FAI History Chapter 29 - World Cup 1990 final tournament
The World Cup final tournament of 1990 in Italy represented the greatest festival of sport this country has ever experienced, better even that the memorable final tournament of the UEFA Championship of 1988 in Germany.
The great mass of sports fans in Ireland were thousands of miles from the action, of course, but the five matches Ireland played in the finals made a huge impact on the everyday life of the citizens at home.
Work schedules were re-arranged to allow fans watch the matches on live telecasts. Traffic levels dropped dramatically in every city and town in the country at kick-off time. Homes and estates were decorated in Ireland's colours.
Thousands decorated their cars and vehicles, dressed in the team colours and flocked to join other enthusiasts in cinemas, hotels, public houses to create a carnival atmosphere around special transmissions on large screens as the commercial world sought to bring the World Cup experience home.
Airlines and travel agents did bumper business as thousands more flew to Italy to attend the matches in person with places on aircraft at a premium as Ireland advanced in the competition.
The officers of the Football Association struggled to cope with the demand for match tickets, a demand that grew exponentially.
As Ireland advanced through the initial three-match Group stage, on through the Round of 16 to a never-to-be-forgotten climax against Italy in Rome's Olympic Stadium in the quarter-finals the demand for match tickets reached hysterical levels.
These were heady days for Irish football and the Summer of 1990 provided a sequence of glamorous matches that captivated the country and elevated the players to a level of distinction never before experienced.
Ireland were helped, of course, by the lessons learned in the European finals of 1988 in Germany.
It is a challenging task for any football federation to plan and execute a campaign that involves bringing 22 professional players and staff to a level of preparedness so they can produce their best over the stretch of a competitive tournament.
Jack Charlton's experience was critical here, of course, and his leadership was of enormous help. For the officers of the FAI had also to cater for the demands of the fans with Ireland's enthusiastic followers turning up in ever-increasing numbers seeking match tickets as Ireland advanced.
Ireland warmed up for the tournament by playing Wales at Lansdowne Road on March 28, 1990. Ireland won the game 1-0 with a goal from Bernie Slaven of Middlesbrough but of more significance was the withdrawal at half-time because of injury of Ronnie Whelan.
Whelan had captained Ireland in their final World Cup qualifying match against Malta and was also captain against Wales. His role in central midfield alongside Paul McGrath was a critical one for Ireland and it seemed that Charlton had settled on the Liverpool player to lead Ireland in the finals.
These plans were disrupted, however, for when Whelan returned to Liverpool he suffered another injury, a broken bone in his foot. The injury proved to be only one of a succession that upset Whelan's season and ensured that his role in the World Cup finals was a minor one.
Whelan missed warm-up matches against the Soviet Union at Lansdowne Road on April 25, against Finland at Lansdowne on May 16, against Turkey on May 27 in Izmir and against Malta in Valetta on June 2 where Ireland were based for the week before the finals.
Ireland scored narrow wins over Wales and the Soviet Union. The match against Finland was drawn 1-1 but was more significant for the fact that it was staged as a testimonial match for Liam Brady.
The great midfield artist had announced his retirement several months earlier and 32,000 fans turned up to pay tribute with a standing ovation as he departed the game after 26 minutes.
Finland proved stubborn opponents and threatened to bring Ireland's long unbeaten run in Dublin to an end when they opened the scoring in the 75th minute. But Ireland responded in spirited fashion and when a shot from John Aldridge came back off the crossbar, Kevin Sheedy was there to knock in the equaliser in the 84th minute. The result meant that Ireland's unbeaten streak at home stretched to 20 games.
The luck of the draw in the World Cup finals saw Ireland grouped with England, Netherlands and Egypt and the kick-off produced a memorable contest with England in the Sant'Elia Stadium, Cagliari, on the island of Sardinia on Monday, June 11, 1990.
An estimated 20,000 Irish fans crowded the stadium at kick-off and they were in fine voice throughout the 90 minutes of a contest that was disputed with predictable intensity. The Irish fans were silenced briefly when England snatched a lead goal through Gary Lineker after eight minutes.
The goal came against the run of play and fired Ireland to even more determined efforts on a cool and windy evening that quickly turned to rain after an electrical storm had broken over the stadium.
Ireland regained equality when Kevin Sheedy scored in the 69th minute to produce a result which accurately reflected the trend of the game.
Egypt drew with the Netherlands in the other game in the group and they represented something of an unknown quantity for Ireland in Palermo on the island of Sicily on Sunday, June 17, 1990.
The match proved controversial as it ended scoreless and provided little good football and even less entertainment. Egypt devoted all of their efforts towards defending their goal and never once threatened Ireland's goalkeeper, Packie Bonner. Ireland wasted the couple of opportunities that fell their way but they looked predictable and lacking in ideas in a poor match.
Charlton attempted to change the trend when he introduced Niall Quinn at centre-forward for Tony Cascarino after 84 minutes and the change was significant. Quinn was retained for the next match against Netherlands which again was played in Palermo on June 21.
The Dutch had also drawn with England in their second match and all four teams were locked on two points each with identical scoring records with one series of matches to be played. Qualification for the Round of 16 could not have been more delicately balanced.
Netherlands started the game in a more upbeat fashion and jumped in front with a beautifully created goal after nine minutes. The Dutch, the reigning European champions, were powered by superstars of the game like Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit and they combined for Gullit to race clear of the Irish defence to beat goalkeeper Bonner.
Ireland now faced elimination but they responded in a manner that marked their strength of character and the quality of their football. They gradually worked their way into the game to win an even share of the ball in midfield and develop their attacking game.
John Aldridge had a goal disallowed on a marginal offside call as chances were created at both ends in an exciting match and Ireland's courage was finally rewarded in the 71st minute. An attempted back-pass from Benny Van Aerle, under pressure from Tony Cascarino, was less than measured and when the ball rebounded off goalkeeper Hans Van Breukelen, Niall Quinn was there to capitalise for the equaliser.
England defeated Egypt 1-0 to win the group series and the combination of results meant that Netherlands and Ireland shared the runners-up spot and both would also advance.
Lots were drawn to separate the joint runners-up for the purpose of the draw for Round of 16 and Ireland were fortunate to win this and be drawn against Romania while Netherlands faced a more daunting match against West Germany.
Ireland had only played Romania once before when they won 2-0 in Dublin in 1988 but the Romania in Italy in 1990 was highly rated. They had one of the most outstanding players in the world in their midfield in the diminutive Gheorghe Hagi.
The game presented the FAI with enormous logistical problems as the huge army of Irish supporters decamped from the islands and invaded Italy's mainland for the game in Genoa. Many Irish had budgeted for a two-week stay and were now determined not to go home, regardless of cost.
Many others, gripped by the enthusiasm that swept the country, sought last-minute flights and accommodation as they travelled to share in a campaign that was quickly assuming epic proportions.
The search for match tickets was intense and grew even more severe when Ireland overcame Romania in a penalty shoot-out after a scoreless game had stretched into extra time and 120 exhausting minutes. The extremely warm and sun-filled weather conditions took a huge toll of players' energy but Ireland performed heroically.
The shoot-out was the stuff of fairy-tales as the teams successfully converted four consecutive penalties each. John Aldridge was Ireland's nominated penalty expert but he was forced out of the game by injury as early as the 22nd minute. Ireland still racked up four successful penalties from Kevin Sheedy, Ray Houghton, Andy Townsend and Tony Cascarino.
Goalkeeper Packie Bonner then produced a save that will forever be recognised as the highlight of his glorious career as he plunged to his left to turn away a penalty from Romania substitute Daniel Timofte. And when David O'Leary, an extra time substitute for Steve Staundon, fired home his penalty Ireland had achieved a remarkable feat.
The scenes of celebration in the stadium and throughout Ireland were remarkable as the people of Ireland created their own special brand of carnival. A place in the quarter-finals represented triumph of a special kind and with a match against Italy in Rome's magnificent Olympic Stadium to come, the popularity of the team and the game was at an unprecedented level.
Ireland faced an enormous task for Italy had looked impressive in their march to the quarter-finals while Ireland had advanced that far without winning a game. Their four drawn matches created a World Cup record but their courage and honest effort had won them the respect and, indeed, the admiration of the football world.
Their reputation stretched as far as the Vatican and the players and officials responded with alacrity when offered a private audience with his Holiness the Pope in the days leading up to the match against Italy.
Manager Jack Charlton and kit-man Charlie O'Leary were in the van when the Pope, who had been a goalkeeper as a young man in his native Poland, spent brief moments talking to the group.
The atmosphere on Saturday, June 30, 1990, within the Olympic Stadium in Rome was exhilarating as the teams took the field - Italy in their traditional Chelsea blue shirts, Ireland in their changed gear of white shirts and green shorts.
The contest that followed was enthralling with Ireland showing the confidence and ambition to match Italy in every phase of play. But they were undone when one mistake in the 37th minute enabled Roberto Donadoni hammer a shot at goalkeeper Packie Bonner that was too hot for the goalkeeper to hold and Toto Schillaci squeezed the rebound into the net.
So Ireland's remarkable football odyssey came to an end but the spectacle and pageantry that surrounded the climax against Italy and the historic nature of their involvement made it memorable.
The World Cup party returned to Dublin the day after the game and were given a huge welcome as they paraded through the main streets on an open-topped bus before crowds estimated variously at between 350,000 and 400,000 and a television audience of thousands more.