Shane O'Connor

Broadcast Journalist | Food Lover | Funny(ish) | Sports Fan

The nation holds it’s breath…

And we did, I put my head in my hands and then buried my face in the sofa as Dave O’Leary placed the ball on the spot and George Hamilton spoke those famous words. I can only assume that if you are a football commentator that you long for that moment that you will forever be remembered, the “They think its all over” moment and for George Hamilton it came on summers day in 1990, five words that will forever be ingrained in Irish football history “The nation holds its breath”, little did George know that once we exhaled again it would change the country forever.

In a few days time Ireland take on Croatia in their opening match in Euro 2012 and I’ve got Euro fever, over the past few days I’ve been reliving past glories, watching Youtube clips and reading peoples stories from those great moments that we all remember. Watching the old clips brought back great memories, including some that I had completely forgotten about so I thought it might be fun to write down my memories from each tournament and what they meant to me.

I don’t normally ask this but if you enjoy what you read in this and it brings back memories for you please tell me them in the comments box, I would love to hear other peoples stories and share it on Facebook and Twitter so we can get as many stories as possible…

Here we go, here we go, here we go……..

Euro 88…. “What happened next is history, brought tears to many eyes”

This will be a short one for me, when Ireland travelled to West Germany in 1988 I was eight years old and hadn’t really caught on to the whole football thing yet. I think the most important things in my life at that stage were Matchbox cars and Lego, add to that the fact that I was also a small skinny asthmatic, who broke into a wheez at the thought of running its safe to say football wasn’t first on my list of hobbies. But I came from a home where both my mother and father were football fans so luckily for me I was going to see the matches(whether I wanted to or not). In Euro 88 Ireland were drawn in Group B along with the Netherlands, the Soviet Union and the old enemy England. This will probably shock a lot of people seeing as this is a story about the great days in Irish football, but I don’t really remember a lot about the day Ray Houghton stuck it in the net, I remember the excitement, the buzz at what had happened but at 8 years of age I just don’t think I understood the significance of what had happened. Despite this obvious lack of any real memory of the day it’s still a hugely important day in my life as an Irish supporter. I think its like the Christy Cantillon effect for Munster rugby fans born after 1978, you’ve heard the story so many times and each time with a greater passion than the last that you may as well have been there. But if I am to be completely and totally honest, I don’t really remember the day we beat England.

However the next game I do remember for two reasons, the game was played in a stadium with the longest name I’d ever seen ‘the Niedersachsenstadion stadium’  and the amazing overhead kick from Ronnie Whelan. Again my memory of the overall game is sketchy but how could anyone forget that goal? It was the kind of goal you dream of replicating on the playground with your friends(if you weren’t a wheezing wreck), I wonder how many mothers had to deal with crying children that summer who had broken their arse trying to be Ronnie Whelan. It was a thing of beauty though, Mick McCarthy put in a monster of a long throw which travelled through the air like it had been shot from a cannon, it fell to Whelan on the edge of the box where he acrobatically connected with it, sending it flying into the back of the Soviet net! The sitting room erupted, it was probably the greatest goal I’d seen in my short semi-football supporting life. To this day I’d still love to score it on the playground across from my parents house. We went on to draw that game 1-1 with the Soviet Union, but no one spoke about the result, just that goal, that glorious piece of genius.
Strangely I have no memory at all of Ireland’s last group game against the Netherlands, I say strangely because I can only assume there would have been huge hype surrounding the game. A win for Ireland and we would have been in the semi final, but alas it wasn’t to be, the Netherlands won 1-0 and Ireland went home. Maybe it was the result but I have somehow managed to wipe this game from my memory completely.
Euro 88, while it was huge for Irish football seemed to pass me by with the exception of Ronnie Whelan’s bicycle kick and I have probably learned most of  what happened that summer in 1988 from Christy Moore and Joxer, but it was just the start of things to come …

Italia 90… “Put Em’ Under Pressure”

This was to be the one where it all changed, a defining time in Irish history. I remember going to Dublin with my mother in the weeks building up to the World Cup, we were walking down Moore Street and there was a stall selling Ireland merchandise(one of many) and hanging from the top of the stall was this jersey, one half of it was a green Ireland shirt and the other half was a blue Italian shirt, I remember thinking it was the coolest thing ever and I can still see it as clear as day. I don’t know why I never got that shirt, in the end I got a white t-shirt from Penneys with a cartoon of Jack Charlton and the team on it, which if I still had it now I would be trying my best to squeeze into it.
I think most people will admit that it was Italia 90 where they got hooked on Irish football, we were a country on its knees, we needed something to give us hope and the Irish team were about to give us that hope. The build up to the tournament seemed to go on forever, the buzz was building from very early on especially once they released Put Em’ Under Pressure(still our greatest football song) which you heard on a daily basis, there was a World Cup trinket free in the paper nearly everyday, who remembers the dancing Italia 90 mascot? I was ten now and into football so I was set, I knew what was happening this time around. But I don’t think anyone was really set for what was about to happen in Italy that summer.
Ireland were drawn in Group F and again faced England and the Netherlands along with Egypt. For the second tournament in a row we faced England in our opening game and this time I would remember it. We sat as a family in the sitting room as the game began, I knew that England were favourites to win because the team was filled with all the faces that I had gotten in my packets of Paninni stickers, including the man on what seemed to be the most printed sticker of all Gary Lineker, you couldn’t swap a Lineker sticker for love nor money, everyone had about six. It was to be Lineker who would strike first, cheekily chesting the ball passed Bonner and into the net, surely that can’t be allowed?? it’s “foot” ball after all(okay so I hadn’t caught on to all the rules). For a long time it looked like England were going to exact their revenge for Euro 88 until up stepped Kevin Sheedy, BANG!! 1-1 my dad gave a loud roar, so I copied him and shouted too, we were back. The game finished 1-1 and we were in a good place in the group.
The next game against Egypt is famous for two things, it was possibly the most boring game ever played in a world cup finals and some grumpy looking auld lad with curley hair firing his pen across the desk on the tv. I can remember lying on the floor of the sitting room to watch this game, as I lay there on our mad eighties orange carpet I could hear my dad and our neighbour Danny talking up Ireland and how we had a great chance so I was all ready for a good game, but what followed could have put you off football for life, although I can’t be totally sure as to how bad the second half was because I fell asleep. I woke up at fulltime just in time to see Eamon Dunphy throw his pen across the RTE desk, claiming he was ashamed of the Irish performance. I think this was the first time I’d ever really noticed Dunphy and it wasn’t the last time he would cause a stir on tv when it comes to Irish football.

I remember our final group game against the Netherlands because of a saying I’d never heard before, a gentlemen’s agreement. I had no idea what it meant but all I knew is that because of this we got to play another game. Ireland had gone behind to an early goal from Ruud Gullit before equalising through Niall Quinn in the second half, news then filtered through that England were winning and if everything stayed the same all three teams would go through. I think it was after about ten minutes of watching the two teams pass it around at the back that I heard my dad say “They’ve come to an agreement”, what agreement? I thought, what’s he on about? Ten more minutes of keep ball passed and the ref blew the whistle, we had made it into the last 16, instinctively everyone poured out of their houses onto the street, you could hear car horns beeping in all directions, neighbours hugged and shook hands like they were welcoming a newborn to the family, the outpouring of joy was huge and we still had another game to come.
The game against Romania started a bit differently for me, I had become accustomed to watching Ireland games with my dad it was the done thing, but on this day for whatever reason(biggest game we’d ever played probably) he decided to watch the game in the John Mitchells Clubhouse with his workmates. I remember being disappointed that I wouldn’t be sharing the day with him and I think this added to my tension before the game. So with my dad down the pub, it was just me and my mother in the sitting room that day(my sister was in England on holiday) but that was okay, see while most ten year olds might think it was uncool to watch a game with their mother it was different with mine. On the outside my mother is a very quiet and unassuming person, a lady, but beneath the quietness hides a great sports fan and she is one of the only women I know who understands football. My mother knows the offside rule and I am hugely proud of that, so I can think of no one better to have watched the greatest day in Irish football with. The game itself was a tense and tight affair that finished 0-0 after normal time and extra time. So we faced into the dreaded penalties, spot kicks stood between us and a place in the quarterfinals of the World Cup. It was honours even when the Romanian Timofte placed the ball on the spot, my mother and me were sitting on the edges of our seats at this stage, I’d never felt emotion like this and I’m not sure I really understood what I was feeling. Timofte ran up and struck the ball, we held our breaths as Packie Bonner dived low to his right and with his giant shovel hands stopped the ball, YESSSSSSSSSSSS!!!!!!!!!!! He’d saved it, we jumped around the room, with a flick of his wrist Packie Bonner had created one of the most iconic moments in the history of the country. For as long as people could remember every house in Ireland had two pictures in it, a picture of the Pope and picture of John F. Kennedy, but now they would have to make room for another great man’s picture(you can’t help but think if Packie had been beside JFK all along he might have blocked that shot too). I think the poster of Packies save that came free with the Kerrys Eye Newspaper must have been on our fridge for at least two years after that…

But it wasn’t over yet, we still had one more penalty to take, score this and we were through. At this stage I think my ten year old body had taken all it could take, I threw myself down onto the sofa and as George Hamilton uttered those immortal words “The nation holds its breath”, I put my head in my hands, turned over and buried my face in the cushions and everything fell silent for what seemed like an eternity. YESSSSSSSSSSSSSS!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I hopped up just as all the players were running toward David O’Leary, I think the whole country lifted about 10 feet when that penalty hit the back of the net, across Ireland people ran out onto the streets. I ran outside to where all my friends were, “did you see it?” you could hear people shout as they openly wept while hugging each other. I can remember hearing cars passing beeping the horn while people hung out the windows singing “One Packie Bonner, there’s only One Packie Bonner”. We played penalty shootout in the field until our mothers dragged us in that night. The way people celebrated was unbelievable, Con Houlihan famously said “I missed Italia 90, I was in Italy at the time” and he was right, I don’t think anything will ever come close to what happen in Ireland that day, as I write this now I am sitting here with tears rolling down my face remembering it. Little did they know it but on that day in Genoa Packie Bonner and Dave O’Leary changed this country forever and for me the Irish team got into my veins and his been there ever since.

With everything that happened in the Romania game you could almost be forgiven for forgetting we were the quarter final of the World Cup after that, we had drawn the hosts Italy in the quarter final and after the previous heroics the game just seem to fade away from us. I don’t have many memories of this game except for the moment that Bonner parried the ball into the path of Toto Schillcahi and he scored the only goal of the game, the dream and the adventure we’re over. This was the tournament when we really took Irish Football to our hearts, the team came home to a huge reception, I remember watching it on tv and thinking ‘imagine what it would be like if we’d won’. It was the greatest journey I’d ever been on and I’d never left the sitting room.

USA 94… “New York belongs to the Irish”

With everything that had happened in Italia 90, by the time USA 94 came around the country was buzzing. I was fourteen now and completely hooked on football, all we would talk about at school was football so I was really ready to soak this tournament up. I also had another reason to be excited about the build up to USA 94, a friend of ours Peter was going to the USA and even though I wasn’t going, just knowing someone who was made it all the more real. The qualifying campaign for USA 94 saw a change to the team with a number of young players breaking into the squad including the three amigos, Gary Kelly, Jason McAteer and Phil Babb, three messers and the new heart of the team. I think at the time, every boy of my age thought they were the coolest people ever, whenever you saw them on tv they were laughing and joking, they had it all and I loved it.
Ireland were drawn in Group E in USA 94 against Italy, Mexico and Norway. In our opening game we would face Italy, the team who had ended the dream four years earlier. This game saw a huge step up for me, I had been promoted from the sitting room and was going to the pub with my dad to watch the game. We put on our shirts and headed for Lar Hickeys pub in Knocknagoshel to watch the game with Lar and Joe Long, I was extremely excited by the prospect of this, for I was big now. We got to Lars about two hours before kick off(my dad is early for everything), slowly people started to mill in and the buzz began to build, I remember hearing one guy saying “It’s all Italians, there’s no Irish in the stadium” this brought a sense of worry to the pub, but then the coverage started and it showed a sea of green in the Giants Stadium, we were out in force. I grabbed my Club Orange and we sat on the bench opposite the tv, I really do remember thinking to myself that I had arrived, there I was with my dad and his mates watching the game in a proper pub, a pub where you had to cross the yard to go to the gents. The game drew closer and the teams stood for the anthems, we all stood too as slowly the camera panned from player to player before eventually revealing Steve Staunton, poor Steve would become one of the lasting memories of that year, with each game he looked more and more like a waxwork dummy that had been left outside in the sun. To this day I still refer to factor 50 sunscreen as ‘Factor Steve Staunton. The game had only started when Ray Houghton collected the ball and with his left foot lifted it over the Italian keeper and into the net, YESSS!!!!!!!!! the pub nearly exploded, we jumped up off our seats, my dad turned around caught me in his arms and squeezed me until I nearly burst. The Irish were back and we weren’t here to make up the numbers. If you ask most people about that day against Italy they will talk about Houghtons goal and Paul McGraths colossal performance at the back, he single handedly kept the Italians at bay for the entire game. For me though my other real memory is John Sherridans performance, I can still see his strike hitting the crossbar in the second half, I came away from the game that day talking about how good Sherridan played and how he spread the ball(I had got the hang of the football talk by now). We won the game 1-0 and it was like Italia 90 had never gone away, on the way home after the game my dad took us for a drive around Tralee and the place was hopping, filled with supporters celebrating what had just happened and me as proud as punch in the car after seeing then beat Italy in a pub.

Next up was Mexico, what’s the one thing a fourteen year old boy can’t do at home but does all the time with his mates?? Curse!! When John Aldridge blew his top on the sideline it was like a dream come true, here he was on the tv in my sitting room screaming “F**k off you, you twat, you d**khead, f**k off” and there was nothing my parents could do. I don’t know why, but I knew, I just knew that when he got onto the pitch he would score and he did, almost instantly and what we didn’t know then was that would be a very important goal. The game finished 2-1 to Mexico but it was all about Aldo, you love a bit of temper when its on your side. The other big news that day was that the council lined the road at the end of our estate, nothing to do with the game but equally as important in Ballinorig Close, it does pose the question, who the hell did they get to work on a day when Ireland were playing?? Poor feckers…

We closed out the group stages with a 0-0 draw against Norway and as much as I’ve tried I can’t remember anything of significance from this game, the most important thing is that because of Aldo’s temper fuelled goal against Mexico we had gone through to the knockout stages again.
We drew the Netherlands(again) in the last 16, it was beginning to look like we could only play the same teams in major tournaments. We got all set for the game in my house, all sitting in the room with thoughts of Romania running around our heads, would we do it again? It wasn’t to be this time, we went out 2-0 to a better Dutch side and it the blink of an eye it was over. The team returned to another huge welcome, thousands of fans gathered on the streets to welcome them, I watched the home coming on the tv and it was just as big as the last time, they could do no wrong in our eyes. I remember reading some time later that the team had to be convinced to go to the home coming, that they didn’t believe they deserved it, but we loved them and we wanted them to know. This world cup lasted a bit longer for me as I waited for Peter to come home and tell us all the stories, he didn’t let me down he came back with stories, photos and a programme from the games!! A world cup programme, jealous much?!

Japan and South Korea 2002… “Take me back, take me back, what do you mean take me back?”

World cup 2002 had it all, but there is only one place we can start this one. Saipan will forever be etched in the history of Irish football, I missed most of the action as it happened in Saipan because I was in Cardiff watching Munster in the Heineken Cup Final. We were coming back on the bus from Cardiff when the news broke that Roy was coming home, WTF? who had agreed to let or greatest player go home? The bus was all talk about what was going on, with a straight split down the middle. By the time I got home, Roy was back home and had started the process of walking the four legs off poor Triggs. We all knew there was no going back for Roy at that point, the UN couldn’t solve this one so we just had to get on with it.
We were drawn in Group E against Germany, Cameroon and Saudi Arabia and with every thing that had gone on, the games kind of crept up on me. We faced Cameroon in our opening match, I picked up Peter and we headed into Maurice Fitz’s to watch the game. It was 7am in the morning, the pub was packed and Peter ordered a Guinness for himself(liquid black pudding). Cameroon went one up and I felt nervous, but the game will be remembered for Matt Hollands great equalising goal, a daisy cutter from just outside the box. The game finished 1-1 and Roy was forgotten(well a little bit).

The next game was against Germany, this was a midweek game, I remember panicking at the time because it was on during work. How the hell I am supposed to concentrate when the game is on? How would I cope? Luckily I had a very understanding boss who came in and told us all to pack up and go watch the game, he hadn’t even finished his sentence and we were gone. The Greyhound bar was our home for that day, I set up base on a stool right in front of the big screen, the pub was packed and we knew this was going to be our toughest game, the Germans never make it easy. They took the lead through Klose after twenty minutes, halftime came and I tried to force a few free cocktail sausages into my mouth but I was too worried about the game to eat, the game kicked off again and it looked like the one goal was going to be enough for the Germans, but up stepped Robbie Keane, a knock down from Quinn and Keane ran onto it and smashed it passed Kahn, we went wild! We had a chance, beat the Saudi’s by two goals and we were through.

I watched the Saudi Arabia game in Spillanes with Peter and his son, before the game we laughed at Peters stories from USA 94 again, you could see he wished he was in South Korea.  There was a nervousness in the pub that day, we knew we needed to win by two clear goals but we weren’t a high scoring team. The game kicked off and Keane quickly settled our nerves, making it 1-0 early on, we had to wait until the second half for the all important second the enigma that was Gary Breen making it 2-0, it was party time. The songs began to flow, “We all dream of a team of Gary Breens, a team of Gary Breens, a team of Gary Breens”. We looked comfortable and we were already talking about the knock outs when Duff made it 3-0 and bowed his head in respect to the fans. Three goals without reply, we’d done it again. What happened next is a moment I will take to my grave, while we were all laughing and joking and looking forward to the next game Peter was sitting quietly thinking, when all of a sudden he slammed his pint glass on the bar counter, stood up and said “I’m going, I have to go, I need to be there” we all looked at him like he had three heads. He stood up, walked out and got into his car and two days later he was in South Korea and all set for the Spain game. I’d never seen anyone make such a huge decision on a whim and follow it through, just once in my life I hope to do something like that.
In the last 16 we faced an in-form Spanish side, this was another early morning game and I headed for Maurice Fitzs once again. I was extremely nervous, I remember sitting at the bar and feeling myself shaking before the game ever kicked off.The bar was packed, with more breakfast Guinness’ on the menu. The game kicked off and we were slow to settle, Morientes gave Spain a 1-0 lead and it looked like they were going to run away with it, but we settled and we began to attack. We had the beating of them on the wings, more and more we got into it, Duff was tearing them to ribbons. At one point Duff had the ball and I screamed at the screen “For the love of f**k Duff, run it into the box they’ll take you down!”(I was getting a little agitated) about two minutes later he did just that and we won a penalty. Ian Harte stood up to take the penalty and the pub groaned, it hadn’t been a good tournament for Harte and he didn’t look confident, I said to the guy beside me “he shouldn’t be taking it, no, no, no” and we were right, the penalty was saved. But we kept going, there is a very good chance this could have been Ireland’s greatest ever performance on the world stage, we kept attacking and in the 90th minute we won another penalty, this time Keane stepped up and slotted it home, the drinks flew into the air. The game went to penalties and Ireland lost out, we hadn’t prepared for a penalty shoot out and it showed. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as drained as I did after that game, we were out and we didn’t deserve to be. For long periods of the game we had played Spain off the park but it just wasn’t to be. To this day I firmly believe it was our tournament to win and I really mean that, if only……..

Poland and Ukraine 2012… “The rocky road to Poland”

If its anything like what has gone before it, then bring it on! With the country on its knees as it is, this couldn’t come at a better time for us and one thing we can be sure of is that the boy’s in green won’t let us down…

Come on you boys in green!!

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This entry was posted on 08/06/2012 by in Random Stuff and tagged , , , , , .

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