#2: David O’Leary’s penalty against Romania. Genoa, Italy. 1990.

#2: David O’Leary’s penalty against Romania. Genoa, Italy. 1990.

The 1990 World Cup in Italy is the outstanding memory for any Irish football fan. Our first-ever World Cup and most successful, Italia ’90, was a special time for an otherwise struggling country and one which incited passion and patriotism in the whole nation, writes Ryan Mackenzie

The Italian World Cup was a strange competition at times and a boring affair on occasion. Yet, for some, it was the stuff of dreams. Ireland was possibly the only country for which the tournament provided all three scenarios. Our path to the quarter-final was the definition of a rollercoaster ride, but one the country holds in the highest regard.

The boys in green made tough work of the tournament’s group stages, which saw us drawn against England, Egypt and European champions Holland. With tight and sometimes dull contests against our opposition – including a match with Egypt that didn’t provide a shot on target from either side – the Irish found themselves in a rare situation. Tied for second place with the Dutch, a draw of lots was required to decide who would progress outright as runners-up and who would gain a knock-out birth as a best third-placed team.

The ‘luck of the Irish’, an attribute that is often ironically absent from Irish sport, came into effect 15 minutes after the final whistle of a stalemate with Holland. Conducted by FIFA General Secretary Sepp Blatter, the draw saw us chosen at as runners-up and set to play Romania in Genoa’s Stadio Luigi Farraris stadium four days later.

We entered the round of 16 with humble optimism and immense excitement. Irish fans flooded into the smallest stadium in the competition and set about rocking its stands with “olays” and chants, the kind of which earned them the title of the tournament’s ‘Best Fans’.

The match was another tight affair and failed to produce a goal as the sides entered extra-time at 0-0. They remained deadlocked after the additional period and penalties were called upon to settle the tie.

First to the spot was Romanian superstar Gheorghe Hagi who slotted the ball past Packie Bonner with ease. Both sides exchanged goals without fail and the scoreline stood at 4-4.

The atmosphere was tense. As Romania’s Daniel Timofte stepped forward, he showed signs of the nerves that had gripped every player on the pitch. His strike was poorly aimed towards the bottom left corner of the goal. Bonner lunged and palmed the ball away from his goal. Irish fans in the stadium and across the nation erupted with delight.

It was now the responsibility of substitute David O’Leary to score Ireland’s last penalty and send us to Rome’s Stadio Olympico for an unexpected quarter-final debut. Ironically, the Arsenal man had never been a favourite of Ireland manager Jack Charlton. In fact, he had previously suffered two years of rejection under the Englishman, which saw him miss Euro ’88.

As O’Leary approached the ball, RTÉ commentator George Hamilton uttered the immortalized words: “The nation holds its breath”. O’Leary sent the Romanian keeper the wrong way, as his shot sailed to the right and into the goal. Hamilton wasted no time in emphatically announcing: “Yes, we’re there!”

Seconds later, O’Leary was met by the entire Irish team and staff, who had charged onto the pitch amid the deafening cheers of the euphoric Irish fans in the stands. The country responded in similar fashion, as people took to the streets in celebration. A country of only four million people had achieved the impossible and made it into the top eight of the football world.

A 1-0 loss to hosts Italy in the next round signalled the end of the road for Ireland. However, the team were national heroes. They had stunned and enthralled the country, and given them a month to remember.

The period encompassing Italia ’90 has even been described by some as the best time in Irish history. Never before or since has Ireland experienced such unity and outright joy – feelings that were inextricably related to the 1990 World Cup and which almost outshine the football in our memories.