“I have to ask you this, Tony, Why were you running along the corridor with a black sheet on your back going ‘I’m a bat’? I just never got round to ask you that one”
– Ronnie Whelan quizzes Tony Galvin at a Euro ’88 reunion in 2013 (Irish Examiner)
Many Irish fans regard the play-off game in Paris in 2009 as among our finest ever performances. Our attacking style had the French on the back foot until Thierry Henry’s infamous intervention. The display is all the more remarkable because it was totally at odds with almost everything we did under coach Giovanni Trapattoni. The Italian may have subsequently led us to a first European Championship in a generation but our limitations were spectacularly exposed in Poland. Ireland exited at the group stages and, apart from our fans, no one missed us.
Twenty-four years previously, Jack Charlton took the Republic onto the global stage for the first time at Euro ’88. To us, Jack’s Boys in Green will always be heroes but for many others, their style of football was just as painful on the eye as his later successor.
The ‘Put em under pressure’ philosophy, however, did give us one of our greatest days, the defeat of England in our first ever appearance at a major finals. Ray Houghton is rightly lauded as the man who ‘put the ball in the English net.’ But the provider of the cross? Tony Galvin, and the follow-up match made him a unique personality in the Irish squad. He was already a unique personality in football.
Galvin played 201 times for Tottenham Hotspur scoring 20 goals but he took a circuitous route into the professional game. Before joining Spurs, Galvin gained a degree in Russian Studies at Hull University.
He held a keen interest in Soviet politics and history having studied it in grammar school and even visited Russia on a number of occasions. In later years both Galvin and fellow Spur and Irish teammate Chris Hughton would become known for their socialists leaning contributing articles to Living Marxism and other journals, while Galvin was said to back the TGWU’s ‘Campaign for a Living Wage’, even appearing on a Union poster.
After his degree, he attended Teacher Training College and played for Goole Town in the Northern Premier League, where he was spotted by former Spurs manager Bill Nicholson and signed for £30,000 in January, 1978. He won two FA Cups with the North London club and was part of the UEFA Cup winning team who beat Anderlecht in 1984.
In Ossie Ardiles’ autobiography, the Argentine wrote of the lack of education among footballers both in his home country and England. At Spurs he felt something of an outsider having studied law;
“The English didn’t understand it too much, either, but there was always Tony, or ‘The Russian’ to us.”
In Galvin, a fellow university graduate, Ardiles found a companion, another “exception to the norm”, and later took him onto his coaching staff at both Swindon and Newcastle.
Galvin qualified for Ireland through his maternal Limerick grandfather and earned his début against the Netherlands in 1982. He went on to make 29 appearances in the green shirt including all three games at Euro ’88 in Germany.
Having beaten England, Ireland came up against the highly fancied Soviet Union and Galvin stunned the opposition by speaking Russian as they shook hands pre-match. The legend goes that he could translate tactical calls during the encounter.
The match with the USSR is seen by many as the greatest Irish team performance of all time. It also gave us one of the most memorable goals. Ronnie Whelan’s shin holds a place in the Green Army hall of fame for a strike that, as George Hamilton said in commentary, would grace any footballing occasion.
“The few years I played for Ireland, that was the best team performance I played in. We should have gone 2-0, 3-0 up,” Galvin later said in the book ‘Stuttgart to Saipan’.
Ronnie Whelan’s spectacular volley gave the Republic a fully deserved lead and it could have been more. A neat passage of play put Galvin through in the penalty area where he nudged the ball past goalkeeper Rinat Dasayev. The then ranked world number one clattered into the midfielder sending him sprawling but the penalty claim was dismissed.
Galvin had seen plenty of heartache in an Irish shirt with poor decisions denying the team in previous campaigns in the 1980’s before the arrival of Jack Chartlon. And this was another to add to the list.
“You know sometimes it felt when you played for Ireland that referees always gave the benefit of the doubt to the bigger teams. It was a blatant penalty. Ridiculous. And 2-0, the game’s over”
Charlton echoed the sentiments years later: “Tony Galvin was decapitated by the goalkeeper. In a situation now where the goalkeeper would have been off and we would have had a penalty, no question at all.”
USSR, of course, went on to contest the final against Ireland’s other group rivals the Netherlands losing out to that Marco Van Basten volley. Packie Bonner also remembered the quality of the Irish display, telling The42.ie:
“People still today talk about that game as the best they have ever seen us play. We played really, really well. Tony Galvin should’ve had a penalty but that Soviet Union team were a good side. And of course they got to the final.”
After the tournament, Charlton told Galvin if he stayed fit, he’d go to Italia ’90 but back injuries and an operation hampered him. He did train with the squad in Italy and was there for the England game but didn’t stay on.
Following a spell in coaching having hung up his boots, Galvin left the sport to beame a civil servant but still turns out occasionally at Tottenham legends games.
With his socks rolled low and his bombarding runs down the flanks, he had been a firm favourite with Irish fans cemented by his contribution at our first great adventure, Euro ’88.
“My favourite moment in football is probably when the whistle was blown for that (England) game. It was as happy as I’ve ever been for a game of football…I’ve obviously been to a UEFA Cup final, FA Cup finals but to play in that game…you knew it was a historical moment”
And after the raucous night in the team hotel that followed, why the black sheet?
“We had to be in bed for 12 o’clock and I must have drunk quite a lot in a short space of time, and then I became a bat. I don’t know why. Such is life! I was hoping that wouldn’t be remembered.”