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.

Within minutes they were singing again as Houghton stuck that magical ball in the English net and Jack Charlton hit his head off the roof of the dug-out as he jumped to celebrate.

Razor’s only mistake was to score so early. What followed was sheer torture for almost 90 minutes, interrupted only by the brilliance of Packie Bonner as he shut out everything Gary Lineker could throw at him.

Ireland held on. The rosary beads worked. Physio Mick Byrne ended up on the front page of The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph. Packie’s gloves were home to the Hands of God according to some of the English media.

That day was special. It was the biggest match I have ever covered, a game that every fan in Ireland wanted to read about the next day, long before the Internet and Twitter and Facebook and text messaging, long before the media that brings the world to you in an instant.

In a strange way, we were almost alone in Germany that night, the 5,000 traveling fans, the 20 or so players, the management team led by Jack and the media still coming to terms with the magnitude of the story they had just reported in.

The squirrels left us alone but the drink didn’t. That night, as was the way with the Irish team before Premier League paranoia took over, the Ireland hotel was open to all the fans.

And trust me, the mother and father of all parties followed. The songs and the drink flowed all night.
And my abiding memory is watching the aforementioned Liam Brady standing on a piano and leading the sing-song as Michael Carwood of the Sunday Press, a legend in his own right, tickled the ivories.

Michael and Liam hadn’t spoken for years over some article or other, but that night all was forgotten and all was forgiven. Like us, they knew it was time to celebrate. And we did.
I just can’t believe it was 25 years ago!

(Cathal Dervan is sports editor of the Irish Sun newspaper in Dublin)

Sideline Views
GAA: The GAA authorities in Ulster have warned fans to be prepared for extra-vigilant activity by the British Army in Enniskillen on Sunday when Fermanagh meet Cavan in the Ulster SFC quarterfinal. The Army isn’t worried by the fans from Cavan or Fermanagh.  They are concerned about the G8 summit featuring Messrs Obama, Putin and Cameron in Lough Erne due to take place on Monday and Tuesday. Anyway, the GAA fans north of the border won’t have any problems on Sunday. They’re well used to a heavy-handed British Army presence. Just ask any Crossmaglen Rangers fan!

SOCCER: If you see the esteemed Irish soccer writer Paul Lennon in Manhattan this week, please wish him a happy 50th birthday on my behalf and tell him there’s a pint of Guinness with his name on it waiting in Yankee Connell’s on the Hill of Skryne when he gets home from Ireland’s tour. Just don’t tell him that his beloved Drogheda United lost to Dundalk in the Louth derby on Monday night. He’s probably trying to forget that one!

SOCCER: Interesting quote from the LA Galaxy coach Bruce Arena about the Ireland captain Robbie Keane. “The LA Galaxy without Robbie is like Miami Heat without Le Bron James,” said Arena as Keane missed some club action in recent weeks to cross the Atlantic and play for his country. Keane, when informed of the comments from Arena, thanked his coach. He knows how high that compliment is.

ROBBIE Keane is many things to many people, but mostly he should be regarded as a hero to anyone who follows Irish football. Last Friday night, Robbie set a new appearances record for his country when he won his 126th cap in the World Cup qualifier against the Faroe Islands. The same night he scored the 57th, 58th and 59th goals of his international career. He has scored more goals that every other player in the current Irish squad on tour in New York put together. His like will never be seen again in an Ireland shirt. He’s a hero. And a legend.

THE Wexford hurling boss Liam Dunne is one of those managers who likes to hear the sound of his own voice, so he wasted little time in berating the GAA for fixing his team’s Leinster SHC replay with Dublin for Parnell Park this coming Saturday after last Saturday’s draw in Wexford Park. Bizarrely Dunne wants the game played in Croke Park at a time when the Dublin footballers are being slated for playing all their championship games in the very same Croke Park!