By 7.30pm, an hour and a half before kick off, both floors of the huge McGovern pub were stuffed with about 800 sweaty, nylon-clad patriots, dousing the flames of anticipation (this was, after all a revenge match for their country's 1-0 quarter-final defeat by the hosts of Italia '90) with as many pints as harried bar staff could pull. There were television screens in each corner and the cheers that greeted each player as they walked past the cameras to get on the coach reached the first of many crescendos in a cutaway to Jackie, freeman of the city of Dublin, sporting his white baseball cap and looking ruddier than ever.
'What's your prediction?' I asked Peter, who, with his three mates, had clearly spent the afternoon having fun with the face-paints. '4-O,' he replied with a wry grin, reversing Jimmy Greaves's prediction of the margin by which Italy would win. . . 'No, not really,' he admitted. 'I reckon it'll be a draw, and Roy Keane'll score.' A draw was what most seemed to be hoping for though few would admit it. By the time the teams filed on to the pitch to sing the national anthem, 'Amhran na bhFiann, the whole place was on its feet, respectfully silent. 'Well,' a Belfast accent behind me explained, 'it's in Irish isn't it? And I don't speak Irish.'
A few minutes into the game though, and the noise was deafening. 'Ooh, ah, Paul McGrath,' as the Aston Villa defender passed the ball back to Packie Bonner; cries of 'nice haircut' as Andy Townsend zoomed past, the 90-degree heat reducing his carefully pruned honey-coloured locks to dripping tufts. Confidence swelled by the second and then Ray Houghton collected the ball from Baresi and slammed it into the top of the net and McGovern's roof nearly came off. Arms waved crazily in the air and the chants of 'Ole, ole, ole, ole' and 'Are you watching, Eng-a-land?' gave way to a refrain that would dominate the rest of the game: 'You'll ne-ver beat the Ir-ish'.
At half time, many were confidently predicting a 2-1 victory. 'You're not Irish, are you?' said Colm from Willesden pityingly, national pride threatening to burst the seams of his shiny World Cup shirt. 'Not even any Irish relatives? No? Oh well. You know, England really should've been there,' he added kindly. Even Nick, our photographer, a self-confessed football immunist, was beside himself, clambering over seats to snap the euphoria. 'This is brilliant, brilliant,' he said, an ecstatic smile fixed on his face. Meanwhile, gangs of women led the crowd into their unofficial anthem, 'Molly Malone'. They all knew the words to that one.
In the second half, just after John Sheridan smacked the crossbar, a voice beside me said, with a hint of surprise, 'You know, we're going to win this.' When the final whistle blew, the fate of the McGovern's windows looked decidedly uncertain.
The singing went on as hundreds poured into the street for an impromptu party, dancing and singing and riding the bonnets of cars. For more than an hour, the traffic down Kilburn High Road slowed to a victory procession, as some motorists blared horns and got out of their cars to join in the celebrations while others sat, resigned, as fans banged on windows and roofs, exploding with joy. Revellers from that day's other, more sedate, celebration of community, Lesbian and Gay Pride, surveyed the scene with utter bewilderment from the windows of their coaches and handfuls of police chatted with the crowd as if staging a Notting Hill Carnival photo opportunity.
'Jimmy Greaves, 4-0]' said a man next to me, still stung by the slur on his nation's talents, 'He knows where he can stick that.' 'This is going to go on for a couple of hours yet,' I heard one policeman say. And it did.
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