Interview: Pat Bonner recalls Italia 90 heroics

Pat Bonner shows off the hands that made his famous penalty save at Italia 90. Picture: John Devlin
Pat Bonner shows off the hands that made his famous penalty save at Italia 90. Picture: John Devlin
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Celtic hero recalls how his World Cup penalty save turned him into an icon of popular culture - and caused the Celtic Tiger to roar

In the film version of Roddy Doyle’s The Van everyone is crammed into the pub to watch Italia 90 on the big screen and it’s got to the bit where the commentator utters the immortal words: “The nation holds its breath… ” Then the big goalkeeper saves the penalty and jumps up in the air, arms forming a cross, and a mature woman in the bar is overcome with lustful elation. “He can nail me to the bed any time he wants,” she shrieks, before the place erupts into a chorus of “There’s only one Packy Bonner”.

Pat Bonner saves in the shootout against Romania. Picture: Getty

Pat Bonner saves in the shootout against Romania. Picture: Getty

Funny enough, an episode of the TV comedy Moone Boy revolved around there being two of them. Shown last year, which just goes to prove what an enduring leap to his right and snaffle of the ball that was, the programme had its schoolboy hero knock on the door of what he thought was the ’goalie legend’s home, only to get the wrong Packy Bonner.

A quarter of a century on, the real Packy is still trying to make sense of what happened that night in Genoa and why it inspired so much popular culture. Bonner is in the middle of writing his own book about the Republic of Ireland’s World Cup adventure, which might have prompted some coyness when we meet in Glasgow for a coffee, to ensure the best bits are kept back for publication, but he is as generous as he is loquacious. Consider this: was it his save against Romania which caused the Celtic Tiger to roar?

“Here’s the thing about the Irish,” he says. “Well, a few things: we’re used to going out into the world. We’re used to hard work. We’re adaptable. We’re resilient – that’s a big word for us – and yes, there’s our blarney, too. But wherever we go we’re always trying to get back to Ireland, to get back home.

“The environment must be conducive for that to happen and at the time of the Celtic Tiger a lot of young Irish people did move back. They bought homes, started families and became part of the resurgence. The image of us being an emigrant country was flipped on its head.”

“Jack [Charlton]wanted protection for the back four – every team does that now. And he got us to press quickly after transition which is something Spain have added to their game”

Now, could one save really have sparked all of that? Packy’s stop was a decent one but you could argue that Daniel Timofte’s penalty was rather timid. You could point out that David O’Leary still had to convert the winning spot-kick, that Ireland’s success was very much a sum-is-greater team effort, that it was based on a masterplan dashed off by Jack Charlton – and Bonner is quick to stress all of this. He is far too modest to claim the credit for an economic miracle which, in any case, didn’t work.

“Typical Irish, we got over-excited. As my dear old mother would say: ‘You’re getting carried away with yourself, so you are.’ We were no longer taking the menial jobs. We wanted big houses, big cars, three or four holidays a year. I don’t know whether other countries are better with money, but we’re not hoarders and we just spent ours. But have we learned from the experience? Or are we bound to make the same mistakes again?”

Who said goalies were daft? That they existed in a world of their own? Bonner, when I ask how he differs from his twin brother, Denis, remarks: “I’ve always been the serious one.” Goalie madness, he smiles, has been overstated. “Guys like Bruce [Grobbelaar] and Budgie [John Burridge] told their stories and a myth built up. That forced we sane ’keepers into wearing clowns’ hats!”

Patrick Joseph Bonner is 55 and still the lofty figure who kept goal for Celtic 641 times. We’re supposed to be discussing today’s crucial Euro 2016 qualifier between the Republic and Scotland, but the conversation bounces around: back and forth between Donegal and Glasgow, the two places dearest to him. Via humour and sadness and the death of his mother at the age of 90.

We also travel to Sierra Leone. When Scottish nurse Pauline Cafferkey was diagnosed with ebola at the start of the year after working for Save the Children in the African state, it emerged she was related to Packy. “She’s my second cousin. I didn’t speak about the case at the time because her family are very quiet people.” Cafferkey, from Cambuslang, fell ill on her return from helping at an ebola treatment centre and needed life-saving treatment in a London isolation unit. “I knew Pauline’s grandfather Anthony, a lovely man. When I was at Celtic he liked to show me off. He’d take me to his working men’s clubs where almost everyone else seemed to be a Rangers supporter!

“Pauline did incredible work volunteering for Sierra Leone. I was very impressed when I heard her speak about her ordeal and hopefully she’ll make a full recovery. Maybe something positive will come out of it if the treatment she’s undergone can help others suffering from the illness.”

Unfortunately Bonner can’t be at the Aviva. “My son Andrew is 30, would you believe, and we’re having a wee do for him. Ach, I should have planned this better, suggested a party in Dublin taking in the match, because I’m really looking forward to it. I love those do-or-die 
affairs and this is one.”

The ’keeper, capped 80 times, has a history of such duels having played in a dour 0-0 Lansdowne Road draw between the two countries on the road to the 1988 Euros and also the return at Hampden a few months later which Ireland won thanks to a goal by their midfielder, Ray Houghton, a son of Castlemilk. Bonner’s boys required more Scottish help to clinch qualification – Gary Mackay becoming an honorary Irishman after his strike in Bulgaria – and properly commence Big Jack’s rollicking reign.

Our man is fond of Scottish-Irish connections: they’re how he came into the world. His father, Andrew, made the well-trod journey from Donegal to Glasgow in search of work, finding a job as a tram conductor, although Bonner is convinced that love was a factor as well. “He knew our mum, Grace, from Ireland and followed her over. She was with her three sisters, working at hotels in Edinburgh, which was where she and our dad got married.”

Back in Donegal, in the fishing village of Burtonport, the family had to wait until 1970 to get a TV when Bonner remembers bonfires being readied for a second Celtic European Cup triumph which never arrived. The wait for a telephone was even longer. This was a classically rural Irish upbringing: cutting turf in the bogs, gathering potatoes, always outside. Among the seven children, the twins were the only boys. “Denis and I were spoiled. Well, up to a point we were. Dad couldn’t work the trawlers like our grandfather because he got terrible seasickness so he set himself up as a builder. Denis and I were his only help so we did whatever manual labour we were able.”

The boys downed tools for sports: football and also the Gaelic version. Bonner’s catching technique for the latter, behind his head, caused problems in the former and had to be re-worked. “Our area was big on soccer because of the garrison towns where soldiers played. Arranmore Island, which we could see from our house, supplied a few players to Hibs back in the day. And being close to the north we could get BBC and the FA Cup final.” The local football schedule included summer cups and, a Donegal tradition, seven-a-side tournaments. “Remember Brian McLaughlin of Motherwell? He played in them, as did Owen and Joe Coyle.”

Bonner was spotted for Celtic by Sean Fallon who then drove an apprehensive country boy the last few miles to Parkhead to become Jock Stein’s last-ever signing in 1978. “The city, rather than the club, was the daunting thing. Round Parkhead wasn’t the prettiest at that time. But once I was inside the ground I felt okay. I was awfully homesick at first but Celtic felt like a family while I was missing my own. I was determined that I was going to succeed – I didn’t want to have to go home a failure. I think my childhood, all the graft, helped me in that. But I also owe a lot to those lovely old guys around the club who just turned up on matchdays as stewards and the like. One of them was John Lynch, so caring, a real gentleman. He still sends me a Christmas card. I think his eyesight is going so his writing is getting more and more spidery every year. But to me fellas like John were the epitome of what Celtic Football Club was about.”

Early on he moved round the spare rooms of the Glasgow branch of the clan, first Auntie Bridget Mary then Auntie Breedge. But, as he met Ann, the woman who would become his wife, Bonner lost his father. “Dad died of a heart attack, aged 61, which was a terrible shock. I was 22 so sadly he missed all that I achieved in the game. But I had to quickly get back to the football – a European game against Sporting Lisbon, I remember – and don’t think I appreciated the impact his death had on everyone back in Ireland, especially Mum. Our sister Ann moved back home to be with her, sacrificed some of her own life, and all of us adore her for doing that.”

Bonner, also father to daughter Melissa, recalls Stein’s aura rather than the man himself because very quickly Billy McNeill was his manager. “Billy was very charismatic, chest out, and a man with standards. Rangers were suits and we were smart-casual but once I flung my jacket on a peg. ‘Hang that properly’, Billy said. Later I found out about the Lithuanian roots, the army tradition. Then came Davie [Hay]. You never knew what he was thinking, he was so quiet, but I was up for more responsibility by then. Then Billy again and then Liam [Brady] who I was excited about but he got the job too soon. I got dropped but Big Jack stayed loyal to me, maybe too much so. Next was Lou [Macari] when the club was in turmoil. He brought in players from a lower level and we wondered: ‘Where are we going here?’ He put me up for sale but then Tommy [Burns] took over and I was reinstated. Tommy was one of my closest friends. There’s not a week goes by when I don’t think about him.”

A Parkhead career which began with a 
St Patrick’s Day debut finally wound down with the 1995 Scottish Cup. In all there were three cups and four leagues – not an epic haul by Celtic standards. Rangers were revolutionised under Graeme Souness and the suits tended to beat the smart-casuals. Bonner says he relished trips to Ibrox. “When Celtic Park was quite open, Ibrox was closed-in, a cauldron. I’d take my place in the goal behind the Rangers end and just smile at them.” It’s difficult to reconcile such an image with this admission from Packy, still at heart the shy country lad: “I used to shout at my team-mates to keep the ball up the pitch because I was never totally confident I’d be able to make the one big save that might be required of a Celtic ’keeper.”

Bonner wasn’t a soft touch. He possessed the strength of character to overcome bloopers, like a Mark Walters goal direct from a corner or dropping the ball for Ally McCoist to pop it through his legs. He deposed Carl Muggleton and won back his place from Gordon Marshall. But he admits: “I was sometimes quite jealous of my brother, Denis, playing League of Ireland which would have been a little bit more relaxed. Being in the spotlight could be difficult, but I remember doing a personal appearance in Galway and this old dear saying to me: ‘You must be Denis’s brother’. He’s more famous down there. Our dad would have loved that.”

Bonner’s fame, though, was something else – especially when Ireland started stealing Scotland’s clothes and qualifying for the big tournaments. “We kind of overlapped. At Italia 90 when you guys moved out of your base in Rapallo, we moved in.” Scotland’s exit at the group stage left some of their fans with a block ticket allowing access to the next phase, but your correspondent was so gutted at this outcome he passed up what would be the most miraculous game in Ireland’s history. The save turned Bonner into an icon. Back at Celtic he was deluged with 100 fan letters a week, many from kids who had drawn pictures of the stop. He met Pope John Paul II, himself once a goalie. He was given the freedom of Donegal. His face was splashed across advertising. Pilgrimages were made to the family home in Burtonport. “It was like in that TV programme, with folk turning up from all over Europe: ‘Is this where Packy lives? We were just passing and wanted to say hello’. They went to Daniel O’Donnell’s house first then ours, almost as part of a tour, and more often than not Mum would invite them in for a cup of tea. I think you could say that Ireland team made our people feel good about themselves, and we did our bit for tourism.”

That Ireland team. Big Jack’s multi-accented band were much maligned for their agricultural football with Bonner termed the playmaker for big hoofs leading to vital goals but he says the criticism is unfair. “Purists like Eamon Dunphy wanted us to play the Johnny Giles way, moving out from the back, but John, great footballer though he was, sometimes lost the ball in bad areas. Jack wanted protection for the back four – every team does that now. And he got us to press quickly after transition which is something Spain have added to their game.” Bonner doesn’t think he’s got the gift of the gab like his brother or that he can narrate a yarn like his 
father in the Irish storytelling tradition – but he has almost got me believing that the men in green invented tiki-taka.

His mother died at Christmas, around the same time as the drama involving second cousin Pauline. “Mum had a personality, she was very well-regarded, and there must have been more than 1,000 at the wake.” He’s still coming to terms with her passing. “I’ve been back to Donegal a few times since and, well, it’s different now. The family house was always where I headed first, even though I’ve a wee place of my own nearby but I don’t do that anymore.

“It’s funny. The Celtic Tiger never brought 
the motorway anywhere near Burtonport. The fishing is long gone and there are only two pubs left. I can say the place needs its young people to come back with their ideas but folk might go: ‘What do you know? You don’t live there anymore’. It’s true, I don’t, but I would go back tomorrow. I won’t because Glasgow has given me a life and a family of my own. For 
30-odd years there’s been this joke between my wife and I. I’ll say ‘I’ve got to go home’ and she’ll say: ‘But this is your home’. She’s right, of course. No, we’re both right.”