Summer 1990 and the kids of the nation had a new set of heroes. O’Leary, Bonner and Houghton were everyone’s favourite. Mind you, in Stuttgart two years previously, Houghton had earned himself a head start on the others. For the homecoming, young fans roped relatives, neighbours or any human who was willing and able, to bring them into O’Connell Street to cheer on Jackie’s Army. Town was a pure festival of green, white and happiness.
My uncle and aunt brought me in. They’d just returned from Boston and insisted on bringing me to Dunkin Donuts in O’Connell Street to let me try a ‘taste of America’. They got me some cream filled yoke. It was fine but delayed us grabbing our places beside Daniel O’Connell’s statue. We got there in the nick time, as the bus was appearing down from Parnell Square direction.
There was fierce excitement and cheering as the boys slowly made their way down the street amid an embankment of adoring fans with green hats, flags and headbands. I was dressed for the occasion in a XXXL grey Dunnes Stores t-shirt, that was hanging 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, although it was far too big for anyone I knew. It had been the last one remaining in the shop so Mam had no choice on the sizing and I didn’t care that it was from the menswear department.
“It’s not too bad on you lovey”, she’d said when I tried it on. Mothers would say mass.
I was a sight to be pitied, but I loved it because I thought the photo was class. We’re talking about the days when buying replica jerseys at the drop of a hat wasn’t the done thing. If I’m really honest, we’re talking about the days when we were poor. I wore the t-shirt with a pair of £10 ‘Le Caf’ Dunnes Stores runners and hand-me-down jeans from an Italian boy we knew. Not quite la dolce vita.
The chat was to go on in school for a week afterwards about who had the best vantage point on the day. None of us compared to Tommo who stole the show. His uncle worked in the airport and managed to get 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 waved at me. Come to think of it, he probably took pity on the poor loother with the t-shirt swimming around her ankles.
But of course, there had been just one player I had eyes for. Much like my favouite Dublin player John O’Leary, he was the keeper, the one and only Packie Bonner. And that day he waved and we waved and all was well in the world. It was the rockstar homecoming for our unvictorious champions.
The euphoria was to resurface a few weeks later with the news that the Donegal demi-God was to come to Tallaght to meet fans. He was to make his special appearance at Xtra Vision on the Greenhills Road, so on the appointed day, my cousin – another Gráinne – left work early and came across from Packard Electric to queue up with my Mam and I for my moment with Packie.
The queue was long and would only be surpassed in Tallaght terms a few weeks later when Santa made his maiden voyage to the newly opened Square Shopping Centre. Outside Xtra Vision a fence had been erected around the car park perimeter and for hours we queued, snaking around ever closer to the table outside the front door where Packie was sat. Mam must’ve smoked a twenty box, Gráinne chatted away and I stood eyeballing Bonner. Dying for my turn. So excited I couldn’t talk. Eventually, there were only a few people in front of us. He was still signing posters and books. He signed some footballs and smiled back at young fellas decked out in real deal kits.
I was almost there!! This was as close to dream come true as I’d ever come. Two left in the queue, a boy in front and me. That’s all. 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 he toddled toward his chauffeur car. No word of a lie.
The boy in front looked up at his Dad. The Dad called to security “here, me son just wants an autograph”. The security guy shrugged his shoulders. I looked from Gráinne to Mam, desperate to know what was going on. Was it the look of me that he didn’t like? Why was he running off on us? Another hero running away. (My Dad had just legged it off on us a few months prior.)
Tears were already welling. Gráinne 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.
My mother may have had tears in her eyes too, but I can’t be sure. Gráinne came back to say that security said it was Bonner’s decision to leave, so it was out of their hands. She suggested we go to the shop and she’d buy me something but I was too gutted.
All I wanted was a shake-hand and a scribble from my favourite footballer.
They say you shouldn’t meet your heroes…