It was Ireland’s final group game in Euro 88 and the Parkstadion in Gelsenkirchen was a sea of orange and green. Victory against Holland would see Ireland progress to the semi-final of their first major tournament but the occasion was taking from Tony Cascarino’s pre-match focus. Today, the image is burned into his memory.
Gelsenkirchen is an industrial town in Germany’s Ruhr valley and he kind of expected the place to be grey. So he stood in the middle of the pitch before kick-off and sucked it all in – 55,000 supporters, a kaleidoscope of colour; a cacophony of sound.
Cascarino wasn’t scheduled to start. He would enter the game as an 82nd-minute replacement for Frank Stapleton – one minute after Wim Kieft goaled for the Dutch. But 24-years on he can still smell cut grass warmed by the sun and hear the chants that reverberated around the Parkstadion and leaked into the Ruhr Valley.
IRELAND … IRELAND … IRELAND
Cascarino can’t believe Euro ’88 is so long ago. He couldn’t believe he had graduated through clubs like Gillingham and Millwall to make it as an international footballer. Not just any international footballer. He was playing for Ireland. Even back then he knew the connection was thin, but it was a connection that brought him to West Germany and two years later it would bring him to Italy 90.
When Big Cas joined the Irish set-up in 1985, he was in awe of players like Liam Brady, Ronnie Whelan and Paul McGrath. He was the new fella with the Italian name, good in the air and who spoke with a cockney accent.
If there was Irish in him then it wasn’t transparent, but it was enough that his great-grandfather was Irish and an O’Malley; it was enough that he led the line bravely throughout his career when he was selected to play.
It was only when his career finished that his mother Teresa told him she had been adopted and the once record-cap holder was forced to question all those international appearances for the Boys in Green. So Tony fessed up, only nobody really cared. Not in Ireland. He didn’t have any blood links but he had spilled some for Ireland. That was all that mattered.
For Tony Cascarino it still doesn’t. Questions about his heritage come up now and again. He has heard all the barbs about being a “fake Irishman” but says they are always delivered in jest and never has the accusation been levelled at him by anyone Irish.
“It has never been said to me in Ireland,” he said: “Never. And when people do say it now, it’s just a bit of ribbing. I’m not bothered by it. I embraced Ireland and I think people took to me. In Ireland when people found out my mum had been adopted, they related to it; they identified with the fact that people left, started lives somewhere else and it wasn’t always straightforward.
“Having an Italian name just highlighted it, but it was a badge. It something I was known for. I remember when we played Italy in the World Cup in America in 94. It was a repeat of Gelsenkirchen, only this time the Irish support in the Giant’s Stadium was much bigger. I was stood on the pitch looking up at the stands, amazed by it all and Big Jack just wandered along beside me, tapped me on the shoulder and said: “You know what Cas … you must be the only bloody Italian in this stadium.”
He laughs about that story now; enjoys the memory of it and the telling of it. Euro 2012 is about to kick-off and Cascarino is in demand. He’s en route to London’s Covent Garden where he will speak at a preview event. Next week he’ll be providing analysis from Ireland and doing work for Ladbrokes and punditry for Sky. He has a column in the Times, he has his memories from Euro 88 and ahead of Ireland’s second appearance it’s time to share them.
“You know what,” he says. “It was like the Tour de France. That’s what it was like. You know when you see it on the telly and the crowd is slapping the riders on the back when they’re climbing the mountains? That’s what Euro 88 felt like. The support was unbelievable. I was blown away by it.”
Support wasn’t the only thing to blow Cascarino away during a tournament he describes as his first love, he remembers the Dutch team Ireland faced that sunny afternoon in Gelsenkirchen; he remembers names too: van Baston, Gullit, Rijkaard, Koeman, van Breukelen…
“We didn’t know just how good they were back then,” he says. “But this was one of the greatest Dutch teams of all time and we were within minutes of getting a draw against them. I look back at their team and we were up against legends of the game.”
Yet Cascarino says that despite the fact that Ireland entered the tournament as rank outsiders, they had grounds to be optimistic. Ireland were a team on the up. They had some players who were legends of the game also. They had the type of support that halts your step and fixes your gaze. They were good. They just didn’t know how good.
And now, 24-years later it’s time to do it again; time to make some more memories.
He is looking forward to this tournament. He believes European Championships can be a shade richer than World Cups because they are always held in countries where the game is long established.
How does he think Ireland will do? Well, he is tipping Spain as the eventual victors and says Ireland will have to stop them from playing if they are to have any chance of scraping a result in what is expected to be their most difficult test. Yet he argues that Ireland’s hard-working style – particularly by the players up front – will reap rewards.
He fancies a result against Croatia, believes Ireland has the measure of Italy and knows that the spirit of 88 will sweep from the pitch to the stands and leak out into the Ukraine.
Ireland is that type of team. They were then. They are now.