Italia 90 - “The Nation Holds it’s Breath”
Those are the famous words spoken by commentator George Hamilton as David O’Leary stood over the ball, ready to strike the penalty which could send Ireland to its first ever World Cup Quarter Final. These words were more than football commentary however, they somehow managed to capture the feeling of every person in Ireland who cared about football and is a commentary on Ireland as a whole in that glorious summer of 1990 which came down to this era defining moment, a feeling which lives strong in this country to this day.
In the lead up to Italia 90, Ireland was coming out of a horrific recession, unemployment and crime were high and morale was low, the people were looking for something to lift the spirits. Enter the unlikely hero, honorary Irishman Jack Charlton and his team of misfits. Although, the Irish team on paper was nothing overly special, the spirit of the team was, the optimism of the team was captured in the classic World Cup song “Give it a Lash Jack”, that optimism spilled over to every fan in the country. Walking through the council estates and villages of Ireland at the time you would be greeted with an abundance of flags, bunting and kids wearing dodgy plastic hats.
As soon as the tournament began the nation was engrossed, pubs were filled with hopefuls as Ireland kicked off their campaign against the old enemy England. A 1-1 draw in Cagliari was a sign of things to come as Ireland were to draw all three of their group games on way to a second place group finish. Ireland were not a pretty side to watch by any means but the quality of play didn’t matter, we were doing things our way, a type of play that was symbolic of Ireland at the time, gritty, determined, with a refusal to be counted out.
Our last 16 opponents were a well drilled and experienced Romanian side, if you were to sit and watch the 120 minutes that preceded the penalty shootout today it would nearly be sleep inducing. It was a game destined for penalties. Ireland as a country was never one for doing things the easy way, if we were to win we would have to suffer. The first 8 penalties were all dispatched without incident, ruthless. Then stepped up Daniel Timofte for Romania, he looked uneasy, Packie Bonner stood tall as the Romanian went to strike, Bonner leapt to his right, saved! This moment would later be remembered by FIFA as one of the great World Cup Moments, dubbed “Bonner’s Moment in Time”. We were within touching distance of the last 8.
All Ireland now needed was to dispatch the next penalty. Across Ireland, the screams and cheers ignited by Bonner’s save were quelled by nerves and uncertainty, in pubs up and down the country there was a silent excitement as the television cameras focus in on a pensive Jack Charlton. David O’Leary placed the ball on the spot. The nation held its breath.
To this day, the image of the the sea of green engulfing the triumphant O’Leary is etched in our memories. In the pubs back home, grown men and women shed tears of joy as they boisterously celebrate, safe to say that many a drink was spilled. Cars took to the streets of Dublin, Cork and Galway, waving flags and honking horns to the tune of Ole Ole Ole. For that day, for that night, we were champions of the world.
In the end, defeat against hosts Italy didn’t really matter, we had already won. We had reached the promised land, we had felt an all time high, a high we can only hope of achieving again. For that summer, Ireland forgot its worries, people walked taller with puffed out chests, it was an incredible time to be Irish. Now, every time an Ireland fan pulls on their favorite green shirt or walks into Lansdowne Road it is because we are looking to capture that feeling that some of us have only seen in replays and highlights. Who know’s if this generation can reach these heights again? “The nation holds its breath.”