It was the summer of 1990 and we all had new heroes: O’Leary, Bonner and Houghton. Mind you, Houghton had earned himself a head start in Stuttgart two years earlier. For the homecoming, we roped relatives, neighbours or anyone alive and able, to bring us into O’Connell Street to cheer on Jack’s Army. Town was green and white and outrageous. It was a lifetime of Patrick’s Days all rolled into one.
My aunt and uncle, just back from a five year stint in Boston, were in charge of me for the day. He insisted on Dunkin Donuts in O’Connell Street beforeheand, ‘a taste of America’ he said, ‘what would I want that for’ I thought, and so messy soft centred yokes were procured. They delayed us grabbing a spot beside Daniel O’Connell but when we eventually got there, the bus started nosing down past Parnell Square. The place erupted: embankments of fans on both sides cheering like we had actually won the World Cup. An old man beside me had tears roll down his face. My aunty sang Jackie’s Army with the faintest trace of a Southy accent, we were all part of Jackie’s ‘awwwmy’ apparently. Town whooped and clapped. Anna Livia got no peace that day.
Then aged 8, I was dressed for the occasion in a XXL grey Dunnes Stores t-shirt, that languished down past my knees. It had a photo of the team printed on the front and was one of the coolest items of clothing I’d ever owned. (Second only to a plastic raincoat that had glitter goldfish in the pockets.) The t-shirt had been the last one in the shop so Mam had no choice on the sizing, and I didn’t mind that it was from the menswear department. I was a sight to be pitied, but I loved it.
-It’s not too bad on you lovey, she’d said when I tried it on.
Mothers would say mass.
We are talking about the days when buying replica jerseys wasn’t the done thing. If I am really honest, we are talking about the days when we were poor. I wore the t-shirt with a pair of £6 ‘Le Caf’ Dunnes Stores runners and hand-me-down jeans from an Italian boy we knew. Eventhough he was ten years older, he was still shorter, and so on me, the hems trailed mid-shin.
The talk went on in school for a week afterwards about who had the best vantage point on the day. Tommo stole the show: his uncle worked in the airport and got him in to meet the team before they’d even set sail in the open top bus. My uncle’s cream filled offering could never match up. Still though, Tony Cascarino looked like he had waved at me. Sort of…
But there had been just one player I had eyes for: the one and only Packie Bonner. And that day he waved and I waved and all was well in the world. A rockstar homecoming for our unvictorious champions.
The euphoria was to resurface a few weeks later with the news that the Donegal deity was to come to Tallaght to meet fans. He made his special appearance at Xtra Vision on the Greenhills Road and on the appointed day, my cousin left work early and came across from Packard Electric to queue up with me and my Mam for my big moment with Packie. The queue was an endless snake that wound around a makeshift fence erected in the car park. For hours we queued, slowing edging closer to Ireland’s number one. Mam must’ve smoked twenty John Player Blue. I was dying for my turn and was too excited to talk. Eventually, there were only a few people in front of us: Packie signing posters and books, smiling back at young fellas decked out in real deal kits. He posed for photos. There were smiles all round.
This was as close to a dream come true as I’d ever had. Two left in the queue, a boy in front and me. We were no more than twenty feet away, waiting for him to beckon for security to let us approach, when up rose Packie and off towards his chauffeur car he went. The boy in front looked up at his Dad. The Dad called to security. The security guy shrugged his shoulders. I looked from my cousin to Mam, tears already welling. My cousin was over at the security guy with the Dad from in front. Arms were being waved about, heads shaken. The boy tried to run towards the black Mercedes into which Bonner’s frame was now folding, but another of the security posse grabbed him.
-Just sign this Packie, he called out, holding up a match programme.
Bonner looked out from the car and then shut the door, tinted windows between the boy and his hero. The car made off down the Greenhills Road.
They say you shouldn’t meet your heroes…