Irish mugs fill Meadowlands to brim

June 19, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The lads were in the house yesterday.

They descended on the shimmering sauna of Giants Stadium like a green and orange thunderstorm, thousands of them from Dublin and Cork and Limerick, dressed in wraparound Irish flags, bare white chests and pints.

They shuttled into New York on crammed charter flights and filled the parking lot hours before the kickoff of yesterday's World Cup match between Ireland and Italy, singing pub songs, waving Irish flags and thinking not for a moment about O.J. Simpson, the Knicks or any of the other essential items on the American agenda.

There is no distracting an Irishman from the teary, beery experience of cheering for Ireland in the World Cup.

"There's at least 10,000 or 12,000 of us who made the trip over," said Gerald Corry, a 40-year-old draftsman from Dublin. "We're a small country with a fine team, so there's a marvelous spirit."

Mehr-ve-los spee-rit, indeed.

Back home, the home country was so spirited that it was shut down, paralyzed, riveted. Ninety percent of the television sets in Ireland were tuned in when the team played in the Cup for the first time four years ago.

"You can't believe it," Corry said. "Everyone is in the pubs wearing green. Big-screen televisions are set up in the streets. Some people say it's more fun to be there than here."

But it isn't. Not when there are already a million Irishmen living in New York, or so the story goes.

"It's almost like we've taken over the city," said Derek O'Sullivan, a 25-year-old bookmakers' assistant from Cork --pale, freckled, sunburned and wrapped in a flag. "Every bar in New York is an Irish bar right now. We're good at that sort of thing."

There was little of this boosterism for years. Ireland was a nothing soccer country until Jack Charlton -- an Englishman, of all things -- was hired to coach the national team in 1986. Charlton, 59, is a strong-jawed former player who preaches a workingman's style that endears the team to Irish hearts. The Irish pack the defensive end and score on counterpunches. They win low-scoring games, breaking their opponent with their will, with sheer sweat.

"Hard-working, tough, great spirit, never say die," Corry said. "The team is a reflection of the people of the country. Absolutely. That's why so many of us are here."

It's also fun to follow a winner. Jack's lads, as the team is known, have lost only six of 36 matches since making the Cup quarterfinals four years ago. Charlton has the keg delivered to his hotel room after big wins.

"The man has done more to help relations between England and Ireland than any politician ever could," Corry said.

Yesterday's match against Italy figured to be an away game of sorts for Ireland, considering Italy's passion for soccer and the mass of expatriate Italians in New York. But Irish fans outnumbered Italians by a three-to-one margin, filling more than half of the seats and blanketing the stadium with banners. The Italians were drowned out, reduced to a supporting role.

The Irish stood, chanted and cheered from the first kick to the last, filling the hazy, humid afternoon with strong-throated voices. The New Jersey wastelands were turned into a little Dublin.

"We couldn't believe it," said Irish midfielder Ray Houghton. "We were led to believe that there would be loads of Italian fans and a few Irish. It was like a home game for us. Even the Italian players were saying that they didn't know where all their supporters were."

Maybe they knew what was coming.

Twelve minutes into the game, Houghton trapped a loose ball 25 yards from the goal and lofted a left-footed looper over the head of Italy's goalkeeper, Gianluca Pagliuca, into the net.

It was a disaster for Italy, one of the favorites to win the Cup despite lukewarm performances in qualifying. Making up one goal is possible against other teams, but playing from behind against the indefatigable Irish is a horrible task.

The Irish slowed the pace, filled the defensive end and cornered Roberto Baggio, Italy's deft star. Italy had a half-dozen scoring chances, but Ireland steadily blocked one after the other after the other.

In the final minutes, the Italians were bickering among themselves, beaten, broken, reduced to whining. ("They scored on a lucky goal," Italy's Daniele Massaro said later.)

After the final whistle of Ireland's first victory ever over Italy, Irish goalkeeper Pattie Bonner stood at midfield and waved his arms in salute.

"The Irish people always make their presence felt," Charlton said. "It was a great atmosphere. The Irish must have spent a fortune on tickets."

They're the best fans in soccer, loud and loyal and peaceful, just looking for a good time, not a fight.

"We're nothing like the [hooligan] English fans, goodness no," Corry said. "We have a fine reputation. Ask anyone."

From here they're headed to Orlando for Ireland-Mexico, then back to the Meadowlands for a final first-round match against Norway.

"We're going with them the whole way," said Leonard Mullins, 25, of Dublin, after the game. "We saved up vacation time and money. We're true supporters. We've got a fine team to follow. And we're going to have a fine time in New York tonight."

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