Tracing the history of Irish football’s sizzled relationship with alcohol
“In the life, in the life, in your jobs, in every jobs, there is the order of the life. In a club, in the team, there is order. The team order the life. Without this, it’s impossible to go. No, we are Irish or our habit. But where we go? Where do you want to go?
You are Irish, stay in Irish. In the life, your jobs. You not come. This evening, I am drink.” — Giovanni Trapattoni, August 2013.
The story of Irish life and the story of Irish football life are full of those moments when, having considered all available options, a man said, “This evening, I am drink.”
Giovanni Trapattoni came from a very different football culture but his time as Ireland manager was marked by his bewilderment at the Irish footballer’s relationship with drink. In August 2013, he was asked about rumours that two players had broken a curfew just before Ireland’s opening game at the European Championships. He insisted they hadn’t but then went on to wonder in his baffling English about the choices Irish footballers made. This was, as he had said before, “the culture, the habit”.
Irish football, like English football, Scottish football and Welsh football, always had a drinking culture which simply reflected the drinking culture in the world around it. This philosophy was encapsulated in a simple phrase. “They did it at the right times,” Ron Atkinson said when asked about the group of drinkers he had at Manchester United. Given that one of the group was Paul McGrath it could be argued that no time was the right time.
If one accepts that the five greatest players to come out of the island of Ireland are John Giles, George Best, Liam Brady, McGrath and Roy Keane then three have had what might be described as a complicated relationship with alcohol.
Ireland’s relationship with alcohol could be described as complicated too. Norman Mailer believed that the Irish drank so much because they had an over-supply of semen and hormones and if they didn’t drink, they would go mad. F Scott Fitzgerald (who described his mother’s family as “straight 1850 potato famine Irish”) considered the creative mind more prone to the consolations of drink: “As he inflates his imagination, he inflates his capacity for anxiety, and inevitably becomes the victim of crushing phobias that only be allayed by crushing doses of... alcohol.”
There were many crushing phobias in the collective imagination of the Irish football, many, many ways to imagine defeat and so few to conceive of victory. For whatever reason, Irish football and drink rubbed along for many years. “Traditionally, this is the way we’ve been,” Niall Quinn wrote in his autobiography as he considered the view that the Irish team was shambolic and disorganised. “We’ve never pampered ourselves. Under Jack Charlton, when we enjoyed 10 years of good times, we were mostly ramshackle, and part of what made us tick was the disorganisation and the joy we got from pretending to the world that we weren’t to be taken seriously. Then we’d go out on the pitch and die for one another.”
People in Ireland will bristle if a foreign — and by foreign I mean English — commentator makes a glib comment such as “The Irish know how to party” when reporting on any sporting success. The problem is that the stereotype had some truth. On the finest days in Irish football, there was often an accompanying story of drink and music. When Ireland beat the Soviet Union 3-0 in 1974, the party in the Central Hotel afterwards was full of drink and song as it should have been. Giles recalled in his autobiography that Liam Brady, who had made a memorable debut, gave a rendition of “Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town”.
In 2001, after Ireland had drawn with Portugal at Lansdowne Road, Roy Keane sang Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street” in Lillie’s Bordello on Grafton Street as he made what was becoming a rare appearance socialising with the Irish squad. The following year, the bar was thrown open at the Irish team hotel outside Tokyo following the draw with Germany at a reported cost of €20,000. Journalists, officials and anybody who was in the area enjoyed the generosity.
On the night Ireland beat the Soviet Union, the team were joined by Luke Kelly of the Dubliners, a man and a group who knew about music and knew about drink.
The Irish forward Ray Treacy’s party piece was “Whiskey in the Jar”, usually accompanied by himself on banjo. Treacy joked that of the forty-two caps he got for Ireland, the banjo was responsible for thirty of them. Giles wrote in his autobiography of a “day when we were going to the airport and Ray announced he had forgotten his boots. I asked him if he had his banjo. He said he had. ‘That’s ok, then,’ I said. ‘Don’t worry about the boots.’”
The musical instrument was a perennial in Irish football. Nearly 40 years after Ray Treacy’s banjo, it was not unusual to see a guitar case slide along the airport carousel among the Irish squad’s kit and equipment. In the early years of the 21st century, the guitar case belonged to Andy Reid but Trapattoni would have strong views on men like Reid and their guitars.
Giles’s involvement brought a professionalism to Irish international football that hadn’t been seen before but, like Quinn, he saw nothing wrong with a celebration. Giles was always a man apart, somebody who, in his own words, wasn’t a “character” but he was able to fit in with those who were.
Irish life has always wanted its characters and when problems arose in later years, another man who couldn’t fit the conventional model of the character made things difficult.
In the seventies and eighties, football in the UK and Ireland was governed by the idea that there was this right time to drink and a wrong time to drink. The right time could, of course, turn into the wrong time. As Irish football lurched from one bad night on the field to another, it always seemed like the right time. There were more bad nights than good ones; more nights when Ireland came away from the stadiums of Europe fuelled by an immediate sense of injustice that merged with a deeper-rooted sense of injustice and created that deep restlessness in the soul, the void that couldn’t be filled. There were too many nights when there was nothing to do but drink.
When Jack Charlton became Ireland manager, success came. Irish football was slow to recognise any need to change beyond the need to ensure that players were fit and present to appear on the field. In the wonderful documentary In My Book You Should be Ahead, two Shelbourne officials discuss the policing of footballers on away trips. This isn’t solely about what one describes as “the acting-the-maggot end of it” but involves the best way of unwinding the night before a game. Another official suggests a good book: “I read somewhere or other that the doctors say if you read until the object falls out of your hand, you’re completely relaxed.”
Traditionally, the Irish player had pursued other methods of relaxation. For many during the Charlton Years, the nights out where they would bond until the dawn were as important as the success. When Ireland qualified for the European Championship in 1988 and the World Cup two years later, the benefits of supporting the Irish football team became clear to many beyond the game’s natural constituency.
If Italia 90 provided the party, it also provided the cautionary tale. Paul McGrath was among that squad, possibly still drinking at the right times occasionally but those times were becoming less frequent. The party continued around him. “Italia 90,” Declan Lynch wrote in Days of Heaven, “was indeed the greatest excuse ever to go drinking in the history of Ireland... it was more than just the greatest excuse to go drinking; it was an excuse to go drinking in ways that we had never gone drinking before... There is hardly a man alive in Ireland who does not have some blissful memory of being terribly, terribly drunk during Italia 90 in the middle of the day, or some strange hour at which he had never been drunk before.” And that, it would be tempting to add, was just the squad.
McGrath represented the darkness because in so many magnificent forms he represented the light. He was great in ways we couldn’t imagine and vulnerable in ways we could.
In October 1990, I was behind the West Stand at Lansdowne Road when the Ireland team arrived to play Turkey in a European Championship qualifier. We applauded the heroes off the coach but then it became clear that something was wrong: Paul McGrath had stayed on the bus.
Soon Jack was back out and I will always have the memory of the pleading look on McGrath’s face as he explained he couldn’t leave this relatively safe place, as he was gripped, he would explain in his autobiography, by the fear.
McGrath stayed on the bus which I recall driving away with him in it. In his book, he says he walked through the crowd to be put in a taxi and taken back to the hotel. The official explanation when it became known that he was not available for the game was, as always, ‘Paul McGrath’s knees’, which had already become a euphemism.
We already had plenty of those. McGrath’s struggle brought some awareness and twelve years later he would still be struggling and we would still be searching for awareness.
There are those who will still insist that the problems on Saipan, where Ireland went to prepare for the 2002 World Cup, were an administrative issue: that a failure to deliver balls and training gear coupled with a bumpy pitch led to the greatest implosion in Irish football history. The truth may be more complex. The truth may be a story of drink. Training kit, balls, uneven grass and a calamitous team meeting were just Macguffins.
In 1992, after many of the Irish squad had a long day lost in the bars of south Boston, Roy Keane climbed onto the Irish team bus wearing, according to Quinn in his autobiography, a ‘Kiss me quick’ hat. Ireland were late for a flight. “Look at the fucking state of you,” said Mick McCarthy who was one of those not lost in the bars of Boston. “You call yourself a professional footballer.”
“And,” Keane is supposed to have replied, “you call what you have a first touch.”
Keane would claim that version was l’esprit d’escalier.
Keane in 1992 fitted well into the traditional model of Irish football but, over the years, he changed as Irish football remained the same.
In 2002, an unforgiving light was shone on Irish football’s means of relaxation and whose light is more unforgiving than Roy Keane’s?
In his autobiography, ghostwritten by Eamon Dunphy, Keane gives glimpses of the life he once led.
During his rehabilitation following his cruciate ligament injury, Keane states that as he worked hard, “I was also drinking too much.” At Christmas, he was banned from the Manchester United Christmas party after he attended the reserves’ Christmas night out and argued with a barman. Alex Ferguson promised to fine any player who was seen drinking with him that evening.
At some point, Keane embarked on this change, in truth a revolutionary transformation but one he tried to make light of. “I decided to bury Roy the Playboy,” he wrote. “He might get the odd outing but his carousing days were — more or less — over. Appreciation of my family life was one reason for this change. A deep desire to make every day of my football career count was the other.”
Ireland headed to Saipan before the 2002 World Cup, a week which was supposed to be about R&R. The night before Ireland played at the Stadium of Light for Quinn’s testimonial, Mick McCarthy explained this to the players. One man was not there: Keane. Ireland’s captain was managing an injury and stayed away. “Did you want me to sit in the stand and be pestered by people who are drunk?” he said when asked about his absence.
Keane has always expressed a tolerance for other players’ drinking — in fact he has been known to encourage it — but the clash wasn’t between Keane’s non-drinking and his teammates’ traditional habits but between Keane and Keane. “I had grown less tolerant of myself,” he wrote when explaining the old Keane.
Yet Keane can hardly be seen as a man deeply tolerant of others either and his new way of life added to his separateness. Once Denis Irwin retired, Keane roomed alone and when he stopped drinking, he had to find other ways of relaxing. As he told Paul Kimmage in Saipan, “There’s only so much walking you can do... there’s only so many books you can read.”
The rest of the squad knew how to unwind. A barbecue had been planned in Saipan for the players, the staff and the media. Keane was reluctant to attend and socialise with people from the press he had no time for. But he went for a while, again making the effort, again trying to please people. The rest of the squad had bigger plans as Quinn wrote in his autobiography. “Roy hasn’t been drinking for some time now so we keep it low key about what we have planned for the rest of the evening... There is a quick break for the bar. The players circulate dutifully for a little bit, Roy slips off into the night and then some of the lads make a fairly theatrical show of yawning and stretching and pretending to be heading off to bed.”
Instead they would drink till dawn and become “leglessly bonded” while Keane was left to brood.
There is a condition known as ‘dry drunk’, a term that describes the behaviour of a drinker who has quit but is still quick to anger and prone to mood swings. Without the release valve that alcohol has customarily brought, the dry drunk may be even more volatile than he was before.
Keane faced more than a month away from the things which kept him calm. He had no release valve and no escape unless he found one.
His autobiography, published in the autumn of 2002, was a story of drink, slightly romanticised perhaps by his ghostwriter. That summer Eamon Dunphy had to be taken off the air during a World Cup game he was analysing on RTÉ because — another euphemism — “he had been unable to fulfil the terms of his contract.”
“I was not actually drunk,” Dunphy insisted. “I had been.”
Dunphy was not just a ghostwriter but a passionate advocate for Keane that summer.
So much in 2002 was being decided by people who were not actually drunk but had been. Paul McGrath was there too, flown out to work for the BBC and then flown home by the BBC after an incident on the plane to Tokyo in which he was reported to have insulted players’ wives over their husbands’ failure to support Roy Keane.
Keane and McGrath were friends, men who understood each other. Yet it’s hard to believe that all this trouble could be caused by a bumpy pitch and some missing kit. Even the most wounding allegation as far as Keane was concerned — that he had faked injury to miss a play-off game in Iran — could hardly have resulted in all that chaos unless other impulses were involved. Unless other crushing phobias were knocking around.
In the aftermath of Saipan, the FAI commissioned a management consultancy to look into everything surrounding the affair. The Genesis Report was published in late 2002 but no report will ever be able to fully explain what drives one man to the edge, especially when drink is involved or not involved. Roy Keane returned, then went away again, this time quietly. Steve Staunton became manager with the understanding that he would harness some of the traditional values and when that failed the FAI turned to Trapattoni.
In Wiesbaden, the spa and casino town in which Dostoevsky had won and mainly lost, Ireland prepared for to face Georgia in Mainz (a game that had been moved from Georgia because of the conflict in South Ossetia).
On the night after the game, Andy Reid was playing the guitar which he had, as always, brought with him while around him teammates sang and drank in the traditional fashion. Suddenly Trapattoni appeared, armed with a rolled-up copy of Gazzetta Dello Sport. With this, Trapattoni embarked on a clash of cultures, swiping his newspaper at Reid’s head and telling him to go to bed. Trap’s own version was that he had given Reid a paternal kick up the backside, sending him to his room as you would do an errant son. Reid was dropped from the Irish squads shortly afterwards and only returned after Trapattoni’s departure.
Irish football and drink remain entwined. In the 2012 European Championship, Ireland’s surrender on the pitch was contrasted by the spectacular nocturnal advances of the supporters, headed by the FAI’s chief executive John Delaney. Delaney had taken part in a Drink Aware campaign before the tournament and many pictures circulated of him during Ireland’s time in Poland relaxing in the company of people who were drunk and who were aware that they were drunk. Delaney said a night out was “something I’m entitled to do on the odd occasion when I’m there.”
There had been rumours that his shoes had been stolen during his night out which Delaney also addressed: “It’s a bit of folklore, a bit of fun. I’m coming home. Two hundred lads see me. They lift me up and they carry me up and lift me head-high to my hotel and they sing, ‘Shoes Off for the Boys in Green’. And they handed me my shoes back and they handed me my socks back. Simple as that.”
Delaney’s story was simple but many weren’t. Many were part of what Trapattoni called “the culture, the habit”. Many were built on the need to say, “This evening, I am drink.” This evening, I pursue oblivion.