Italian Conquest Under Captain Fantastic
Mick’s Major Mark With Jack’s Army
Steve Bull’s fairytale journey was not the only Wolves-themed story from the World Cup finals 28 years ago – although we didn’t know it at the time.
One of the bruising stoppers barring his and England’s path was a man who would make his own sizeable imprint at the club and even give the record-breaking striker his last senior outing at Molineux.
Mick McCarthy not only appeared at Italia 90 – he starred in it and skippered the Republic of Ireland to heights they had never previously touched.
He was also part of the Dad’s Army feel to Jack Charlton’s robust squad, no fewer than ten of the 22 players named having passed their 30th birthday.
The 31-year-old McCarthy already had more than 40 caps to his name when the Irish set off for the heat of battle with the confidence of having also been to the European Championships finals two years earlier.
In 1988, they joined England in slipping out of Group 2 and making an early exit from West Germany, although they beat Bobby Robson’s side through Ray Houghton’s floated header in Stuttgart and finished only a point behind second-placed Holland – the eventual champions.
A couple of summers later, when David Kelly was on board as well, McCarthy had moved from Celtic to Lyon and on to Millwall. The brawny centre-half was pictured in the Express & Star as Gary Lineker slipped between he and Chris Morris to divert home Chris Waddle’s excellent pass in the opening group game in Cagliari.
The paper had Martin Swain at the tournament and, in describing this 1-1 draw as the worst international he had ever witnessed, wrote that ‘Charlton’s scrappers had clouted England with all the subtlety of bar-room brawlers’.
You can imagine Big Mick treating such comments as sour grapes, especially as Kevin Sheedy equalised 16 minutes from time in a game played partly in a strong wind and then in an electric storm.
This was the World Cup to which Doug Ellis departed with 20 crates of champagne for his yacht off Sardinia, ready as he was to toast (with FA chief Bert Millichip) the elevation of his Aston Villa manager, Graham Taylor, to the position of national boss.
That installation remained a back story as England improved substantially with their 0-0 draw against Holland, Bully going on as substitute for Waddle the night before the Irish drew with Egypt to keep things extremely tight in the race to progress to the knockout phase.
McCarthy, who played every one of his country’s games in Italy, was eligible for the side because his father, Charles, was Irish. He made his international debut in a 0-0 draw with Poland in May, 1984, and goals remained scarce on this much bigger stage.
While England were defeating Egypt 1-0 in their last group encounter thanks to a set-piece Mark Wright goal, Ireland were hitting back for the draw in Palermo with Holland that saw them through in second place.
Their towering skipper had his hands full with Ruud Gullit, who opened the scoring early on with a beauty. But Niall Quinn came to the rescue with a second-half equaliser for the Jolly Green Army, who were then delighted when the drawing of lots sent them into a tie against Rumania rather than with eventual winners West Germany in Milan 24 hours later.
England needed two Lineker penalties after their reward for beating Belgium turned out to be a quarter-final tie against Cameroon. And it was via a shoot-out that Ireland edged past Rumania in Genoa.
The tie was goalless after extra-time and, although McCarthy didn’t trust himself to take one of the spot-kicks, David O’Leary did and famously struck the winner, to the delight of 20,000 travelling fans. Ireland thus became the first team since Sweden in 1938 to reach the World Cup’s last eight without winning a match outright.
Alas, the country’s heroic journey ended in the quarter-final with a 38th minute goal from Salvatore Schillaci for hosts Italy in Rome’s Olympic Stadium.
England went a step further before suffering one of their many penalty nightmares but McCarthy, whose nickname of “Captain Fantastic” was adapted as the title of his autobiography, left his mark on the tournament – and not only because he conceded more fouls than any other player there.
He went on to win 57 caps for the Republic of Ireland and later to manage them to considerable World Cup success……although that is a story for another time.