt as if we had been in recession my entire life when Italia ’90 happened. And if we had something to cheer about then we were damn well going to cheer.”

For Whitaker, the nature of the fervour that took hold during that period was not primarily about the football. Certainly, the aesthetics weren’t great. Charlton’s philosophy was bold and basic: to literally put teams under pressure from the moment they took possession of the ball. It was like a primitive precursor to the high pressing style favoured by Guardiola and Klopp, except Charlton’s attacking philosophy was limited to direct, long balls to a big-man striker rather than sublime football.

He had limited faith in Ireland’s players, which dismayed football people like John Giles and Eamon Dunphy, who rightly felt Ireland had the footballers capable of a more sophisticated game. It felt somehow wrong that having at last made it to the international stage, players like Paul McGrath and Kevin Sheedy were not given licence to express themselves. When Ireland produced pleasing passages of play, it sometimes seemed that the players did so in spite of rather than because of Charlton. But for the masses, the end result superseded the quality of the fare. ‘You’ll never beat the Irish’ became the refrain for the age. And it has carried through.

Kevin Sheedy scores for Ireland against England during the 1990 World Cup in Italy. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Kevin Sheedy scores for Ireland against England during the 1990 World Cup in Italy. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Inflexible

Charlton himself is not an interviewee in the documentary but his presence throughout is simply huge. There was, of course, a perfect irony that one of the quintessential sons of England’s football stock should have triggered this revolution. Whitaker is a grandson of the brilliant economist and public servant TK Whitaker, who once told his grandson of encountering Charlton while fishing in Mayo one summer. It was during the peak of Charlton mania and the economist watched, in open delight, as a cavalcade of about 100 people followed the Englishman as he tried to fish on river bank for an afternoon.

TK Whitaker’s job had involved liaisons and meetings with world leaders for many years. But as he explained to his grandson, he was kind of star struck by Charlton that day. And he was a contrarily complex figure, Charlton: physically imposing with a lopsided grin that might have been sketched by a five-year-old with a crayon; set in his ways to a fault, occasionally vindictive and probably more sensitive than anyone ever knew. In the documentary, Eamon Dunphy uses the perfect word to capture his time as Ireland manager. Dunphy describes him as “inflexible”.

“He loved being Ireland manager,” Whitaker says. “There was something tremendously normal about him. It’s almost like the more normal you get in England, then you are almost heading towards the Celts anyway. He was very lovable from an Irish point of view. When you got back to the footage of the time you are reminded of how big a star Jack Charlton was. Certainly, I had forgotten that. And the last two years of his reign probably looms large as being somewhat negative. People probably got a little bit tired of Jack towards the end. But when you go back to the early years of his stewardship, you see that he was probably the most famous man in Ireland.”

It’s hard to imagine any presidency having the same emotional or psychic impact as Charlton’s period as manager did. For about six years, he seemed less a football manager than a water diviner – except he divined the rights to summer parties and national occasions and a foolish, alien sense of feeling good.

Ireland manager Jack Charlton remonstrates with an England fan after the friendly international at Lansdowne Road was halted due to rioting by the visiting fans in February 1995. Photograph: Shaun Botterill/Allsport
Ireland manager Jack Charlton remonstrates with an England fan after the friendly international at Lansdowne Road was halted due to rioting by the visiting fans in February 1995. Photograph: Shaun Botterill/Allsport

Lansdowne Road riot

Following the Republic of Ireland briefly became a social experiment and it temporarily overwhelmed everything else in the country. Funny, from the realms of archive material in the documentary, it’s not the familiar celebratory images that jump out – Charlton whacking his head after Ray Houghton’s goal against England or the squad meeting the Pope or those homecomings which were close as Ireland has come to evoking the Daniel O’Connell mass meetings.

Instead, it’s a moment from the dark night of the Lansdowne Road riot in February 1995, when England fans wrecked the stadium causing the abandonment of an ill-advised friendly game, which revealed Charlton at his rawest. It’s only a few seconds but you see Charlton striding through the maelstrom on the pitch and grabbing a young England supporter by the collars. “You stupid bloody . . .” is caught on camera. It’s a startling meeting of two generations of Englishmen, an unyielding Yorkshireman marinated in post World War II values and a young member of English football’s rioting generation.

Charlton was incandescent and, as he said afterwards, ashamed. Whitaker drops various clips into the narrative to make it clear that over the years, Charlton had come to think of Ireland as “home” when it came to football. And that night produced an electrical storm in his mind. All of the players interviewed told Whitaker they had never seen Charlton so angry. But David Kelly suggested Charlton had carried the echoes with him.

“When Jack talked about ‘back home’ he always talked about Ireland,” Whitaker says. “And when the Lansdowne riots happened, he said: that doesn’t happen here. He becomes so attached to this thing that he created . . . and it was a mirror reflection of the England fans doing the opposite. And he was proud of that. And when that was disrupted in Dublin it clearly had this impact on him.

David O’Leary scores the winning penalty in the shoot-out against Romania at the 1990 World Cup in Genoa. Photograph: Bob Thomas Sports Photography via Getty Images
David O’Leary scores the winning penalty in the shoot-out against Romania at the 1990 World Cup in Genoa. Photograph: Bob Thomas Sports Photography via Getty Images

Long disappeared country

“David felt it was lasting. That is his opinion. But I felt it was worth including. A lot of footballers can be stuck in their own moment and don’t reflect that much beyond their own experience but I feel this batch of footballers were on such an interesting journey that they developed as human beings in very interesting ways in comparison to footballers nowadays. I feel like they became real men through the process. In a way that some times sports people are infantilised and not allowed develop as human beings. This group absolutely did. Because they were almost like that rag-tag bunch of people getting a second chance. And they took it.”

Whitaker is a little apprehensive and very curious to know how the documentary series will be received. In recent years, he has produced a rich body of work which tells vital life stories through sport, from his study of Katie Taylor’s transition from Olympic heroine to professional fighter to his portrait of Ireland’s big wave surf community in Co Clare. Both of those films involved long and patient hours of painstaking camera craft on Whitaker’s part.

This time, he was dealing with film footage over 30 years old. For anyone aged 40 or over, the footage will be like mainlining to a long disappeared country. For the generations not then born or too young to remember, those scenes and the prevailing mood – the carnival, the goofy optimism, the surging pride – will be baffling.

“It is easy to forget that we had literally nothing to lose,” Whitaker says of that time. “It is really hard to conceive that. And there are two things about that: let’s never go back there again. And, let’s enjoy the positives now. But we felt allowed to be proud to be Irish for the first time. During those years it felt, maybe for the first time, like a great thing to be Irish. And I do think that is quite a transformative thing in the character of a country.”

Part One of The Boys in Green, produced to mark the 30th anniversary year of Italia ’90, will be broadcast on Monday, March 9th at 9.35pm on RTÉ1.