Billy Stickland/INPHO
italia 90 week

'Scots, Chinese, Japanese - you had everyone in green and white'

A hardcore Irish supporter for decades, Brendan O’Meara has fond memories of Italia ’90.

IT’S HARD NOT to get carried away. As Brendan O’Meara regales me with some incredible stories and memories, it’s hard not to lament the past, the glory days and the ever-growing disconnect between sports teams and supporters.

It’s genuinely infectious to be in his company. His eyes light up when describing the places he visited, how he got there, the romance of it all – that long-gone love affair with following a football team around the world.

Having been to Germany and seen all three of the Irish games at Euro ’88, O’Meara got the band back together for the proposed trip to Italia ’90.

“There was a group of us that drank in Ringsend after all the home internationals – we never missed a home game. We drank in The Oarsman and we carried The Oarsman flag with us to games. We used to go to Sally O’Brien’s as well. And we’d always have big singsongs, in the snug. I would’ve been about thirty then, other fellas would’ve been in their fifties. So that was the group. Always a sing-song after the matches – your typical old, traditional Dublin songs. That was religious for every match.”

“We looked at the (World Cup) fixtures and we decided to head out there for the England match. So we booked a day trip. We get out to the island for the game and we’re picked up by a bus. It was a good few hours before kick-off so we have to kill time. But there’s no beer – there was an alcohol ban on the day of the match and the day before. So they brought us to a tiny restaurant on the seafront – a remote place. When we went in, they had little or no food – just spaghetti with tomato sauce. But, they had beer and they started serving us.”

But there was a raid by the police. Car-loads of them. They burst into the restaurant, there was lots of roaring and shouting in Italian and then the message was passed on: ‘They’re Irish’. So they left us be. They ignored the drink. ‘It’s okay – they’re Irish’.”

It was the 11th June, 1990 and the clash was set for Stadio Comunale Sant’Elia in Cagliari – on the island of Sardinia. The British government had wanted England’s group games to be played there because it meant their fans could be easily monitored. And they got their wish. With hooliganism proving a relentless and unsettling subplot to the game, Italian authorities were prepared for violence. A derby, a fixture so heavily weighed-down with political and historical context, there was genuine concern that English fans would spoil the party. 7,000 Italian police and carabinieri were in Cagliari that day. A third of Italy’s paramilitary force was on stand-by, should any trouble flare.

Irish fans look on during the game against Romania 1990 Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

“Everybody was searched,” remembers O’Meara.

“They went through women’s purses and their handbags and took out anything that could be used as a missile. The ladies even lost their lipsticks, lots of personal stuff. You lost all your coins too so they made a fortune, the police. Then we all looked at our tickets and checked out the sequences for the turnstiles. We started moving from the back of one goal and around the side of the stadium. As we got further along, the green colours started to thin out and there was more white. We finally got to the back of the other goal and that’s where our tickets were for. It was the England end. I’d say there were about 150 of us. We took up our positions, about halfway up and immediately the police put a ring of steel around us. We were surrounded by the English support. We didn’t get far with Amhrán na bhFiann, as you can imagine.”

In spite of the reputation the England fans carried with them, O’Meara wasn’t too concerned by the prospect of violence, especially when Gary Lineker opened the scoring. The weather dampened the mood too, though it wasn’t long before the mood changed.

Kevin Sheedy 1990 Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

“It wasn’t going great and then the rain started in the second half and it thundered down,” he remembers. 

“We were losing 1-0 and everybody was feeling a bit down – even the English because it was torrential. And us Irish fans all start up…’We’re singing in the rain, just singing in the rain’. And the English couldn’t understand it at all. They couldn’t get to grips with this. Then Sheedy scored and there’s this little pocket of green in the middle of all the English supporters hopping up and down. And then you felt a little under pressure because it was the typical English football supporters around us. It was uncomfortable. It wasn’t like you had an army with you – it was a mixed group of Irish people. There were people with us that made you think, ‘God, if this kicks off…that poor woman, these kids.’ We scored and we erupted and they got very disheartened. And from my memory, the game just flattened out. And then, at the end, we thought ‘Great, what happens now?’ Well, the police held the English supporters back and escorted us out.”

O’Meara’s day-trip ended peacefully and he returned to Dublin, deciding against heading to Palermo for Ireland’s next assignments against Egypt and the Netherlands. But qualification for the knockout stages was subsequently secured and the drawing of lots led to a round of sixteen clash with Romania in Genoa. O’Meara assembled his trusty group once more and off they went. And as they headed to the city to pick up their match tickets, they were greeted by a sea of green.

Ireland fans before the match 11/6/1990 Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

“The Irish had taken over, all sitting down and doing the Mexican wave, up and down the steps,” he says. 

“And then you had the police. One of them saw my hat and wanted it. It was a white flat cap with a shamrock on the front. It wasn’t anything too radical or different but the next thing I knew he reached through a fence and grabbed it off my head. But immediately, I reached in and grabbed his beret! So I’m on the outside of the fence with his beret, he’s on the inside with an Irish supporter’s hat and now improperly dressed for duty! He gave in because it was his uniform so he handed me back the hat and I gave him his. He said, ‘Grazie, grazie’, then disappeared and came back about five minutes later with a whole load of souvenirs for me – metal badges and lots of World Cup stuff.”

We were queuing in the scorching sun for hours, waiting to get our tickets. (Joe) Delaney (John’s father) was selling them. He was sitting at a table with piles of tickets and collecting the money and putting it in a shoebox or something.”

O’Meara describes the game against Romania as ‘the most boring I ever sat through’ but standing in the Stade Luigi Ferraris that day, he looked around and saw something that filled him with genuine emotion: the wider influence of the Irish support and how so many neutrals were drawn to being a part of it.

“I always remember that there were Scottish guys who we’d met on the Italian Riviera and they came up with us to Genoa and got tickets too,” he says. 

“So there were six or eight of them with us, in their kilts. You had Chinese, Japanese, you had everyone in green and white. The national anthem was incredible. Everyone was talking about it being sung with real fervour. We were on the world stage and we wanted people to know that we were there. The match was a disaster and the penalty shootout put years on everyone. It was one of the most unimaginable things – the tension, the pressure, and the ‘I’m not going to look, I am going to look, I have to look’ sort of thing.”

Packie Bonner saves a penalty in the shoot out 1990 Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

O’Meara remembers the penalties vividly. Standing behind the goal, he had the perfect view of Daniel Timofte’s miss and David O’Leary’s subsequent winner. But up until that final kick went in, there was little enjoyment. It was about endurance.

“I remember O’Leary’s penalty clearly,” he says. 

“But Cascarino scuffed his. If the Romanian keeper had stood where he was, he probably would’ve saved it. It was like the game in 1988 against England in Stuttgart – we scored after six minutes but the next eighty-four was just about getting through it. It wasn’t about watching the game and enjoying it. It was torture, absolute torture. Everyone would ask – ‘Who’s next up? Who’s next up?’ And then you’d see whoever it was walking forward. And then O’Leary stepped up. ‘What the fuck is the centre-half doing taking a penalty? This is ridiculous. Who’s after bottling it?’ And then he scores and he was the best thing since sliced bread.”

O’Meara’s World Cup adventure ended in Genoa. His wife was ill back in Dublin so he went home, the prospect of facing the hosts Italy at Rome’s Olympic Stadium quite a daunting one anyway. More to the point, he had already pulled a trick two years before.

“I left my heavily pregnant wife to go to Euro ’88,” he recalls with a laugh. 

“She said to me, ‘You’re leaving me here to go over and watch the football and I’m pregnant’? And I said, ‘Hang on a minute. If that’s a boy and he asks me ‘Dad, were you present at the war with the English in ’88 and I tell him no and he calls me a wimp, how am I going to look?’ When my son was born, I talked the wife into calling him Raymond and that was a great achievement until her sister came in and said ‘The only reason he wants to call the child Raymond is because of Houghton’s goal against England’. So, he’s Robert. That’s as close as I could get.”


Can you identify these Italia 90 players from their Panini sticker?

Forget Romania, it could so easily have been West Germany for the Boys in Green

Click here for more of The42’s commemorative coverage >

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