Crazy squirrels and great memories - the 25th anniversary of the greatest day in Irish sporting history


Ray Houghton pictured in a legend’s match in 2009.
Ray Houghton pictured
 in a legend’s match in 2009.

We'll get around to the 25th anniversary of the greatest day in Irish sporting history in a second, but first a story about a squirrel in New York and a man who looks in the tabloid Mirror every morning.

Paul O’Hehir is a journalist from a famous family of Irish sporting writers and commentators. Horse racing lovers and GAA fans will remember his grandfather Michael with great fondness, and his dad and uncle are already in the business of words.

Young Paul – at my age he still counts as young – is a fine addition to the corps of Irish football writers and is doing a splendid job for his particular tabloid newspaper with the Ireland team in New York this week.

He is also doing his very best to keep the rest of the Irish football writing corps entertained – both in America and closer to home thanks to the instantaneous wonders of Twitter and my friend and colleague Neil O’Riordan.

Neil was talking to the Irish Sun office straight after the Giovanni Trapattoni press conference on Monday when he broke out laughing.

Now we do laugh from time to time on the sports desk in the Sun newspaper’s Irish headquarters. But we don’t usually interrupt a phone call with incessant laughter unless the occasion merits it.

And Monday’s incident, as a squirrel attacked Paul O’Hehir, clearly merited it as far as my friend and colleague Neil was concerned.

Thus began the legend of “Nutsy” Paul O’Hehir, enemy of the common American squirrel, a legend born on Twitter and a story that has gained legs with every passing minute.

This isn’t the legend I had intended to share with you in this very column, written on Tuesday afternoon and exactly 24 hours before the 25th anniversary of the day Ray Houghton stuck the ball in the England net and gave birth to a legacy all of his own making.

Others have done it before and since -- stick the ball in the English net that is as Shane Long experienced at Wembley only a fortnight ago -- but nobody has ever done it in a game so unique and so vital as the one played on June 12, 1988, in Stuttgart, Germany.

I wasn’t in New York on Monday to witness Squirrel-gate, but I was in the Neckarstadion all those years ago for what is still the greatest sporting day of my life.

That may seem strange to those who have marveled at the achievements of so many Irish sportsmen and women since Euro ’88, many of which I have been lucky enough to witness first hand.

But for me, for a kid who grew up idolizing Charlie George and then Liam Brady, who stood on terraces and grassy banks at every League of Ireland ground in Dublin, who tried and failed to bend it like Beckham in my own very brief playing days, beating England on our first ever appearance in a major finals will always be the most special event of them all.

Part of that was down to the fact that we had never played at that level before.  Johnny Giles and Eoin Hand had dared to dream, but no one had lived the dream until the morning we boarded an Aer Lingus charter to Germany.

None of us on that plane -- I was in with the fans for the Star but working as a journalist in those days -- knew what to expect when we landed at a big international tournament. But we knew we’d have a good time.

And we had more than that. We had a great time.

The day before the match in Stuttgart, the photographer Noel Gavin and I watched in amazement as England fans fought with the German police and each other outside Stuttgart’s main railway station.

Around the corner and down the street we then joined in as a packed bar sang Beatles songs, real football fans from England and Ireland happy to pay homage to John, Paul, George and Ringo from a city that has long accommodated those of an English or Irish persuasion.

The day of the game, the 5,000 Irish fans were outnumbered by the English on the terraces but they didn’t care. They flew their flags with pride, from Cliftonville to Cahirciveen, and they sang their hearts out when the national anthem graced such a stage for the first time.