by Leighton Cullen

Oh it was the summer of 88 and the first time ever that Ireland had made it to a major football tournament. As a nation we’d reached the Euros in Germany with a team made up of Plastic Paddys and a sprinkle of home grown talent. They said we were there to make up the numbers but how wrong were they.

The feel good factor at the time of the 88 finals was great. Ireland back then – like now – was deep in a recession but the football rejuvenated the country beyond any monetary worth. It gave us pride. I remember watching the Irish team on the Late Late Show singing the official song for the tournament We Are The Boys In Green. The build up all around was madness on a scale I’d never seen before.

On roads around the country there were flags flying and bunting across the roads, everyone was here to have a party. The squad at the time was written off by the English media saying they were not good enough, a bunch of England rejects eligible thanks to a granny or grandad. What was not factored in however was here was a side that had been forged in togetherness and team-spirit, that was willing to work their socks off for the shirt.

The opening fixture was a perfectly pitched match-up with our closest neighbours. Big things were expected from Bobby Robson’s England side and not many gave us a chance but right from kick-off the underdogs gave it lash and never gave up. With the game only a couple of minutes in Ireland scored with a looping header by the smallest man on the pitch Ray Houghton. The noise from all the people on the road was something to behold with everyone running out jumping around the place and then going back in to watch the remainder of the match. There was some nervy moments in the second half but with some brilliant defending from the Irish defence lead by Mick McCarthy we held on to a deserved win. It was an extraordinary and euphoric start to the tournament and a day truly to be remembered in Stuttgart.

Back in Ireland fever pitch kicked in.

The day after the match there were t-shirts everywhere with “Who Put The Ball In The English Net?” The Irish people went Euro mad with the entire nation buzzing with pride.

Ireland’s next game was against the Soviet Union in Hanover which gave us Ronnie Whelan’s wonder goal, a bicycle kick that flew into the top corner immediately sparking thousands of impromptu street parties. Until Marco van Basten trumped it a week later this was up there with the best goal I’d ever witnessed at a major championship.

The game itself was a edgy affair and Ireland held on to the lead until the last 15 minutes when Oleg Protasov scored a equaliser designed to break our hearts but in reality barely denting the party atmosphere at full time. Yes Ireland were close to winning but we knew all that was needed was a draw against the Dutch to secure a place in the semi finals.

Holland on paper looked an insurmountable task but we were now bolstered on belief and booze. The opening 45 minutes was an incredibly tense game of attrition with Ireland probably shading it due to Paul McGrath heading against the woodwork.

Locked at 0-0 at half-time the tension was clearly wrought onto the faces of my neighbours as everyone flooded out into the road to discuss our chances before the second period began.

After further nail-biting drama with 8 minutes to go a lucky Wim Kieft goal broke the dreams of Ireland. A miskick from Koeman was volleyed into the ground and spiralled over to Kieft whose instinctive header looked like it was going wide only for the ball to spin into the corner of the net. Everyone was stunned, the shock turning to anger when replays showed it clearly shouldn’t have stood due to offside. So much for the luck of the Irish. Our tournament was over. We pushed the Dutch to the limit and our Plastic Paddys were Irish heroes.

I remember going to see the team as they came home to Dublin airport. An open top bus snaked through packed streets as fans welcomed home their valiant stars. Flags and banners all over the place, green bedecking every man, sign and window. To a 7 year old it looked brilliant.

Nothing much was expected of us yet Ireland were suddenly on the footballing map and from there Big Jack’s army went from strength to strength, the nascent love affair blooming into the passion of Italia 90.

That was Irelands only time at a European Championships. Until now.

Will we see Trap’s army doing anything remotely similar in Poland? Only time will tell but we dare to believe now thanks to our Plastic Paddys in Euro ’88.