The Republic of Ireland’s first ever experience in the World Cup is one the nation will likely never forget, as they managed to engineer their “agricultural style of football” into the quarter-finals of Italia ’90.
Ireland were not fancied at all going into the tournament, widely regarded as one of the weakest teams to appear at the tournament. However, they defied expectations and scepticism to bring their fans on a journey of ecstasy that lives long in the memory, even if the quality of football was questionable at best.
Arguably, the defining image is David O’Leary,- the archetypal rock-at-the-back leaping in the air after firing the winning penalty against Romania inside a packed Stadio Luigi Ferraris Stadium in Genoa in the last 16 knock-out phase. It was the end of another long night of tense, anxious football punctuated by long-balls and hard-tackling for the Irish but they showed the world their nerves of steel in one of the most pressure-packed penalty shoot-outs the World Cup has ever witnessed.
After 120 minutes of laboured football, Ireland and Romania refused to be separated and so, on they went to an edge-of-your-seat showdown from 12 yards.
The atmosphere continued to create unrivalled excitement inside the stadium on a sunny and physically draining afternoon on the Italian Riviera. The Irish fans let out a great cry of support for Packie Bonner, Ireland’s ever-dependable goalkeeper, who walked nervously towards the net to face the first penalty of the shoot-out. The wait for Bonner and the Irish fans was not helped by the time taken by Hagi in approaching the penalty area to take the opening kick. Bonner paced back and forth, constantly adjusting his right glove and looking up to see the Romanian talisman creep closer and closer to the penalty spot.
Eventually, Hagi produces a wonderful penalty, thumped high into the roof of the net and beyond the reaches of Bonner to pile the pressure immediately back on to Irish shoulders in the shape of Kevin Sheedy. Ireland’s no. 11 takes an identical run-up to Hagi’s and dispatches the ball high in to the net, only this time, sending Silviu Lung the wrong way in the process. As the ball rustled the net, a tremendous roar ripped through the stadium courtesy of the 5,000 Irish fans on the terrace directly behind the goal. This was footballing box-office for them, the camera cutting to their faces, painted green,white and orange, waving flags and embracing each other in the spirit of the World Cup. Each Irish penalty was met with thunderous acclaim by the ocean of green inside the stadium.
Lupu took Romania’s second penalty, and how. The substitute demonstrating his mental freshness by strolling up to the ball and slotting it brilliantly to Bonner’s left. Nestled safely in to the corner for Romania to take a 2-1 lead. Ray Houghton takes Ireland’s next kick, choosing a decidedly quicker approach in the run-up and managing to fox the keeper. Not a great penalty- if the keeper had guessed the right way he probably would have saved it. Nevertheless, Ireland remained level. Matching the Romanians blow for blow under the most intense pressure imaginable. Houghton cracked a smile as he walked back to his team-mates, accepting a handshake from his captain, Mick McCarthy upon his return. Houghton’s smile told the entire story; thank fuck that’s over.
The penalties continued to fly in; Rotariu found the top corner before Andy Townsend replied for Ireland. Again, like Houghton, Townsend strolled back to the squad puffing his cheeks and letting dawn on his face a rye smile signalling his immense relief. Penalty shoot-outs are the cruellest method of deciding a football match but remind everyone of the drama and roller-coaster of emotions involved in being a professional footballer at a major tournament.
Lupescu’s penalty is too much for Bonner to handle and Romania take the lead 4-3. Bonner thumps the ground in frustration but in truth, there weren’t too many professional goalkeepers in world football that could have prevented that kick reaching the top corner. Cascarino continued the trend for Ireland, rifling the ball low and hard, sending Lung the wrong way once again.
Then came the moment of pure elation for Ireland. The crystallising moment that made it clear they were on the verge of something spectacular. Daniel Timofte of Dinamo Bucharest stepped forward to take Romania’s final regulation penalty. The midfield man wasted no time in placing the ball and running up to take it. However, he turned away in disgust as the Bonner turned the ball away. The man from Donegal dived to his right to punch the ball to safety and ensure that Ireland had their fate in their own hands. The Irish fans erupted in near disbelief. The screams of delirious Irish hearts encircled the stadium as Bonner leapt up in the air, punching it in delight.
Jack Charlton refused to display many emotions on the touchline, looking passive and curiously unshaken by what was one of the biggest moments in his footballing life.
The crowd regained their composure. Settle down was the cry. The time was now.
David O’Leary stepped up towards the jittery Lung in the Romanian net. The tension developed into something unbearable as the Arsenal man took an eternity to place the ball on the spot. Perhaps, somewhere in the darkest corridors of the mind, thoughts percolated in the form of O’Leary ballooning the ball high and wide because of some rogue lump of turf near his foot. The ultimate fear for any penalty-kick taker; watching as the ball sails away and with it any sense of dignity.
Once the ball was on the spot, however, O’Leary wasted no time. Sprinting up to the ball and side-footing it into the top right-hand corner, Ireland were through. O’Leary collapsed the ground, letting all the emotions floor him in that moment of pure footballing joy for him and his country. Team-mates, coaching staff and near enough everyone involved with the team in different capacities flooded the pitch and huddled round O’Leary.
They were eliminated in the quarter-finals by hosts Italy but that fateful afternoon in Genoa was forever inscribed on to Irish footballing history, showing fearlessness and courage to down the Romanians. They were hailed as national heroes when they returned to Dublin. They are yet to show such determination and heart on the biggest stage since.
The country waits to feel that euphoria once again.