KEVIN Moran had already roomed with the current manager of Barcelona by the time he took on a who’s who of football at Italia ’90. Just for good measure, he even had an audience with the Pope.
Moran was a Blackburn Rovers player when he travelled to the 1990 World Cup with the Republic of Ireland, having moved to the Second Division club months earlier from Spanish side Sporting Gijon.
There he was a room-mate of Luis Enrique, who would go on to greatness with Real Madrid and Barcelona.
Recently appointed as Barca’s new boss, the Spaniard called Moran ‘a true professional’ when he reflected on their time together at Gijon not so long ago.
If Enrique had yet to truly make his name in the late 1980s, Moran faced players at the peak of their game at the World Cup.
“I played against Gary Lineker, Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit, Gheorghe Hagi and then Toto Schillaci,” says the centre back.
“It was a fantastic experience, you really do enjoy that test.
“I had played for Manchester United before that but of course then English clubs were banned from Europe at the time, so the only chance you got to play against the top strikers from abroad was in internationals, and at the World Cup.”
Ireland had never previously qualified for the World Cup when they sealed their place at Italia ’90, thanks to a 2-0 win in Malta seven months earlier.
“It was just brilliant to qualify and there were so many people there celebrating with us,” remembers Moran, who would help Rovers into the Premier League during his time at Ewood Park, and now works as an agent.
“If we’d have played a friendly in Timbuktu there would have been 50,000 there to support us.
“The fans just followed us everywhere.”
That continued to the finals, where Ireland opened with a 1-1 draw with England – two years after beating them at the European Championships.
“After we had beaten them at Euro 88 they wanted to get one back on us but we stopped them doing that, Kevin Sheedy got the equaliser,” Moran says.
“Then we drew against Egypt and the Netherlands – we drew all three games and we were level on points with the Netherlands, behind England.
“Three teams went through and they drew lots to decide who finished second and who finished third.
“It seems strange now that they did it that way, as recently as 1990, but that was what happened.
“In the end we were drawn against Romania in the second round and the Netherlands drew West Germany, so it worked out quite well for us.”
The last 16 clash against Romania remains one of the most famous games in Irish history – if not for entertainment value.
A 0-0 draw after extra time was followed by a 5-4 victory in a penalty shoot-out, when Pat Bonner saved from Daniel Timofte before David O’Leary fired home the winning spot kick.
“It wasn’t a classic game but it was to get to the quarter finals against Italy in Rome, so it was big,” Moran says.
“I was shattered, I was so tired at the end of the game so I was glad I didn’t have to take a penalty.
“I don’t know what number I was on the list but I was so glad it didn’t come down to me.
“It was tense watching the penalties but when Packie Bonner saved one and we won it was a great feeling.”
There was another reward for that Romania victory, as the visit to the Italian capital gave the squad the opportunity to meet the head of the Catholic church.
“We went to see the Pope in Rome,” Moran remembers.
“We were taken there via a connection and we all got to go to the altar.
“I didn’t get to speak to him myself but Jack Charlton did and it was really special.
“It did mean a lot to me.”
Ireland’s dream run in the tournament ended against Italy, as tournament top scorer Schillaci netted the fourth of his six goals at the World Cup to seal a 1-0 win.
“It was quite a jammy goal, it came back off the keeper and Schillaci just put it in,” says Moran, who also went to the 1994 World Cup but did not feature because of injury.
“But there was nothing to be ashamed of to go out in the quarter finals.
“It was the first time Ireland had qualified for the World Cup, and to go on and reach the quarter finals was a great experience.
“The whole country went football crazy during that World Cup.
“When I phoned my family I was hearing about things back home, that the streets were deserted in Dublin when the games were on.
“That’s like Oxford Street being deserted in London, which would never happen.
“Then when we came back to Dublin after the tournament there were hundreds of thousands of people to welcome us.
“It was just incredible.”