Packie Bonner on being Celtic's teenage goalkeeper and angering Jack Charlton at Euro 88
Euro 88 in Stuttgart ranks as Packie Bonner's most cherished performance from his 726 games with Celtic and Ireland. However, he tells us that Jack Charlton was not happy with him at all.
It took 20 years after Bonner's retirement from top-flight football to commit to an autobiography. 'The Last Line' was released in the autumn of 2015 and met with a positive reception.
He describes his time in professional football as a journey before revealing how close he came to missing out on that first, big step. He says:
"I was 16 when I went out to Leicester City on a trial. I played a couple of games but they didn't sign me. I was doing my Leaving Cert so I just got back into that, and playing with Keadue Rovers. I then got a trial at Celtic in 1977 but, again, heard nothing back.
"It was getting close to my Leaving Cert and I was planning on going to college to be a P.E teacher. I then heard that Jock Stein was coming over and wanted to sign me."
Bonner was joined by his parents and some committee members from Keadue Rovers as they met the legendary Celtic boss for tea at a Letterkenny Hotel. Within 30 minutes, he had signed for the Scottish giants. He would be Stein's final signing.
Bonner soon overtook Roy Baines to become Celtic's reserve goalkeeper in the senior team. A poor run of form from first-choice goalie Peter Latchford saw him make his Celtic debut on St Patrick's Day, 1979, at the age of 18.
That same year gave him his first taste of senior international duty. Johnny Giles called him up for an away trip to France. Seamus McDonagh was Ireland No.1 for a game they lost 2-0. It was another two years before his senior debut, against Poland.
Under Giles, then Eoin Hand, Bonner only made nine outings with Ireland until Jack Charlton took over in 1986. He got the nod over Bournemouth's Gerry Peyton and both he and Ireland never looked back. Qualification for Euro 88 took events to another level.
Bonner's finest hour - aside from an Italia 90 penalty shoot-out - came in Stuttgart as Ireland stoutly, maniacally defended a 1-0 lead given to them by Ray Houghton. It remains a mystery, to this day, that Houghton got man-of-the-match ahead of the brave, unbeatable Bonner. He says:
"We were not thinking about man-of-the-match awards. We were thinking about beating England.
"The euphoria after the final whistle, the crowd, the dressing room and the bus heading back to the hotel. They were all special moments."
Surprisingly, Bonner reveals Charlton was not happy that his goalkeeper was not quicker off his line to snuff out some English attacks. Bonner comments:
"I knew I had played well. Jack was a bit critical. He thought I could have been sweeping up behind Mick McCarthy and Kevin Moran and he certainly let me know about it."
Charlton, a World Cup winner with England in 1966, had been asked to apply for the England managerial job in the early 1980s and declined to do so. He took up the Ireland posting in 1986 and led the country through an era of unprecedented success.
He once told Terry Wogan, on the BBC, "If we beat England, I'm delighted.... I like to see England win other games, as long as it doesn't interfere with the Irish."
"If we beat England, I'm delighted.... I like to see England win other games, as long as it doesn't interfere with the Irish!"
Great Jack Charlton chat with Terry Wogan here. pic.twitter.com/yF7W8Rr0Mp
— SportsJOE (@SportsJOEdotie) July 11, 2020
Ireland narrowly missed out on getting into the semi-finals but Bonner's outstanding performance against Romania - in normal time, extra and a tense penalty shoot-out - got them into a World Cup quarter final against Italy.
Bonner is proud of his crucial save of Daniel Timofte's penalty, in that 5-4 shoot-out win, but savoured his duel with Romanian talisman Gheorghe Hagi. He says:
"Hagi played on the periphery. He did little tracking back so was capable of these bursts of energy. He had such skill and ability, something he successfully brought to Barcelona.
"We didn't do a lot of research into teams back then  and there was no video analysis. We might have caught some highlights of earlier games but we were all aware that he was the dangerman."
Back in Ireland, reaching the last eight took celebrations into overdrive. Credit Union loans were extended and, legend has it, extra mortgages arranged for more spending money. Many of the fans were involved in sing-songs and sessions with the players, and their families, in an atmosphere that would never be replicated again.
The Italia 90 experience was epic but Bonner says the squad were really unaware of how big a deal it was until they got home:
"Maybe that is what made it so special, in a way. Being detached from it. We were in Italy, doing okay, going off to see the Pope, playing the hosts in Rome.
"They would often beam in the RTÉ news from a day or two before and we'd get a taste of what was happening back in Ireland.
"If I have a regret about it all, and it is a very small one, it's that I missed out on all the great times back home."
A change of heart from Jock Stein, back in 1978, and Bonner might have been one of the multitude.
Instead, he was our No.1 and we were damned happy about it.