Flying with drunken angels, riot police, dodgy curry, potent 7-Up and spotless trainers as Irish play a lament in Lahore

Over 50,000 people crammed into the national stadium and hundreds more outside attempting to storm the gates to join the thronging masses as riot police, wielding bamboo batons and fearsome-looking whips, lashed out indiscriminately.

Football? No, this was hockey and the 1990 World Cup final between hosts Pakistan and the Netherlands in Lahore, the last occasion Ireland’s men competed at a world-level tournament finals.

It was an unforgettable experience for all of us who were privileged to be there, 16 players, coach Cees Koppelaar, our late team manager George Compston and four Irish journalists: Johnny Watterson (Irish Times), Carl Anderson (Newsletter and BBC NI), Gary McDonald (Belfast Telegraph) and yours truly (anyone who’d pay me).

The Irish men's team that contested the 1990 World Cup in Lahore.

The Irish men’s team that contested the 1990 World Cup in Lahore.

Not being the best of flyers, it was somewhat disconcerting that, shortly after boarding the Pakistani International Airlines flight from London Heathrow, prayers were recited over the PA system and the alcohol ban – or so we thought – would prevent us from having a nerve-settling tipple.

How wrong we were! We were in the company of a group of English hockey fans from a club known as the Angels – a misnomer if ever there was one because they were anything but.

We had our own private area near the front of the plane and behind the curtains, we had quite a party as the beer flowed, so much so that memories of a stop-over in Dubai are somewhat hazy, if you get my drift.

Anyway, no tour-talk as they say and we arrived safely, some 15 hours after take-off to begin what was to be an incredible adventure both on and off the hockey pitch.

Operating on a freelance basis, Gary and I checked into the less than palatial surroundings of the two-star Hotel Shalimar while our colleagues were in more upmarket accommodation and the players were lording it in the five-star Pearl Continental.

You could get a drink at the players’ hotel, which was a waste, we thought, as they were finely-tuned athletes, unlike ourselves.

Irish goalkeeper Ben McCabe attempts to stop England's Sean Kerly with Karl Empey also in attendance.

Irish goalkeeper Ben McCabe attempts to stop England’s Sean Kerly with Karl Empey also in attendance.

However, Gary and I had both smuggled in gin and tonic from home disguised in two big bottles of 7-Up ( I’ve checked – the statute of limitation such a criminal offence under Pakistani law doesn’t stretch back 26 years so we won’t be prosecuted for coming clean!)

Players and press alike all had something in common in spite of the disparity in our respective hotel star-ratings as ‘Lahore Lament’ as it quickly became known – Pakistan’s equivalent of Delhi Belly – doesn’t discriminate.

The vast majority of us came down with varying degrees of stomach-sickness, leading to frequent visits to the toilet over the course of the trip.

We were warned beforehand to avoid contact with local water in the shower and use the bottled variety but, despite our precautions, most of us were struck down although a foolish choice of sheep-brain masala at a local restaurant on the first night might have precipitated my personal demise. Or maybe it was too much 7-Up.

Anyhow, we were still able to work despite the inconvenience of having to use the public conveniences (quite a challenge in itself butI’ll not go there) more often than we would have liked and it soon became apparent that we were enveloped in an entirely different culture, sporting and otherwise.

Former Lisnagarvey defender Ivan Morris explained: “Lahore was a city of contrasts. I remember we all went to a reception in a beautiful park with a splendid building a bit like the Taj Majal at the centre of it.

“Little boys and girls in national costume showered us with rose petals on our arrival but a few hundred yards away people with no legs were begging on the streets.”

Upon leaving the confines of the hotel, the Irish were mobbed by locals, autographs were signed ad infinitum and many discussions with the football-mad locals about Manchester United and George Best and Bobby Charlton ensued – and that was only when the press hit the streets!

The players were hero-worshiped in what was, and still is, a hockey-mad country and one can only wonder the sort of reception the Pakistanis received last year when they got home from their abortive Olympic qualifying trip, having been beaten by Ireland along the way.

Turn the clock back 26 years and Ireland, who had lost 2-0 to England in their opening game, were to face Pakistan in their second match, watched by a crowd of 25,000 on a wet and dismal day at the National Stadium.

Ivan Morris takes up the story: “Standing in the tunnel, waiting to go on to the pitch, I, for one, was petrified at the prospect of playing against the hosts in their own backyard watched by the biggest crowd I’d ever played in front of and marking one of the best players in the world at the time, Wasim Feroze.”

Stephen Martin, now IrisH Olympic Committee chief executive, was a key part of the team

Stephen Martin, now IrisH Olympic Committee chief executive, was a key part of the team

“But part of me was also thinking, this is what you play sport for – to pit yourself against the best in the world which was pretty much what Pakistan were at the time.

“The Pakistanis were full-time hockey players even though, in theory, they had jobs in banks and the national airline but I don’t think they ever did a day’s work and they had been promised huge rewards if they went on to win the World Cup.”

“We’d lost our number one keeper to a horrific injury even before the tournament started when Phillip Shire got hit in the throat by a ball in training and he needed stitches in his tongue so Ben McCabe came in in his place.

“However, we performed admirably, losing only 2-1 and Jimmy Kirkwood, who scored our goal late on, did a fabulous marking job on another Pakistani sporting superstar of the time, Shahbaz Ahmed.”

Back in the press centre we banged out our copy on old-fashioned typewriters and dispatched it by fax and telex – remember this was many years before the advent of email and social media and you actually had to attend matches to report on them!

The Pakistani press were courteous in the extreme and fulsome in their praise of the Irish hockey players at ‘holding’ the three-times Olympic champions to such a slender winning margin. However, the Pakistani fans were not so pleased about their heroes’ performance and vented their frustration on the Ireland team-bus.

Morris recalled: “They were shouting and getting very animated and all of a sudden they began rocking the bus from side-to-side but the police waded in on them with whips and certainly took no prisoners so that was the end of that!”

Back at the hotel, which echoed Johnny Bell’s description of the accommodation at the Olympic village in Rio was “basic but adequate”, Gary and I were relaxing over a 7-Up when there was a knock on the door.

“Shoe-shine, shoe-shine, gentlemen?” said the teenage boy, who was on room-service duty, implored. Shining a pair of trainers was an unnecessary, if difficult exercise, we both thought.

But we gave in and handed him the equivalent of 50 pence which, we later discovered was the equivalent of a day’s wages. He returned every day and left the room with a broad smile on each occasion.

On the hockey pitch, next up Ireland lost 2-1 to Spain and that was the end of our semi-final hopes with two more pool games to come against West Germany and Canada which resulted in a 4-0 defeat and a 1-1 draw respectively.

But Ireland’s first point of the tournament was overshadowed by a horrific injury sustained by Jimmy Kirkwood who felt the full force of a Canadian stick in his face and was taken to hospital and ruled out for the rest of the tournament.

Argentina were Ireland’s next opponents in the play-offs for 9th-12th place. The game was to be played in the graveyard shift at 9am on the back pitch watched by hundreds and not thousands of spectators.

By this time, Ireland were a little leg-weary, morale had been lowered by the absence of Kirkwood, who, two years previously won gold with GB at the 1988 Olympics along with Stephen Martin who was also in the squad in Lahore.

The Irish 1990 World Cup team at a reunion event recently

The Irish 1990 World Cup team at a reunion event recently

Billy McConnell, who had a bronze medal with GB in Los Angeles four years earlier, gave Ireland an early lead when his penalty-corner ended up high in the net but Argentina replied with four goals of their own.

Morris explained: “Billy’s goal should never have stood as it went far too high and didn’t take any deflection on the way into the net. I genuinely think that annoyed the Argentinians.”

A 3-0 defeat by Canada in the early morning slot on the back pitch the following day left Ireland in 12th place in the tournament.

Morris laughed: “When we went out to the World Cup, the press wrote that we had the most experienced Irish defence of all time and when we came home they said we were the oldest but I honestly believe we would have done better had we not had those injuries.”

A few hours later, the players and press settled into our seats to watch the final between Pakistan and the Netherlands which was something of an anti-climax with the highlight being the frenetic scenes outside the stadium and the atmosphere inside it before the game.

The Dutch silenced the huge crowd with a 3-1 victory and, the following day, it was back home after the experience of a lifetime.

Ivan Morris had made friends with Wasim Feroze, the man he had marked with such aplomb in the 2-1 defeat by Pakistan and the pair were to be reacquainted the following year when the teams met in Antrim.

He said: “When Pakistan were over in Ireland, he told me that they had come down with stomach upsets and that was a frequent occurrence when they had to play outside Asia which was comforting in an odd sort of way.”

Too many 7-Ups, maybe?

Ireland 1990 world Cup squad:
Phillip Shire (GK), Ben McCabe (GK) (both Leinster), Ger Burns (Munster), Stephen Martin (Ulster), Billy McConnell (Ulster), Mark Burns (Ulster), Ivan Morris (Ulster), Paul Cooke (Ulster), Marty Sloan (Ulster (capt.), Karl Empey (Leinster), Liam Canning (Leinster), Brian Welch (Munster), Jimmy Kirkwood (Ulster), Kenny Morris (Ulster), Simon Filgas (Leinster), John McKee (Ulster).

** All pictures courtesy of the excellent Irish Hockey Archive, curated by Peter Agnew

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