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'We were disappointed to lose to Italy, even though we knew they were world beaters'

David Kelly speaks to us about life in Ireland’s Italia 90 squad.

Some of the forgotten men from Italia 90.
Some of the forgotten men from Italia 90.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

IT’S PROBABLY BEEN A pub quiz question at one time or another. Name the six members of the Ireland squad who travelled to Italia 90 who didn’t see one minute of game time.

Chris Hughton, Bernie Slaven, Frank Stapleton, Gerry Peyton, John Byrne and David Kelly were the unlucky half dozen.

However, speaking to The42 recently, Kelly said that pride, not frustration was his overwhelming emotion back then and nothing has changed in the intervening 25 years.

“I was extremely nervous before the squad was named. I’d been in it for a couple of years but you’re still anxious when you’re not featuring much during qualification.

“You do hope your club form and how you’re playing in general will be enough to keep you in the manager’s mind though.

“Still, I never expected a call-up. Not ever. I was always grateful when Jack put me in the squad and I didn’t presume I’d be going to Italy so I was absolutely delighted when I got the letter to tell me that I’d been included.

“It was a letter in those days and until you get it — even with everyone telling me I was going to make it — I was very nervous because it’s such a big thing, such a huge honour to be part of a squad that was going to a World Cup.

“I don’t have the letter still but my mum might have it somewhere,” he jokes.

Famously, one person who also got the call-up but who never travelled to Italy, was Gary Waddock and Kelly has a lot of sympathy for his former international colleague.

“It was something that just happened. We were after flying in from Turkey and all of a sudden, Wadda came over and said ‘I’m not going, Jack’s changed his mind and he’s bringing in Alan McLoughlin.’

“That was obviously a huge disappointment for him to be cut at the final hour. It was one of those things where, as players, we assumed those that were originally named in the squad would be the ones going to Italy but, being in management myself now, I understand these are decisions that have to be taken from time to time.

“Gary himself has been a manager and coach at different places so knows that tough decisions need to get made himself but, obviously, the other side of that, it was an enormous moment for Alan to replace him.”

David Kelly & Jack Charlton Republic of Ireland soccer training 1995 Kelly and Charlton enjoyed a great relationship. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Kelly says Ireland’s experience at Euro 88 helped build confidence within the team  that they could do well, but still says being part of the World Cup was special for all the players with the management team of Jack Charlton and Maurice Setters keen to emphasise that every player, from 1-22, was just as important as the next.

“We’d been to the Euros in Germany a couple of years before so the majority of the squad had a feel for what tournament football was like so it wasn’t quite an unknown quantity but the enormity of the competition wasn’t lost on anybody. It was, and is, the biggest sporting event on the planet.

“There was massive amounts of excitement around the team and for me, as someone who wasn’t necessarily a starter by any stretch of the imagination, the key to the whole thing was that we were involved in everything that went on.

“Whether you were a periphery squad member or part of the first team, we were all treated exactly the same, given the same kit, all taken to the same places. What Jack and Maurice did so well was to create a family atmosphere between the players. We were friends first as well as being football colleagues.”

Someone who did feel a lot of frustration, however, was Bernie Slaven who wrote in his biography about how much he missed his dogs on the trip:

“I became a figure of fun when I called home on that trip,” he recalled. “While others were speaking to their wives, I would go on the phone and say: ‘Put the dog on.’”

Kelly doesn’t understand that attitude:

“From my point of view, I had very little frustration with not getting game time because of [how inclusive Jack was]. I was chuffed to bits to be in the squad and contribute in any way I could. Whether that was doing the right thing in training or just being there for the lads, I think it was our sense of camaraderie that helped us go so far.

“It was a long trip, of course, but you’re representing your country, your family and if  you can’t go away for a few weeks without your dogs… I don’t know, I never felt that.”

Source: RTÉ

The players were also kept very up-to-date with the excitement back home with Kelly pointing out how different the relationship between the squad and media was then compared to today.

“We had the papers — albeit a day late — and course talking to friends and family at home and chatting to the media, we really could tell how excited everyone in Ireland was. We didn’t let anyone down, we did the best job we could.

“Of course the relationship between the media and the players is a million percent different today from what it was then. Cathal Dervan (sports editor of the Irish Sun) is a good mate of mine. He was just starting out in journalism when I first got into the squad and we’ve been friends ever since.

“I think the media relations was such you could have a beer with the them, chat openly in the same place without being stitched up frankly. I think now with the advent of social media, everything is instant and things can be taken out of context.”

While Kelly says being involved around the games with England and the Netherlands were some of the best days in Irish footballing history, watching the shootout win over Romania still lives long in the memory.

“It was worse than watching at home nearly! One of my uncles told me he watched it through his fingers and I think that describes it perfectly.

“A penalty shoot out is about feel at the time. When you’re asked the questions — ‘will you take one’ — how confident do you feel about saying yes. I’ve been involved in many penalty shoot outs over the years and people ask why don’t you practise but you can’t really, it’s about what how you feel on the day.

“With that in mind, I knew any of the lads who’d said they’d take one felt they’d score. And they did.”

Scenes. Source: INPHO

Of course, while the joy of beating Romania sent the nation into raptures, heartbreak was to follow but for fans and players.

“I think people forget how good that Italy team was. They really were world beaters but we were still disappointed to lose the game, I think because there was a huge sense of self-belief built up within the squad.

“But still, even though we lost, I think if you’d have told us we’d get to Rome to play Italy in a World Cup quarter-final before the start of the tournament we’d have taken it in a heartbeat.”

And how did the players find the homecoming?

“In was unbelievable, it really was. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything like it in my life and I’m not sure I’ll ever forget it. All those people on the streets of Dublin for us, it was an amazing feeling.  It still makes me smile to think about it, even now.”

Click here for more of The42’s commemorative coverage >

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About the author:

Steve O'Rourke

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