MEET THE MAN WHO WENT TO ITALIA ’90, BUT MISSED *THAT* GAME IN GENOA…

Phelim Warren, front row, centre (wearing glasses), with his friends after Ireland drew with Holland in Palermo at the Italia ’90 World Cup (copyright Phelim Warren)

PHELIM Warren has followed Ireland all over the world, he’s supported his team in major championships across the globe and he admits he’s rarely happier than when he’s following the Boys in Green.

His first away day was against England in Wembley in 1980 and he was there in Stuttgart when Ray Houghton stuck the ball in the English net in 1988.

His fondest memories though are of Italia ’90, those delirious three weeks when Ireland went football crazy. The country ground to a halt when Jack Charlton’s team took on England, Egypt, the Netherlands, Romania and Italy and partied hard after each of them, even celebrating draws and defeats like historic victories.

Dubliner Warren and nine friends were in Cagliari and Palermo for the three tense group games, all of which ended in draws, that got Ireland through to the knock-out stages.

But by the time Ireland were beating Romania on penalties to to send a nation into near meltdown and book a quarter-final meeting with hosts Italy, Warren, then a naive 23-year-old, was at home watching the game on the telly having mistakenly believed he had to come home.

Those were truly more innocent times. This was the pre-internet age and there was no such thing as a mobile phone.

People booked their trip by calling into the local travel agent and paying cash money over the counter.

Newspapers published special supplements for fans, many of whom were travelling abroad for the first time — in Italy the currency is the lira, Guinness can be hard to come by and pasta and pizza are staple dishes. Not many spuds to be had around these parts…

Phelim Warren with a momento of his trip to the Euro ’88 tournament in Germany — Ireland’s first major championships

It was also a more innocent time in terms of professional sport. Charlton allowed his players to enjoy a night out between games and they often did so with their adoring fans.

“We would have seen a fair bit of the players,” explains Warren. “The players mingled, Charlton gave them licence to go and have a few drinks so long as they didn’t go overboard.

“I think that’s why the Charlton squad formed such a tight unit and it certainly added to the love between the fans and the Irish team. The bond between the fans and players was so strong because we were able to meet these players after games.

“The players reacted to the behaviour and decency of the fans because if they were out they wouldn’t be annoyed. If they wanted to be left alone, they were left alone — I think they really liked that about the Irish fans.

“That wouldn’t happen now. Players are different — they live in parallel universe now and they don’t want to meet the fans. Players back in Italia ’90 were happy to meet the fans.”

Warren with his match tickets for the three group games before leaving home for Italy (copyright Phelim Warren)

For Warren, the stand-out memory of his time in Italy came in the first game — Kevin Sheedy’s brilliant equaliser against England in Palermo to seal a one-all draw. And he says this despite being almost blinded during the manic celebrations.

“It doesn’t got beyond Sheedy’s goal. It was our first match in a World Cup in our history and for it to be against England added spice to it,” he said.

“I can still see the ball breaking to Sheedy and the minute he struck it I knew — I was 100 yards away, but right behind it. The minute he struck it we were up — an eruption of relief, elation, delight, ecstasy…

“The glasses went flying, I was only wearing them a few weeks and I had no spare pair, so everyone was up celebrating and I was down on my hands and knees looking for my specs. I was pretty short sighted then (he has since had laser surgery) so if I’d lost them I was in trouble.

“Luckily I found them, they were somehow undamaged so I slipped them back on and joined in the carnage. It was a magical moment. It was a double celebration — the glasses weren’t broken and we had scored against England in the World Cup! It really was a magic moment.”

That night was spent in the airport because there was no accommodation to be had and the lads felt it was the safest place to be given some of hairy moments they had experienced with England fans in the build-up to the game.

And then it was on to Palermo in Sicily for the remaining two games.

“We couldn’t have got a nice spot, because the Sicilian people were just like Irish people. They were so decent, so open and so welcoming,” said Warren.

“I think, early on with the Italian people, they copped on what the Irish were all about. While we were loud and raucous, we were respectful. The police, in particular, knew from a very early stage that they didn’t have to worry about these guys. We were loud and we drank, but there was no messing.”

The dour draw against Egypt left Ireland’s qualification hopes hanging by a thread, but the subsequent draw with Holland was enough to book passage into the next round — and spark one almighty party in Terrasini, the resort where Warren and most of the Irish fans were staying.

Journalist Paul Kimmage recalled the time in a 1990 newspaper article:

“Everyone converged on Terrasini and its small square dominated by the church, the ice cream bars and cafes. This was the place to be.
“The poor square couldn’t cope, coach load after coach load of deliriously happy, hungry and above all thirsty Irishmen. The band stopped playing at 2.30, the bars closed at 3.0.
“Dismay, pleading. ‘Can we get one more please, just one more?’ Our capacity for beer is mind-boggling. The last departure from the square was at five in the morning. Terrasini will never see the like of it again.
“I don’t think I have seen so many unhealthy people as I did the next day, or rather later in the same day. Bloodshot eyes, sore heads, lost voices.”

Most Irish fans headed on to Genoa and then Rome, ignoring the pull of home and the mounting bank overdrafts. Warren and his buddies, of course, went back to Dublin.

He regrets not having stayed on, but still enjoyed being part of the party at home. “This was unprecedented; to see this national euphoria and this big party — people were just carried away on this tide of madness,” he said

“It was the biggest party we had and the biggest party we’ll ever have, I think. Ireland wasn’t doing well and it really gave the country a lift.

“For three weeks in that summer of 1990, no sport mattered in this country only football and it was great.”

Warren and his accordion, that accompanies him to many away games for the sing-song before and after

This article first appeared on the42.ie in June 2015

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.