It wasn’t exactly the answer the CBS TV guy had been anticipating.
We were in the bowels of the Giants Stadium, and my American colleague had just asked Jack Charlton “what was going through your mind, sir?” when Ray Houghton’s dipping shot beat Gianluca Pagliuca to put the Republic of Ireland 1-0 up against Italy.
The reply: “I was thinking ‘Christ, there’s still another 80 f**king minutes left…’”
Yep, if you’re hoping to score a winning goal against Italy in a major championship, it’s best to leave it until a lot later on.
Those of us old enough to remember the ‘tickertape’ World Cup of 1978 might also recall French striker Bernard Lacombe’s wonderful header after just 37 seconds of the game against Italy in Mar del Plata, Argentina. Final score: France 1, Italy 2.
Houghton’s historic strike, in front of 78,000 in New Jersey, took a little longer — 12 minutes — and prompted one of the finest rear-guard actions, not to mention arguably the most lauded result, in the Republic’s history.
Apart from the goal, that World Cup group game will be fondly remembered for veteran defender Paul McGrath’s astonishing performance on that stifling Saturday afternoon as world-class Italian forwards Roberto Baggio and Beppe Signori repeatedly bore down on him and his colleagues.
Somehow, Charlton’s men held on to beat the masters of ‘catenaccio’ at their own game. (“We’re going to win the World Cup” sang delirious Irish fans afterwards, but a month later their heroes were watching on telly as the Italians strode out onto the Rose Bowl turf for the final).
Big Jack pulled off a tactical miracle that unforgettable afternoon — something England tried, and failed, to emulate at Wembley seven days ago.
But why on earth a team with their formidable attacking talent opted to defend the fastest-ever goal in a Euros final, from so early in the match onwards, is something only the manager Gareth Southgate can answer.
Moreover, why were England, with their poor record in spot kicks, clearly playing for penalties in extra time, against a team that had already won a shootout in the tournament and were therefore likely to be less fazed about this one?
I’m no tactics aficionado, but it’s clear that England ruined their best chance of a major trophy in 55 years through, ironically, indulging in a strategy their opponents invented.
People tend to forget England did something similar in the single-goal victories over Croatia and the Czechs during the group stage, when it was generally accepted that they’d stank the place out — and had ITV pundit Graeme Souness confidently declaring that “football ain’t coming home with this England team.”
They upped the attacking ante in the knockout games, to great effect, yet reverted to those dreadful, negative defensive mores in the final, despite having the huge stadium rocking after that Luke Shaw goal.
Once Italy had mentally regrouped from the early shock of falling behind, however, they easily outplayed and outpassed their opponents — and Southgate will surely look back on the possession and attacking stats as, frankly, embarrassing for major title contenders playing at home in front of such a raucous crowd.
“I’m starting to get a really ominous feeling about this,” admitted the BBC commentator early in the second half — when it was still 1-0 to England, but whose frontline strikers Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling were being completely nullified by the ‘Antique Rogues Show’ of Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini.
Bonucci, with the £100m-rated England captain safely tucked into his back pocket, even had time to stroll upfield for the Italian equaliser.
Yet we wouldn’t be having all this pearl-clutching if the shootout lottery had fallen in England’s favour.
How they got there wouldn’t have mattered. The fact that they didn’t, however, matters more than anything now.
It’s often said in sport that people soon forget who finishes second, but supporters of the losers have long memories.
The navel gazing on this one will continue until… well, until England win next year’s World Cup, which the studio experts confidently informed us they would do, even as the victorious Italians were parading their sixth major trophy around Wembley.
Confession: Italy have been my second favourite international team since that aforementioned 1978 World Cup in Argentina.
Funnily enough, I only started following them after they’d knocked England out in the qualifiers, my teenage logic following the lyrics of Buffalo Springfield legend Stephen Stills: “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.”
And something similar happened in 1994 after the Republic departed and the Italians graciously adopted me as part of their media entourage en route to that ill-fated decider in California against Brazil, when it was their turn to feel the pain of losing football’s big prize to a missed penalty in the shootout.
Even so, I’d have been more than content had Southgate’s men prevailed.
Having been an up-close observer of the similar near-miss at Euro 96, it would have been interesting to be part of an alternative universe in which they actually went all the way, where the successful spot-kick takers were lauded in perpetuity, where opportunistic politicians could hitch the result onto the buckling Brexit bandwagon.
Instead, we got a depressingly similar reaction to when England went out to Germany in the 1996 semi-final (“Your Honour, my client now accepts that it was stupid of him to smash up every German-made car that happened to be parked near the stadium”…) abuse of the supposed spot-kick culprit(s); drunken (and drug-addled) louts terrorising decent people and wilfully destroying property.
Oh, and next day, the thoroughly dispiriting sight of a Prime Minister and Home Secretary trying desperately, retrospectively and pathetically, to argue that they’d actually been behind “our boys” all the way.
It must have been some other Prime Minister and Home Secretary who were publicly refusing to condemn the racists jeering England players less than a month earlier.
With ‘supporters’ like Boris Johnson and Priti Patel, how could you fail?
Honestly, when England made it to the last hurdle, I was even ready to give a bye-ball to the infuriating, partisan media who, by that stage, had eschewed all pretence of objectivity or impartiality.
“Let’s not forget there’s another team in this final,” said Gary Lineker, more in hope than expectation, as the BBC went through a series of effusive, pre-match ‘this is our destiny’ montages — while, remarkably, ignoring the dramatic news story about ticketless louts ‘storming’ the very stadium they were presenting the show from.
To their credit, rival channel ITV did cover that terrifying episode in which stewards and ‘ordinary’ fans — including disabled ones and Italians — were attacked, a woman was sexually assaulted and young children left traumatised and in tears. The FA is now facing four Uefa disciplinary charges and a separate investigation over this.
I was even ready to let slide that oft-repeated remark about how well England players “conduct themselves” in the Southgate era, thinking it might be churlish to remind folk of the lurid tabloid headlines Kyle Walker, Jack Grealish and Phil Foden have engendered in recent months.
But it’s a tournament final and it’s been over half a century since the last one, so best not to ruin the feelgood narrative.
The pre and post-match behaviour, however — which included the mindless, xenophobic jeering of the opponents’ national anthem — is believed to have imperilled the UK (and Ireland’s) chances of hosting the 2030 World Cup.
It also showed yet again that, although a football manager has control over players and tactics, he/she is powerless to do nothing about the neanderthals and plankton who follow them.
For me, the most demoralising episode was the players who missed penalties feeling the need to publicly apologise for “letting people down”.
It’s those three gentlemen who are owed the most fulsome of apologies, not the other way round.