Gary Cooke on The Shin of God and how the Roy Keane saga helped Apres Match

Apres Match comedian looks back on his memories of Ireland at major tournaments

Gary Cooke, Apres Match, Risteard Cooper, Barry Murphy

The Aprés Match team of Risteard Cooper, Gary Cooke and Barry Murphy ©INPHO/Donall Farmer

It was the economist David McWilliams who broke the amazing news.

Scotland had beaten Bulgaria in Bulgaria and the unlikely result meant that Ireland had qualified for their first ever major championship - Euro 88. I stood in disbelieve outside the Arts block in Trinity College where we were both students. Prior to that, Ireland's campaigns had been ill-fated affairs characterised by bent refs, bad decisions and bad luck.

Our first game was against England. Ray Houghton opened the scoring and though England battered us for large parts of the game we held on. The victory galvanised the country - up to the point football was for football heads only - now everyone was watching.

The most unlikely performance came three days later against Russia. They were world class and would go all the way to the final. Unbelievably our long ball style was ditched and at times we played the Russians off the park. Ronnie Whelan produced a stunning volley from 25 yards that made me jump out of my chair. It was unstoppable even though he slightly mistimed it. Never mind the hand of God this was the shin of God.

The day the team came home I remember seeing the plane flying in over the Malahide estuary. How did I know? Because there was a sign on the plane that wouldn't usually have been there. The aircraft had been renamed the St Jack. A sweet touch that said a lot about us as a nation. It was still the days of the dominance of the Church and Saints had a strong presence in the psyche. A bit corny perhaps, and it would never happen now, or at least if it did it would be loaded with sponsor presence or concerns from health and safety.

Pictured (L-R) Gino Stromboli (aka Gary Cooke from Apres Match) and former Republic of Ireland international Ronnie Whelan ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

By the following World Cup in Italy, the country was awash with anticipation, bunting and shamrocks. Filming for The Commitments' finished early on the days of the Ireland games - it was the same with the Carroll's Irish open in golf. Nothing could compete with the boys in green during Italia 90.

The zenith of our tournament came on June 25th when we took on Romania in the last 16. I remember watching it with my Dad on Adelaide Road in an office block full of office workers. They put on a great spread with a big screen and as much booze as you could drink - a fountain of Furstenburg lager and tasty finger food. It just showed how far football had crept into the public consciousness. It was only a matter of twenty years previous when you could be expelled for playing football if you attended a GAA school.

Driving home after the game was an unforgettable experience. There was a tumultuous explosion of joy and mayhem. People were dancing and cavorting in the street, replete with pints and daft hats, while drivers honked their horns. The mood was an like an Irish Mardi Gras and indescribable now to the younger generation. One country, one consciousness.

USA 94 reached its peak early doors- when Ireland beat Italy. Cue more madness. Interestingly, it was also the birth of of a big corporate presence and coverage was saturated with sponsors stings and logos. They had discovered that football could reach all corners of the globe and in many ways it was an early expression of what would be come known as 'Globalisation'.

The Aprés Match team of Risteard Cooper, Gary Cooke and Barry Murphy ©INPHO/Donall Farmer

Apres Match kicked off in 1998 and the first tournament for which both us an Ireland were present was Japan 2002.

The Roy Keane saga raged and though it might have been a disaster for the country it certainly helped Apres Match no end. As if Keane's dismissal wasn't enough, Eamon Dunphy was also sent packing for appearing on an early morning broadcast having been out all night! Our job made so much easier by the febrile atmosphere.....

The 2012 European Championship in Poland was an unmitigated disaster for Ireland - certainly from a football perspective. However the Irish humour didn't desert us. It was the dark days of the Troika and European intervention. My favourite moment was an unfurled Irish banner emblazoned with the words...ANGELICA THINKS WERE WORKING'.....

Regarding France 2016 unfortunately I won't get to enjoy the Irish performance in our opener with Sweden as we will be trying to write our sketch which comes straight after the match, duh, thats why its called Apres Match I guess!

It promises to be a great occasion for the whole country regardless of the results and thats what makes it. Long after the the matches themselves have faded from view the memories will linger - the humour, the community, the carnival and the craic.

I used to say it was just about the football. But really it's about so much else.