There is a film about the 'Rumble in the Jungle' heavyweight boxing championship fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, held in Zaire in 1974.

I came upon it by chance some years ago on the TV in a hotel in Uppsala, Sweden, while gearing up for a bout of surgery. 

It’s an amazing production because it has the capacity to absorb you and bring your mood and spirit to a different place. It has the appropriate title - ‘When We Were Kings.’ 

That’s the perfect phrase to sum up a time in the lives of those of us who lived through a period when Jack Charlton was manager of the Republic of Ireland soccer team. 

In a very real way, we were all Kings (and Queens) then. 

Once, during downtime after the Italia '90 fantasy, Jack called to a restaurant/pub in Sligo town called The Embassy Rooms. It was a pit stop on his way to the bountiful salmon fishing grounds on the Moy river in Ballina. 

Kevin Quinn, the owner of the Sligo premises, was delighted to have the visitor. He presented Jack with a cask of whiskey and simply said "you brought joy and extra business to lots of people like me. This is your cut. It’s my small way of saying thanks."

Most of us felt like that about Jack and his team. They made us happy. We owed them. We always will. 

Ireland's place on the big stage 

The afternoon of the Romanian match on 25 June 1990, Ireland’s presidency of the EU was coming to a climax. The game in Genoa clashed with the EU Summit underway at Dublin Castle. 

Charlie Haughey was the Taoiseach, Gerry ‘Gerard’ Collins was his minister for Foreign Affairs. Ireland, under Haughey, was keen to display that the island beyond the bigger island was making good use of the EU structural funds that were flowing our direction in significant amounts. 

This was an opportunity to show a new, emerging Ireland, shaping up as a committed member of the Brussels club.

In the same way that houses had a fresh coat of paint applied before neighbours attended ‘the station’, Haughey had Dublin spruced up for the European visitors. Eileen Gleeson was brought in from the private sector on a contract to beef up the public relations efforts. 

A huge press tent was erected inside the Castle grounds to facilitate the international press corps. As well as copious amounts of good food, Guinness on tap was available to nourish the visitors.

The souvenir gift pack included a side of smoked salmon and a bottle of 10-year-old whiskey. The World Cup match pictures were playing on big screens in the background. Tripadvisor hadn’t been invented then but Ireland was making its case in the Brussels-based hacks’ ‘places to visit’ stakes. 

Sometimes life is not simple. The football supporter in me was in an argument with the Europe Correspondent, his first year in the job, home from Brussels to cover the EU Summit in his host country. 

Charlie Haughey had assembled the heavy hitters of the Brussels press corps to give them an off-the-record briefing about his views on "the substantial progress on European matters, made under his chairmanship, at the summit".

Packie Bonner making that famous save during the penalty shoot-out with Romania

In those days, the print media members were top dogs in the Brussels pecking order. There was even an official with the job of supervising the collation of press clippings.

John Downing used to refer to him as "the man with the golden scissors". The Haughey gathering included John Palmer of the Guardian and the representatives of The Financial Times and Frankfurter Allgemeine. 

I found out where Charlie was holding the briefing and burst in the door without knocking. Fortunately there was a television in the room. "Turn on the television," I said. 

"Gorman, what’s wrong with you?" responded Charlie. ‘"Turn on the television" I continued, blurting out how the Ireland v Romanian game had gone to penalties as I pushed the ‘On’ button. 

The room went quiet. Packie Bonner saved. David O’Leary scored. 

Not just the room or the Castle or even Dublin but all of Ireland and beyond went buck mad.

Charlie ran out into the courtyard where many of the international television companies had live broadcasting positions. Diggy (Sean Duignan) was there for the 6.1 news. Haughey spontaneously danced a sort of a jig of delight in the courtyard that afternoon as Ireland took its place among the footballing nations. 

Sometimes the stars align and because of a combination of circumstances, you get an unexpected bonus from left field. That Summit was taking place in the months after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and as the Cold War effectively came to an end.

The vast majority of the international press corps came to Ireland to report on the possibilities and the feel-good factors as well as the uncertainty and unknown factors that were in play in European politics at that time.

But the story instantly changed into daftly-happy, welcoming Ireland, the tiny island on the edge of Europe that really was the infectiously joyous place to be.

What prime ministers and presidents thought ceased to be the story. The images beamed across not just Europe but around the world were the dancing and singing, tooting of horns, drinking and carousing among all the social strata in Ireland, Gardaí included.

The good luck stayed with me on the journey because I found myself seated beside him on the flight. We travelled through a lightning storm but Ray's story-telling was the unforgettable aspect of the trip.

The camera crews attending the summit were spoiled for choice. The images were everywhere, jumping into the camera lenses. Dublin was better than Rio in Carnival mode.

And even before you left the Press Tent, there was that shot of big John Healy, tears streaming down his cheeks, as he sat at his table and the crowds around him jumped up and down, rejoicing over the football images coming back from Italy. (More about Healy anon) 

Off to Rome

My ‘reward’ for the improvisation at Dublin Castle was to be allowed to follow the story. The government jet was fuelled up to bring Haughey and a selection of ministers to Rome for the quarter-final against Italy at the Olympico on 30 June.

But the pleasure would be combined with some business. Ireland’s six-month EU presidency was coming to an end and, of all people, the Italians were due to take over on 1 July.

A camera crew was a two-person unit back then. Cameraman John Hall and sound engineer Gary Finnegan, travelled with me from Dublin Airport.

Michael Caslin’s 747 Travel company was catering for a lot of the supporter traffic. The firm of former Ireland international Ray Treacy had another significant share.

The good luck stayed with me on the journey because I found myself seated beside him on the flight. We travelled through a lightning storm but Ray’s story-telling was the unforgettable aspect of the trip.

He told me a story about Johnny Giles that has defined my admiration for the two of them since. After Ray Treacy retired following a long career in England, he made one or two poor investments with the contents of his nest-egg.

Then, out of the blue Treacy received a phonecall from his former Republic of Ireland team-mate, Johnny Giles.

The famous photo of John Healy in tears after Ireland defeated Romania in Italia '90

When it came to the delicate matter of "how are things", Ray’s pride wouldn’t let him respond truthfully. Johnny sensitively moved into the space and told how he would be putting a blank cheque in the post. It could be filled in to a significant amount of figures and repaid without interest, whenever.

The Ray Treacy who told me that story in the skies above Northern Europe had become a successful businessman. But he carried with him the awareness of how Johnny Giles had come to his aid when help was needed.

Soon after we landed in Rome, we headed for a match-day reception at the Irish Embassy. It was a full 30 years before the current Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael ‘liaison’ began last month.

But on that afternoon in June 1990 there was a Donegal ‘truce’ in Civil War politics. Pat ‘the Cope’ Gallagher, the FF TD, and a clutch of FG TD Paddy Harte’s family members were among the crowds, arm in arm in the the Embassy, sussing out pre-match sustenance.

Someone had the foolishness to put down an empty glass on the finely-polished Embassy furniture and a sharp look conveyed displeasure. There was a muttered Donegal response of "aren’t our taxes helping to pay for the place."

A line of black limousines with the VIPs on board departed from the Embassy. A crew of Italian police outriders was provided because huge crowds were massing for the World Cup quarter-final involving the host nation and Ireland.

But before the match the Taoiseach and his Irish government ministers were due to meet their Italian counterparts for a working dinner at the Villa Madama, on a Rome hillside, overlooking the Stadio Olimpico.

 Charlie had taken out extra political insurance. To ward off accusations of misuse of the government jet, he had invited a number of political rivals to accompany the travelling party.

 An extra limousine had tagged on to the official party. Its occupants included three Dublin-based businessmen with a refined interest in revelry. In casual dress they stood out as non-members of the official group and one had hold of a T Shirt with the 'Et Tu Brute' message amended to ‘Et Tu Charlie’.

Toto Schillaci celebrating the goal that sent Republic of Ireland out of the 1990 World Cup

As the guests were led into the impressive dining room at the Villa, Ireland's ambassador to Italy at the time, Robin Fogarty, had a role in discreetly detaching the uninvited visitors.

Italy’s prime minister then was 71-year-old Giulio Andreotti who, even by Italian standards, was a controversial hustler and survivor. Before the Irish visitors left the meal table for the match, Andreotti presented Charlie with a specially minted medal to mark his contribution to European politics during Ireland’s EU presidency. 

In the stadium itself we were given a prime spot, pitch-side, on the brick-red perimeter immediately below where dignitaries were seated. At one stage in the first half, Paulo Maldini was close to us along the touch line, rising in the air to head a ball. He was like a god in flight.

We had the perfect view of the goal that ended Ireland’s involvement in the World Cup. Roberto Donadoni’s shot bent and swerved. It was like a journey from the comics. The artistry of Raven On The Wing or Roy Of The Rovers. Packie Bonner did well to parry it. Totò Schillaci seized on the rebound and delivered the coup de grace.

At half time - as he descended the stairs in front of us to the dressing rooms - Mick Mc Carthy kicked several steps in anger.

At the final whistle, we walked around the stadium, keen to squeeze the last drops out of an adventure. The terraces were full of Irish supporters, aware that they had been part of something special, sad that it was coming to an end.

Faces from those crowds still rest the memory bank three decades on - Eugene Murray, a then RTÉ colleague and his children with an Irish flag; Michael Treacy of the IFA, down from Brussels with his children.

Charlie Haughey went into the dressing room to thank the players and the coaching staff. We followed but in the steam and the sweat, getting good pictures was difficult and the footage never made air.

It was a sad place - tired warriors who had given their all and came up short. The what might have beens in a trade punctuated with more lows than highs. 

The legacy that lives on

The image of John Healy crying in the press tent at Dublin Castle went around the world. Seven months later he died in his sleep at his home in Fortfield Terrace, Rathmines. He was 61.

In June 1977, Healy gave me my first job in journalism - a 21-year-old, fresh from Rathmines School of Journalism, in a start-up newspaper, The Western Journal/Sligo Journal.

He was probably the first great Irish political commentator. And a lot more. His Books No One Shouted Stop/Death of an Irish Town and 19 Acres give a sense of him and his values. He never got to finish ‘Healy, Reporter - The First 30 Years.’

He admired Charlie Haughey. Some said Healy’s loyalty to Haughey was blind but every once in a blue moon, when people had Healy written off, he’d produce a column that would remind critics of his exquisite talents, writing ability included.

He availed of the writers’ tax-free status scheme for his books and was peeved that he could get no joy from the Department of Finance/Revenue authorities when seeking a similar dispensation for his columns.

A sizable bill accrued and payment was being sought. Healy attempted to make a case to Haughey but was told nothing could be or would be done.

For Ireland’s six-month presidency, Healy was given a contract, as a media consultant, dealing with Press Matters in the European Parliament. One week per month, when the Parliament was in session in Strasbourg, Healy would travel to France with an Irish contingent, journalists included.

Charlie Haughey (left) with journalist John Healy in 1989 (pic: Rollingnews.ie)

There was a turf war of sorts with a section of the Department of Foreign Affairs, over the foisting of what it saw as an ‘interloper’ from Taoiseach Haughey’s circle. In some columns during a past life, Healy had referred to the DFA as "the hind tit of the British Foreign Service" and this insult was remembered.

(My own relationship with Healy had been damaged when, against his wishes, I left his employment to join RTÉ in 1980. He was a number of years dead before I learned he had provided a glowing reference to my new employers.)

That June Summit gathering in Dublin Castle, coinciding with the Ireland v Romania match, was Healy’s last involvement in Ireland’s EU presidency. Watching those scenes of Ireland taking its place among football’s elite on the European stage, a team managed by an Englishman, involving several first and second generation English-Irishmen, would not have been lost on Healy.

Under Jack Charlton’s management, Ireland made its way to places never travelled before. It dared to believe it could be better. It was rewarded and recognised for its efforts.

It was more than a coincidence that under an Englishman, a World Cup winner, with a team including several sons and grandsons of Irish emigrants, it redefined its relationship with its nearest neighbour. And that neighbour rejoiced in Ireland’s happiness and achievements.

The Charlton years coincided with the start of a journey to a different, better Ireland. As with Charlton’s life, it was achieved by effort. Unlike the nonsense that happened in the Celtic Tiger years.

I saw Healy one more time before he died. He came over to Brussels to tidy up a few loose ends during the Italian EU presidency. We went for a pizza. I was driving. He had a few glasses of wine. He chuckled about how the Press Tent pictures during the Ireland-Romania penalty shoot-out went around the world.

And then he began recalling his jousts during the presidency. "Between sessions of the Parliament in Strasbourg, the feckers took away my office, in the end they even took away my fizzy water." 

After a few minutes of silence he took out his wallet and pulled out the ‘marked paid’ cheque for his contract work during the six-month presidency, commissioned by Charlie Haughey. 

Healy’s breathing was heavy as he showed it to me - the result of that bang on the nose, got when playing in goals for Charlestown in ‘snipegrass country’ all those years ago.

The amount, arranged by Haughey, and worked for by Healy, corresponded exactly with his outstanding tax bill for the columns that did not qualify for creative writing status.

There are people who defy description. Whose influence graces our lives and never leaves us.

Big Jack was one. Healy was another.

If there is a heaven, I hope they meet up there.