INTERVIEW: DOMINIC BLISS
Football has been a part of Roddy Doyle’s life since the late Sixties and the Booker Prize-winning author has been going to watch his beloved Ireland play for decades now. Shortly before the start of Euro 2012, TheInsideLeft caught up with him to discuss major tournaments, the “Granny Rule” and how Italia 90 came to form the backdrop to one of his great novels…
Image: Mark Nixon
Roddy, this is the Republic of Ireland’s first European Championships since 1988, and only their second ever. What emotions have been thrown up by the country’s involvement in Euro 2012?
There has been a great air of excitement about it, actually. There is a feeling we could do with a party and we are going to have one I suspect!
People of my age know that this team isn’t as good as the team from 1988 and 1990, that the talent isn’t as extensive by any means. We don’t have Ronnie Whelan, or Mark Lawrenson, or David O’Leary – people like that. But we’ve got Richard Dunne in the middle of defence and you need public transport to get by him!
Take us back to Euro 88 and Ireland’s major tournament debut…
It really was a wonderful occasion in 1988, I have vivid memories of it. Football was largely the sport of the cities at the time – Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Belfast in the North.
I watched the third game against Holland in a pub in Galway and there was me, my wife and about three other people watching. There was just no interest in it there. But there was riotous interest in Dublin.
That was the start of a big adventure which, in 1990, would just explode. For the friendly games in the run-up to 1988, you could buy a ticket on the night. There was one game at Lansdowne Road where I was able to sit on the terraces and see the full game – I didn’t have to ask anyone to get out of the way.
It was a Wednesday afternoon because, if I remember correctly, it was before they had floodlights. I was a teacher at the time, so I had Wednesday afternoons off and I was able to go to all the friendlies. But two years later, in the run-up to 1990, there was nationwide interest and passion, so the game grew and the story grew in those two years, fantastically.
The summer of 1990 must have been significant for you because part of your novel, The Van, takes place during those months. Was the story meant to be a piece of World Cup fiction?
I was playing it by ear. I had started the book in November 1989, while they were qualifying, and I had been to all the home games. My hope was that I would write it in a calendar year and that it would be about a calendar year in the life of these men. I had decided that if the World Cup took off, I’d include it. And then, after the first game, it was apparent it was going to take off.
I was in a pub, not unlike the pub in The Van, watching the games and I wasn’t taking notes as such because it was too emotional; it was living, it wasn’t research.
But the following day, I started work and I just kept writing through the World Cup. It worked out beautifully really, even down to the penalty shoot-out.
One of the matches, I remember walking to the pub and there wasn’t a car – it was like the country had been deserted when, in fact, everyone was propped in front of the telly waiting for it to start.
So the whole thing created a nationwide fever and I was lucky because it added to the story.
The book would have been the book anyway, about these two unemployed men getting their fish and chip van running. But I was blessed in so far as the World Cup worked out, the excitement was great and people were singing in the pubs.
There were all these stories coming back from Italy: guys looking for more money, wives going down to the credit union. This was before mobile phones and people were returning home months later as though they were coming back from the Hundred Years War!
So, it was great. As a writer, I went into the World Cup with an open mind and I didn’t have to keep it open very long. It was very clear from the start that it was going to be part of the story.
Years later, a journalist interviewed Daniel Timofte, the Romanian player who missed the last penalty, and got a photo of him holding a copy of The Van. I still have the photo at home!
Image: Martin Dobey (via Flickr)
Most nations and clubs have their own histories of penalty drama by now and Ireland are no different, with World Cup shootouts in 1990, when Packie Bonner (above) was a hero in goal, and 2002, when Spain ended Irish hopes…
If you’ve only got room in your memory for one penalty shootout, then 1990 is the one – that moment when David O’Leary stepped up. Most of us weren’t aware he was on the pitch, because he had come on as a sub and we were all pissed as rats, just about coping with: Who are we playing? Romania! Oh that’s right.
Then O’Leary came up to take the penalty and, in all honesty, we knew he was there but it was such a surprise he was going to take the penalty. That was an amazing moment. It’s horrible when you lose them and you hope you can get through tournaments without anyone having to have a shootout, but I can’t think of a better way to end it really.
We haven’t spoken about 2002 and the World Cup in Japan and Korea. That was a different experience for Ireland again, particularly after Roy Keane and Mick McCarthy had fallen out so publicly and so vociferously…
In the list of “events that rocked the nation”, the Roy Keane and Mick McCarthy incident in Saipan probably comes a close second to the assassination of Michael Collins in 1922!
Although Michael Collins never said “Stick it up yer bollocks!”
Well, not that we know of anyway, not as much was recorded back then! But that moment did cause more arguments than anything I can recall and people are still quite raw about it now.
The team still went on to do well in the tournament that year though. Mick McCarthy’s eyes nearly popped out when Robbie Keane equalised in stoppage time against Germany and once again the team progressed through the group stage, although this time it ended in tears against Spain in the Last 16…
Of all the tournaments that we’ve been in, that was the one which was genuinely there to be won, I think. Who’s to say, if Roy had been there, that they couldn’t have beaten Spain because he would have been a great addition.
But then, you think of Niall Quinn coming on as sub and really terrifying “more cultured” players, so to speak. They didn’t know what to do with him! You had Damien Duff with the excitement of a kid and Robbie Keane, a great starting. Everybody knew about these lads since they were 16 because they had won things as youth players, so it’s hard to believe that they are now in their Thirties.
Tell us about following Ireland before they started qualifying for tournaments…
We were very, very close to qualification on many occasions before 1988 and my own interest in the Irish team goes back to the start of my interest in football.
I remember watching the 1970 World Cup and it didn’t occur to me that Ireland could be there. But, by the time 1974 came along that had changed and then, in 1978, we were unlucky not to get there; in 1982, we were unlucky not to get there; in 1986, we were unlucky not to get there. There were games when we were robbed and others that we just didn’t get through.
It was a situation where I never thought we would do it, but I didn’t see why we couldn’t because we had come so close.
Image: Duncan Hull (via Flickr)
Would you say that you’ve seen Irish football grow in stature and quality then?
Yeah, and there is often sneering at the “Granny Rule” but when you lived in a country where more people were leaving than arriving, it made some sort of emotional sense that the children and grandchildren of Irish people should be included in the definition of Irishness.
I remember listening to John Aldridge talking about his Irish granny and Ray Houghton talking about his parents growing up in Donegal. It all made great emotional sense and it obviously added to the pool of players available.
What was also great was that, for example, I live on the north side of Dublin and one of my closest friends went to the same school as Liam Brady and somebody else knew the O’Learys or Niall Quinn, so there were these connections there. You felt quite parochial about these players who came from the same place as you. Then you’d get Mark Lawrenson arriving, for example, who came out of the blue. I can’t remember who, but someone else told Jack Charlton, when he had just taken over as manager, that Houghton and Aldridge were eligible to play as well.
But the best example of an Irish-Englishman from the early days was Terry Mancini, who played for Arsenal. The Irish roots were discovered quite late in his career and, one day, he was lining up while the national anthems were being played before the game and he whispered to the player next to him: “Jesus, their anthem goes on a bit” and the guy said, “That’s our anthem, Terry!”
Now, having said that football was once a game of the big cities, would you say it has become a quintessential part of Irish culture throughout the land?
Very much so and looking at the Irish team you can see that. Kevin Doyle is from Wexford, Stephen Hunt is from Waterford and you get players from areas where football wasn’t played a little over 20 years ago. So it’s a nationwide thing now, there’s a passion for it.
In the radio phone-ins on a Saturday evening, the voices are coming from all over the place, although they are still screaming about Liverpool and Leeds. It’s up there with Gaelic Football and Hurling in those areas and, certainly in the cities, it’s more popular.
The stories are already coming out about this tournament. There’s a story about a young guy in his Twenties who blagged his way into the Estonia game, where we won 5-1 in the Play-Off. He put on an Estonia tracksuit and made his way right to the side of the pitch, holding a net of balls. He wasn’t caught until about 25 minutes into the game and they gave him one of the best seats in the house!
I think everybody has been looking forward to it again this year and, even talking to my friends (we should be a bit world-weary because we’re in our Fifties), we’ve all marked it in our diaries so we’re not expecting to do anything else on the days when the games are on.