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Aftershocks: Italia ’90 – The Year A Small Nation Dared To Dream

In the second of our eight-part ‘Aftershocks’ series, Jordan Norris revisits the biggest upsets in the history of the World Cup – looking at both the immediate fall-out and what emerged in the aftermath.

This piece takes us back to Italia 90 – as Ireland battled the giants on football’s most coveted stage.



Having qualified for their first major tournament at Euro 88 just two years previous, Jack Charlton’s Ireland were drawn in a difficult group in their quest to reach the World Cup for the first time. Ireland were in with Spain, Hungary, Northern Ireland and Malta, with the top two qualifying and boarding the plane to Italy.

The qualification campaign started disastrously for Ireland. Under Charlton’s instruction, the FAI agreed that the Boys in Green would play their first three matches away from home. Ireland drew with Hungary and Northern Ireland, before going down 2-0 away to Spain.

They went into their clash with Spain on April 26th, 1989 in the knowledge that only victory would keep their hopes alive – and came out on top 1-0, courtesy of an own goal from Michel.

Ireland found their feet at Lansdowne Road, and reeled off back-to-back 2-0 wins over Malta and Hungary respectively, before thumping Northern Ireland 3-0 in October, and booking their place in the finals with a 2-0 win away in Malta.

Having won five in a row, against all odds – Ireland were off to the World Cup.


The Old Enemy

Ireland arrived in Italy with very little expected of them – due to the opponents they found themselves up against in Group F. Ireland were drawn against familiar foes in England, reigning European champions Holland, and Egypt.

With the group based on the island regions of Sicily and Sardinia, there were strict security measures with alcohol bans in place on match day – however, this failed to spoil the Irish party ahead of their opener with England in Cagliari.

All seemed gloomy, as Gary Lineker put England in front with just eight minutes gone, but Ireland dug deep and took a foothold in the game in the second half – Kevin Sheedy firing home fifteen minutes from time to take a deserved point.

Expectations were now high for Ireland to beat Egypt in Palermo on their next outing.


Dunphy On The Warpath

Egypt were expected to be a walk in the park – but they also had their day in the sun, holding Holland to a 1-1 draw.

However, this time, Egypt did not want to play – in fact, they sat eleven men behind the ball and set out simply not to get beaten. Ireland, despite the ability they possessed, refused to get the ball on the ground and spread passes – clinging to the long-ball tactics which Charlton had become infamous for.

The abrasive manager had warned the press prior to the game that it may ‘bore the arse off them’. According to one pundit, it truly did – as the game finished 0-0.

Eamon Dunphy expressed how he was ‘embarrassed and ashamed’ at how a ‘great footballing country could go out and play that rubbish.’

Jack Charlton hit back at the RTE pundit – saying his outbursts had about as much relevance as a fly on the windowsill.

Regardless of the tensions, Ireland needed a result against Holland to keep their hopes alive.


The Holland Job

Facing the reigning European champions needing a result, was a precarious position in which Ireland found themselves.

Talent the likes of Ruud Gullit, Marco Van Basten and Frank Rijkaard far exceeded the Ronnie Whelans and Kevin Sheedys of this world – but Ireland were battle-hardened and ready for war.

Holland got off to a flier – Gullit on the scoresheet with just ten minutes gone, the writing was on the wall. Fortunately for the travelling supporters, Packie Bonner was in fine form in goal, otherwise they might have packed their bags come half-time.

Similar to the clash with England, Ireland dug deep in the second period – and reaped the rewards when Niall Quinn poked home after the Dutch failed to deal with a route-one ball from Bonner.

Despite not winning a game, Ireland were unbeaten – heading to the last 16, exceeding all expectations.


‘A Nation Holds Its Breath’

With Group F being one of the tightest in World Cup history, and nothing to separate Ireland and Holland – a draw was made to determine next opponents. Thankfully for Ireland, it was the Dutch who took on West Germany – while Ireland would face Romania.

Again, it was a cagey affair in Genoa – neither side able to break the other down, and after 120 minutes of football – no one had found the net. For the first time in their history, penalties beckoned for Ireland.

The 32,000 fans were treated to an exhibition in penalty taking – with the first four penalties from both countries flying in – Kevin Sheedy, Ray Houghton, Andy Townsend and Tony Cascarino all finding the net for Ireland.

Up stepped Daniel Timofte, knowing that if he scored then it was advantage Romania. However, Bonner dove to his right and kept out his tame effort – handing David O’Leary the chance to book Ireland’s place in the quarter-finals, at the first time of asking.

A nation held its breath – and O’Leary swept the ball hope confidently, sparking scenes of jubilation both at home and abroad.

Ireland had defied all odds.


The Aftershock

Ireland ultimately were knocked out after Toto Schillaci’s goal sent Italy through to the semi-finals, but the Boys in Green left Rome having been the story of the tournament.

Ireland’s unlikely passage to the quarter-final proved a catalyst for future successes, as they reached the round-of-16 in both 1994 and 2002.

Italia 90 put Ireland on the map as a footballing nation, acting as a springboard for many more glorious days in the sun – such as their 1-0 win over reigning world champions Germany in 2015, and a 1-0 win over Italy at the 2016 European Championships.

Ireland may be a small nation, but it is one to be feared – both by giants and equals alike. Italia ’90 remains the finest example.

Jordan Norris, Pundit Arena.

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Author: Jordan Norris

Mostly covering football and GAA - Jordan is currently studying a BA English in UCC, and can be contacted through [email protected] .