Remembering Italia 90: Packie Bonner, the Achille Lauro, Pope John Paul II, Timofte and the fans - 25 years on

Alan Foley


Alan Foley

Remembering Italia 90: Packie Bonner, the Achille Lauro, Pope John Paul II, Timofte and the fans - 25 years on
Twenty-five years ago today in the sultry surroundings of Stadio Comunale Luigi Ferraris in Genoa, the Republic of Ireland faced Romania in the last 16 of Italia 90.

Twenty-five years ago today in the sultry surroundings of Stadio Comunale Luigi Ferraris in Genoa, the Republic of Ireland faced Romania in the last 16 of Italia 90.

The nation held its breath …

Paul McLoone from Ballyshannon was 35 and the head of training and development with the North Western Health Board in 1990. As a clerical officer with the Eastern Health Board at St James’ Hospital, he recalls sneaking off from work to Dalymount Park one dusking Wednesday afternoon in October 1974 to see Don Givens score a hat-trick against USSR. It was the day he caught the bug.

Paul Boyle is a native of Meenanary, Carrick. Boyle, now 61 and a retired carpenter, was given hours to live in 2009 when complications occurred in a bowel cancer operation but lived to tell the tale. Based in Crinklewood, London, he’s seen the boys in green in action over 200 times. On Sunday he was a guest at Seamus Coleman’s wedding after-party at the Bayview in Killybegs

Gerry Meehan, since retired, from Letterkenny was a 35-year-old psychiatric nurse at the time he travelled to Italy. A keen footballer with Letterkenny Rovers he was capped by the Republic of Ireland at youth level three times in 1973 but had to wait 38 years to get the caps. They were eventually awarded by current FAI CEO John Delaney in 2011.

Packie Bonner was 30 in 1990. A native of Burtonport, Bonner played underage soccer with Keadue Rovers before graduating to the first team and signed for Celtic in 1978. Having earned his first international cap in 1981 on his 21st birthday away to Poland in Bydgoszcz, Bonner was Ireland’s goalkeeper at Italia 90.

Ireland, under the management of England’s 1966 World Cup winning centre-half Jack Charlton, have qualified for the 1990 World Cup. It will be their first ever time competing. Two years ago at Euro 88, in their first major finals, Ireland won 1-0 against England in Stuttgart, West Germany, drew 1-1 with USSR in Hannover before being eliminated following a 1-0 loss to Holland in Gelsenkirchen

Packie Bonner: “We were confident after Euro 88, where we had played well. But it was our first World Cup and we didn’t really know. It was, in a way, a journey into the unknown.”

Gerry Meehan: “It was all so new to everyone.”

Paul McLoone: “I was on the way to Italy, thanks to Lawrence Sweeney. He won a share of the lotto, one-sixth, which was £200,000. He treated us to a trip to the World Cup. So we headed off, five of us. Lawrence and his wife Brenda and son Gregory, as well as my wife Marie and I.”

Paul Boyle: “Myself and my friends Frank Ganley from Glenamaddy, Co Galway, and Aughavas, Co Leitrim native Paul McGovern, who has passed away since from cancer, travelled from London. There was no internet so the supporters club organised everything. We were based in Rome and then flew in and out for the three group games. There was a half innocence there thinking ‘we could win this World Cup.’

The draw isn’t kind to Charlton’s team. England and Holland again, with Group F placed on the Italian islands of Sardinia and Sicily. Egypt are considered the group’s outsiders with the top two guaranteed progression and then the four best third-placed teams from the six groups also going into the knock-out rounds

Gerry Meehan: “We were supposed to stay on the mainland and fly in and out to the islands. It turned out the travel agency couldn’t get the flights so they had to come up with an alternative. They chartered a cruiseliner for a fortnight. I was with James Barclay, Neil Cullen, Austin Cribben, Charlie McDaid and Barney O’Donnell from Letterkenny and James McDyer from Glenties.

“We left Genoa two days before the first game against England. We had nights everywhere - nights at sea, we were in Sorrento, Naples, we went to Tunis in Tunisia and Valetta in Malta on board the Achille Lauro, which was a famous boat. It was hijacked by the Palestinians in 1985 and then in 1994, it sank off the coast of Africa!

“On board, the staff were probably used to dealing with retired, wealthy people having two drinks before going to the games room or whatever. But now there were 600 Irish men headed to the World Cup. They had no tills; you’d to sign for everything. After a day or two, I had to have a word with the manager to check my bills and who was signing what: ‘Cabin 45 … drink … Jack Charlton; Cabin 45 … drink … Charlie Haughey …”. They soon brought in some tills!”

Kevin Sheedy’s goal gives Ireland a 1-1 draw with England, for whom Gary Lineker had opened the scoring, on Monday, June 11 in a thunderstorm in Cagliari. It’s a decent start

Packie Bonner: “The day of the game against England, the weather was awful. We had been preparing for the heat. England went in front. It wasn’t the best goal. Chris Waddle came in from the right and almost played the ball over Mick McCarthy’s shoulder and it landed between Mick and myself. Gary Lineker got in. It was a poacher’s goal and he was a poacher. He was probably due that after 1988.

“There’s a story behind my grimace before the kick-out that lead to our goal. I was just after getting onto Mick McCarthy about something and the adrenaline was still rushing. There was a mistake from Steve McMahon and Kevin Sheedy, who had a beautiful left foot, struck it past Peter Shilton.”

Paul Boyle: “There was a lot of talk of possible trouble with the English fans at the time but everything was fine. We were happy with the result.”

Gerry Meehan: “We pulled out in the cruiser after every match at midnight. There was food on the boat and you’d be on it for the night. When you woke there was an itinerary for the day ahead. We didn’t have a clue day to day but that was half the craic.

On Sunday, June 15, Egypt, who had opened with a 1-1 draw with Holland, hold Ireland scoreless in Palermo. With England having also drawn with Holland 0-0 the night before, it means all four teams in Group F have an identical record

Packie Bonner: “Going into the tournament in those days, you didn’t have much knowledge of those type of opponents. We didn’t know much about Egypt.

“That made it awkward. They just defended and we didn’t play well. Eamon Dunphy gave us a bit of stick. He was right in one way as we didn’t play that well as it’s his job to criticise, or ‘critique’ might be the right word!”

Paul McLoone: “Dunphy was very critical of the way Ireland were playing but maybe some of his points were fair. The Egypt game was poor but we were unlucky to lose to Holland in 1988 so had a chance again in 1990.”

On Thursday, June 21, Ireland and Holland share the spoils in a 1-1 draw back in Palermo with Niall Quinn levelling after Ruud Gullit’s opener. It’s enough for both to progress behind England, who top Group F following their 1-0 win over Egypt

Packie Bonner: “Holland, in a way, was easier than Egypt as we had played them so often. We knew their ins and outs, although they had exceptional players. They went into the lead and we got away with it, when Niall Quinn scored.

“It was hugely important not to get beat. And we played it out. Maybe Mick and Ruud Gullit had a word as, at 1-1 we were both going through and there was no point in us killing ourselves with games coming up. Tony Cascarino certainly didn’t know when he came on charging but Ruud wasn’t long in letting Mick know!”

Paul Boyle: “It was unusual. We finished with an identical record to Holland so they had to draw lots.”

Paul McLoone: “We heard walking back after the game that Holland had drawn West Germany in Milan and we would be playing Romania in Genoa. Then it was a matter of getting there. We were lucky enough to fly and stayed in a holiday resort maybe 80 miles south of Genoa in a place called Chiavari - that’s the great thing about having a lotto winner in your midst!

Packie Bonner: “We weren’t even aware of the drawing of lots. We just heard it was Romania.”

Gerry Meehan: “We must’ve been in the first group of Irish fans to land to Genoa as we were docking there as part of the trip. We were supposed to fly home that day. By pure luck Ireland got drawn to play in Genoa so we decided to have a meeting to see what we’d do. The plane went back to Dublin without us! Poor Joe McGinley, from Milford, was told about the meeting the night before but must’ve slept through it and he ended up back at home!

“We lost all our luggage, which went back to Dublin. So we broke into groups and ended up with cheap shorts and t-shirts. We got the stuff back in the end up. We might’ve been short of money but had a few men of substance in the group!”

On Monday, June 25, Ireland face an emerging Romanian side in the baking heat of Genoa in the last 16 of the World Cup. Romania’s captain Gheorghe Hagi is one of the most talented players in Europe. He will go on to play for both Real Madrid and Barcelona

Gerry Meehan: “The craic beforehand was mighty. In Genoa, the council workers had painted the footpaths green, white and gold.”

Paul McLoone: “It was one of those days it was so hot you didn’t need a t-shirt. A load of people had no tops on and draped themselves in Irish flags.”

Paul Boyle: “We’d gone back to London after the group games but organised ourselves for a day-trip to Genoa. The heat was unreal. We got scalded. Tickets weren’t hard to get as the Romanians hadn’t travelled in the times that were in it; only a select few that would’ve been very wealthy did.

Packie Bonner: “Romania had a strong contingent from Steaua Bucharest, who had won the European Cup in 1986. We knew Hagi and Marius Lacatus, who was suspended. It was very hot in Genoa and it was a 5pm kick-off in an enclosed stadium.”

Paul McLoone: “It was a terrible game. Hagi was dangerous and any time he got on the ball you’d be extremely nervous. He was well enough marked and was only shooting from outside of the box. At the time Packie Bonner was one of the best keepers in Europe.”

Paul Boyle: “Hagi was wrecking us. He was brilliant and by far the best player on the field. Romania were the better team but Packie made a few saves.”

Packie Bonner: “Hagi was the dangerman. He had perfected this role where he almost played on the peripheries before picking up the ball and then taking it on. I played well enough and enjoyed the game.”

Gerry Meehan: “It was a tough game but we held out.”

After 120 scoreless minutes, Brazilian referee Jose Wright calls for time. For only the fourth time ever in World Cup history, a tie would be settled on penalties

Paul Boyle: “It was hard to know what to think as we’d never seen a penalty shoot-out in the flesh before. But we were right behind the nets.”

Paul McLoone: “If there were mobile phones at the time we’d have called home and told them to put the house on Ireland. We’d every faith in Packie.”

Packie Bonner: “I had the experience of playing against Aberdeen a month beforehand for Celtic in the Scottish Cup final. We lost 9-8 on penalties and I only went the right way for one of them.

“I had done a plan with Gerry Peyton, the sub keeper, and I was looking to distance myself from the other players to prepare. I just wanted to get my bit right. I was relaxed.”

The first eight penalties are all scored, leaving the score at 4-4 with just one kick apiece left. It’s essentially sudden death as Daniel Timofte, the Romanian substitute, wearily steps forward

Paul McLoone: “Packie was very close to all the first four penalties and Timofte looked like a fella that was lacking in confidence. We were whispering to one another that this fella might miss.”

Packie Bonner: “The fourth was Ioan Lupescu, which scraped my hand. But I was getting closer. I had a plan which involved reading the run-up from the kicker’s angle. There’s also a process of trying to psyche the kicker out.

“It’s psychological warfare. If you’re big and strong and mentally right, then you have a chance. Then you just hope the guy coming up isn’t and I think Timofte was a little hesitant. He didn’t walk up with conviction.

“I spoke to him for an interview lately - the first time I ever spoke to the man. I was asking what was going through his mind and he told me his initial plan was to go down to middle. Had he, I probably wouldn’t have saved it. He changed his mind and didn’t hit it at great pace.

“All you want to do as a goalkeeper is get behind the ball and stop it going in the net. You don’t have to catch them; you don’t have to knock them to safety. All you have to do is save it. And I saved it!”

Bonner dives to his right and parries Timofte’s effort away. The sea of green at his back erupts. David O’Leary has the chance to win it

Paul Boyle: “I read an article on Timofte only lately. He owns a pub in Bucharest called ‘Penalty’ but he didn’t do as well as Packie out of the whole affair.

Packie Bonner: “Afterwards, there was a boat called ‘Timofte’ in Burtonport owned by poor Tony Gallagher, who is dead since. It’s actually sank out in the bay since!

“On the day, it was all down to David O’Leary. In training he and Niall Quinn always had a thing going where Niall, who always fancied himself as a goalkeeper, would face penalties. Maybe scoring on Niall had made him confident. I don’t know if David had ever taken a penalty in a match before.”

O’Leary’s kick is to his right and true. Romanian goalkeeper Silviu Lung goes the wrong way and Ireland are through to the quarter-finals of the World Cup. O’Leary is swamped by the Irish squad and management

Paul Boyle: “It was absolutely manic. Everyone was over the moon and Donegal, because of Packie, could be especially happy.

Packie Bonner: “It was an incredible feeling”

Gerry Meehan: “It was brilliant but we were away before you know it. Flight to catch!”

Paul McLoone: “Italy beat Uruguay 2-0 that night. Ireland would be playing Italy in Rome in the quarter-finals. It was the party of the century.

Paul Boyle: “We were on a day trip so sat in a bar till 4am but when we left we couldn’t get a taxi. The barman dropped us to the airport and we threw him a few lira. Five days later we were back for the Italy game.”

Gerry Meehan: “We were in Letterkenny by 6am Tuesday morning looking to see if there were any friendly night-porters. We - me, Cribben and another friend Sean Foody - decided to go back out to Rome for the quarter-finals.”

Paul McLoone: “We all flew back to Knock and my late father Phil was waiting on us there. He drove the ladies and Gregory home, while myself and Lawrence drove from Knock to Dublin and flew back to Italy! We did that because Abbey Travel in Dublin was the easiest place you could get tickets. You couldn’t get a ticket in Italy, especially with Ireland playing Italy in Rome.”

The Irish squad visit the Vatican for an audience the Pope. Having made it as far as Rome, manager Charlton honours a promise he made to physio Mick Byrne. Pope John Paul II, a former goalkeeper, seeks out Bonner

Packie Bonner: The Vatican was a bonus really. It was like something given as an extra and it was something else for the Pope to come and want to talk to me. The reaction of that was huge.”

Ireland go down fighting, losing 1-0 to Italy on Saturday, June 30, in the quarter-finals when Salvatore Schillaci, nicknamed ‘Toto’, scores the only goal at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome. A quarter of a million people welcome the squad into Dublin for the homecoming

Packie Bonner: “We were very disappointed as Jack felt that had we got past the Italians then we could’ve got to the final. Argentina played this short passing from back to front, which would’ve been right up our street. They wouldn’t have been used to us. But then the pride kicked in.”

Paul Boyle: “Even in Italy we were hearing stories about how crazy things were going in Ireland. Looking back at 1990, it was fantastic - something I’ll never forget.”

Gerry Meehan: “Back in Dublin, we’re in the Airport Hotel with the Irish team landed. All in all, it was a great experience. It was just a fairytale that got better and better and better.”

Packie Bonner: “It was incredible going home. There were people on the bridges on the way into the airport on the way in, O’Connell Street was almost frightening. You could see the emotion on people’s faces. For me though, getting back to Carrickfinn, as a Donegal person, was incredible.”

Paul McLoone: “It was an unbelievable time. My son is a fanatical fan now and we always tell him we took him to the World Cup and he cost us a fortune. Marie, my wife, was expecting at the time of Italia 90 and Shane was born six months later!”

Packie Bonner: “I work with Uefa now, travelling around Europe in goalkeeper education at a professional level, having been the Technical Director with the FAI. I do some TV in Scotland, some after-dinner speaking and occasionally talk to companies.

“I suppose it’s all a knock-on effect from that day in Genoa. The reaction afterwards was quite incredible and with people still talking about it now, 25 years later, shows the positive of it. It was an amazing time.”