Football / World Cup USA '94: Dependable Bonner still captures the Irish imagination: Trevor Haylett on the penalty save that secured a place in the folklore of football

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AT 34 and about to embark on his second World Cup adventure, Pat Bonner had no need, surely, for inspiration. But for that little reminder of how just how sweet life can be, he had only to turn out those photographs, those oil paintings and a veritable library of newspaper cuttings from Italia '90.

That save has a permanent place in the sporting lore of his homeland. It was a glorious afternoon in Genoa, and the Republic of Ireland were playing Romania in the second round of their first World Cup. The tie remained scoreless after extra time, and eight penalties into the shoot-out the two teams could still not be separated.

Up stepped Daniel Timofte for Romania's fifth penalty attempt. Down went Bonner to save. He jumped in the air, looked to the heavens and then watched as David O'Leary converted his penalty to win the game. Ireland, incredibly, were through to the quarter- finals at their first attempt and an entire nation gave thanks for a goalkeeper from Donegal.

It is typical of this unassuming man that all the photographs and paintings reproduced of the heroic moment, and gifted to him as a keepsake by grateful supporters, are not on display in the Bonner household near Glasgow. On second thoughts, there is probably not the room.

The plunge to his right cemented the goalkeeper's special relationship with the fans, who have journeyed in their thousands to New York to see Ireland launch their campaign today against Italy. For the men, women and young children in green who descend on airport terminals, training grounds and hotels it is always Bonner who raises the loudest cheer and Bonner at the head of the longest autograph line.

'I find it hard to explain really, but after the 1990 World Cup I came back and did a lot of work in Ireland with different people and groups, and I think they remember that,' said the man who, in the last warm-up friendly earlier this month, set an appearance record for his country with his 73rd cap.

'Obviously the save caught people's imagination. It was the proudest moment of my career, but there have been so many great moments going back to our first game in the European Championship finals in Germany in 1988. It was our first experience at that level and to play England and play well and beat them was a bit special.'

There were many special moments, too, with Celtic in a trophy- stacked 17 years at Parkhead. But after losing his place in January he could not have been wholly surprised when it was decided to give him a free transfer at the end of the season. For any other international manager that would have been goodnight Vienna, Rome and the other glamour destinations that appear on the best players' itineraries. Chris Woods did not last long on the England scene when Sheffield Wednesday decided he was no longer their first choice.

But Jack Charlton is not any other manager, and after only 11 defeats in 78 games who is going to argue that he is in the wrong? He says Bonner has never let him down and until he does he stays in.

Confirming him as No 1 before the squad left Dublin for their training base in Orlando, Charlton chose to denounce those who, in his view, were mounting an unfair campaign on behalf of Alan Kelly.

'It would seem,' Charlton said with some force, 'that they are claiming Kelly as the better keeper just because he kicks the ball further, while Bonner has had problems with the back-pass rule.

'People forget how hard it is for a goalkeeper to alter a significant part of his game after so many years. And sometimes it is the defender who is at fault because he has not passed the ball accurately.'

Not surprisingly, Bonner's loyalty in return is unswerving. 'Jack has gone on record and said that if any players keep doing the business for him he has no reason to leave them out. That is one of the reasons we have had success.

'Having continuity in the side and the squad is so important. Since Jack arrived it has been a mighty time for us all and I've been fortunate to be part of it. I thought winning 47 caps to equal Alan's father's (the Preston keeper, also called Alan) record was fantastic, but now I've got almost another 30 and they have accumulated very quickly.

'People try to build my situation with Alan as a personal thing, but they could not be more wrong. We both want to be playing, but we also want to help each other. We are doing something for our country and it does not matter who gets in as long as the team does well.'

His concentration firmly focussed on tonight's encounter at the Giants Stadium in New Jersey, Bonner nevertheless has allowed himself some consideration of his club situation. He had seemed set to link up with his great friend Tommy Burns at Kilmarnock. Now Burns is the choice of the supporters to return to Parkhead. What then of Bonner's future?

(Photograph omitted)