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Here Come the Lads
Alexander Wolff
June 13, 1994
The Irish soccer team will soon arrive for the World Cup with thousands of peaceful fans who love a glass and a singsong
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June 13, 1994

Here Come The Lads

The Irish soccer team will soon arrive for the World Cup with thousands of peaceful fans who love a glass and a singsong

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In a book about the most bestial of English soccer fans, Among the Thugs, author Bill Buford details how a hooligan once sucked out someone's eyeball. That book's Hibernian counterpart is What's the Story? True Confessions of the Republic of Ireland Soccer Supporters, and it is to Among the Thugs what Mother Goose is to Brett Easton Ellis. What's the Story? tells the tale of the parolee who returned to a Dublin prison so as not to miss the televised matches during the 1990 World Cup; of the wounded IRA member who cheered from a hospital ward with the Special Branch men who had shot him; and of the mourners at a funeral who, upon learning of the decisive penalty kick against Romania, burst into a dance of joy even as the dearly departed was being carried from the church. "I heard you guys had some good funerals," said an American witnessing the last scene. "But I never thought they were this good."

Having hosted the Irish, Italy will never be the same. In one town a group of Irish fans, imbibing a little midday gargle, watched through a tavern window as a couple of bricklayers took a lunch break; by the time the workers returned, the wall they were working on had been finished by three Irish brickies who wanted to make a nice gesture. An Italian priest suffering from throat cancer that had left him unable to say Mass for two years, suddenly belted out a song when cajoled to do so by some Irish fans, touching off cries of "Miracolo! Miracolo!" from his fellow parishioners. When a shipload of Irish supporters arrived in Sicily, only to be penned up in a holding area to await processing, they decided that if they were going to be treated like sheep, they would behave like them. "Baaaaaaa!" bleated the fans until the carabinieri, won over, set them free. "Tourism in Ireland by Italians has skyrocketed since the last World Cup, and everyone knows why," says Kevin Moran, a fullback on the Irish team. 'it's all due to the goodwill of the supporters. We're as proud of them off the pitch as they're proud of us on it."

Through the three weeks of the Republic's run in the '90 World Cup, there wasn't a single criminal arrest of an Irish fan, and the Irish supporters were voted the event's best. "Everybody enjoys a song, enjoys the craic," says Charlton. "We've always told [our fans] they're the best in the world. If you say to people, 'You're a bunch of idiots,' they'll behave like idiots. If you say, 'You're very good,' they'll behave better."

If there's an Irish superfan, a sort of Rocken (Rollen) Stewart only with more charm and without the rainbow wig and the arrest record, it's a Dubliner named Davy Keogh. Ireland rarely plays a match without a huge tricolor hanging somewhere in the stadium bearing a stitched message that reads DAVY KEOGH SAYS HELLO. Since the 1988 European Championships in Germany, Keogh has regularly taken off from his job as a receiver at a cigarette factory and gotten to the stadium hours before the game to commandeer the prime flag-hanging space up in "the slopes," so the TV cameras can catch his salutation.

Davy and a lass named Esther Walsh were engaged eight years ago, but they kept putting off the wedding because there was always some match requiring Davy's attendance that left him broke. "I told her to put it on the long finger," says Keogh. "That someday it would happen." Thanks to Ireland's failure to qualify for the 1992 Europeans, it did. When Davy and Esther were married last July, the priest led the congregation in the Wave.

Michael, our tour director, will be taking several hundred fans to the States, and he's worried about a rumor he has heard: that there's some New York City ordinance prohibiting singing in bars. I assure him this can't be true, and I soon realize why Michael is so concerned. Matches involving the Republic shouldn't just be televised, they should also be Dolbyized. Beginning more than an hour before kickoff, we sing. In honor of the goalkeeper who keeps rosary beads in his gym bag behind the net, we sing to the tune of Guantanamera: "One Packie Bonner/ There's only one Packie Bonner...." To goose the BBC commentator who likes to disparage the Irish style, we adapt a Welsh rugby song: "Are ya watchin', are ya watchin', are ya watchin', Jimmy Hill?" To cheer the lads on, we sing to Those Were the Days, "Come on, you boys in green."

The team runs on music the way a car runs on petrol. Back in the mid-'80s, when only a few hundred Irish fans would travel to an away match, Charlton permitted his players to mingle with the supporters and even encouraged them to share a glass and a singsong. But with Ireland's success, its road following has swollen into the thousands, and Charlton can no longer permit such interaction. Music nonetheless is so important to the lads' spiritual well-being that Charlton blames a song for the 1-0 loss to Italy that ended the World Cup journey of four years ago. On the team bus during the ride over to the stadium, equipment manager Charlie O'Leary mistakenly played a tape of a dirge called Willie McBride instead of the customary Sean South of Garryowen, an upbeat Republican tune.

When you're singing all the time, it's hard to be hostile, so the barbed-wire fencing in Tilburg that keeps us from the Dutch, and the Dutch from us, is a needless safeguard. A policeman who spots one of us drinking beer from a bottle waits until our man has finished and then confiscates the bottle with a smile.

I see the centering pass, but I scarcely see the goal, because the four fans in front of me are up on their feet, singing and waving the flag. I know for certain that Ireland has scored only when John fixes me with a hug. He explains to me how the scorer, Tommy Coyne, recently returned to the team after his wife's sudden death. Moments later our section is in full throat again, singing a song from Monty Python's Life of Brian called (Always Look on) The Bright Side of Life.

Although there's evidence that centuries ago the Celts kicked around animal bladders stuffed with hay, soccer has anything but a Gaelic pedigree. Like oversexed royals and Mott the Hoople, the game is an English gift to the world. The Brits refined and popularized "association football," and the empire's sailors, merchants and missionaries took it to the corners of the earth.

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