In 1990, the Irish men's team qualified for the World Cup for the first time. Having made their international debut at Euro 88 two years prior, this was a team at the peak of it's powers. Paul McGrath, Mick McCarthy, Ronnie Whelan, Ray Houghton, John Aldridge - players who played for some of the top English teams, being led by manager Jack Charlton, an English World Cup winner himself in 1966.
It was an interesting time for Ireland - coming out of the economic doldrums of the 80s, with a young population, starting to feel confident on the international stage. The cliché is that bands like U2 were showing Irish people could compete seriously on the global stage, out of the English shadow, but it genuinely was a time of increasing optimism in the country. Irish newspapers were full of stories of people taking out loans, selling cars, and by hook or by crook scraping the money together to follow the Boys in Green over in Italy.
Of course, as an eight year old who was only barely aware of the existence of football at the time, a lot of this was flying right over my head, but I knew something exciting was going on. Ireland's opening match was against England, and my father had invited his brothers around to watch the match in our house. There was definitely something big going on - family visits weren't a big thing outside of birthdays and Christmas, so this "football match" must be something serious!
Given that it was such a momentous occasion, I was allowed to stay up late to watch the game in our sitting room. Me, my dad, and my uncles - all the guys together, me feeling very important to be allowed stay up so late. In Ireland we get coverage from both RTE (national broadcaster) and BBC (the English equivalent). In our house, there wasn't a lot of love for the RTE panel, so the build up was watched on BBC, whose panelists and commentators naturally have their own slant on things. Anyway, there I am, staying up late, very excited with it all, but not actually hugely interested in the football. I was playing away with my plastic dinosaurs on the floor in front of the couch when the match kicked off.
The match was only 7 or 8 minutes in when I dropped my dinosaurs at the sound of excited voices on screen.
The ball had split the Irish defence, and Gary Lineker had forced it home. The (English) commentators were ecstatic, cheering wildly. I, not knowing much at all about the game, or who was who, wanted to fit in, so also began cheering wildly - jumping up and down, waving my hands, just like I'd seen on the TV. I slowly noticed the lack of excitement coming from the couch behind me, turned around, and saw ashen-faced uncles, and a look of silent regret from my father at exactly what sort of Irishman he was raising. "Was it for this?" etc.
The game after that point could charitably be described as "attritional". The first half ended without much further incident. The second half also passed without much to remember (unless you're in charge of Gary Lineker's laundry..), and it was looking like Ireland's first appearance in a World Cup was going to be a damp squib, starting with a defeat and likely elimination soon to come.
Then, with a little over 15 minutes to go, things changed. A long punt from the Irish goalkeeper Packie Bonner, the English defence failed to control it, the ball broke to Kevin Sheedy, and he hit as sweet a left foot shot as you'll ever see, sending a rocket right into the corner of the goal.
Again, there were loud screams from the crowd in the stadium. The commentators were also shrieking with excitement, but I bit my tongue. Wary of getting it wrong yet again, I tried to subtly look around to see how my dad and uncles were reacting. I needn't have been subtle, it was hard to miss - absolute chaos, roaring, screaming, jumping around. Ok, so now I'm ok to celebrate. I join in at that point, with the same celebration as before - arms in the air, cheering, jumping, definitely one of the guys now! And with Ireland no longer losing the game, my earlier Anglo-positive celebrations could now safely be the subject of gentle mockery, rather than the salt-rub in the wound they had been for the previous hour or so. Still, it was a formative experience, and a very early education in making sure I knew which team was which within seconds of watching any game in the future!