Packie Bonner: 'I make no bones about it, I cried myself to sleep'
It’s no surprise that 55-year-old sporting legend Packie Bonner is still held in such high regard.
With 80 caps for Ireland following his debut for the national team on his 21st birthday in May 1981 and 642 appearances for Celtic, not to mention the pivotal role he played in Ireland’s World Cup glory days, Packie is a true soccer hero.
It may be 25 years since the unforgettable save from Bonner against Romania, which sent Ireland to Italia ‘90, but the mere mention of the moment brings a twinkle to his eyes, as well as those around him.
“I think it’s still in everyone’s memory — not just that save, but the whole episode that happened around that time,” Packie explains.
“I think when people were around that and living through it, they got so emotionally attached to it and when you are emotionally attached to something like that, it will always stick in your mind.
“It was a big occasion. It was a simpler life then too and it was the first time we ever did anything like that — to be in a World Cup, to take on the best and to get to a quarter final — it just kept going and going and going,” Packie smiles. “It was almost a six-week period in that summer and when you look back, everyone has a story about that time.”
The unique atmosphere, which surrounded Ireland’s Italia ‘90 dream was immortalised by Chris O’Dowd last year in the first episode of the second series of Moone Boy, in which Bonner was celebrated as the man of the moment. “I watched it, it was great fun,” Packie laughs. Packie was even invited to the The Moone Boy Fest in Boyle to relive the excitement of the time as the festival’s guest of honour.
I ask him what the key ingredient of that very special Irish team was.
“We got on together fantastically well as a group,” he explains. “I think that happens though when you are successful. Jack Charlton was, of course, the one who brought all of that together.
“He was the guy who manipulated the whole thing and gave us confidence and responsibility so that we united as a group. We were older too, it wasn’t like we had 18, 19, 20-year-old guys, I was one of the youngest and I was 26 when Jack took over.”
“I was lucky that I was there through the whole thing, right from when Jack started to when he finished,” Packie says. “Some of them were retiring, the likes of Liam Brady and Kevin Moran, they retired halfway through Jack’s reign and then new ones like Roy, Steve Staunton, Gary Kelly, those guys came in at the end of it. But I lived right through it and Jack was the guy who brought us together.”
“Another thing, too, is that we were a big physical team,” Packie adds. “You look at Paul McGrath, Mick McCarthy, Kevin Moran, Niall Quinn, Tony Cascarino, even Roy, Andy Townsend; we were all big men.
“If you looked at a Gaelic football team or a rugby team at that time, we would have been comparable to that. Sometimes now you look and think, my god, they are only tiny and that’s nothing against them, that is just the way football has evolved.
“We were big characters physically and we were all pretty much leaders also in our own right and that showed.”
Off the field, Packie has been an ambassador for Spina Bifida Hydrocephalus Ireland (SBHI) for almost two decades, since his niece Una was born with spina bifida.
“Just after Una was born, I had my benefit game here in Ireland and I was looking for somewhere I would donate the money to and it was the obvious choice. That was the start of it really,” Packie explains.
“We do a golf classic for it every year now and this year it’s down in Palmerstown, on August 21. I try to make people aware of it and of what SBHI does and that they are there to help families and support them if they need it.
“When it happens to a family, it is not easy. If you have a good family network around you then that can help, but it is still tough for the parents and for everybody concerned.”
“It doesn’t go away, it is there for life and it continues. As they get older, there are other problems,” Packie adds.
“Una has had operations and so on over the years and now she is doing great and she’s at college out in Letterkenny; she’s 20-years-old.”
Packie loves golf, but he is keen to point out that he is no expert on the course.
“I’m not a low handicap. I’m not like some of my colleagues who are playing golf all the time,” Packie laughs, “but I love golf.
“I started playing it when I was about 18-years-old, when I went away to Scotland; it was our recreation sport.”
Packie left Donegal at 18 after he was signed to Glasgow Celtic.“It was old compared to now kids are going away now at 15 and 16-years-old,” Packie smiles. “But a lot of them now would get the opportunity to travel with their parents. We didn’t get that opportunity and technology and phones have made the world a much smaller place since.
“I went from the country in Donegal, right out in the north-west, to Glasgow, which was very much an industrial type city at that time, so it was a big challenge for me.”
“I make no bones about it, I cried myself to sleep,” Packie admits. “I missed home, I missed my twin brother Dennis and my family and all of my friends, but when you are going away to follow your dream, I suppose and that makes it a little bit better.
“I was successful and I got into the team very quickly; the senior first team. Six months later, I was playing senior football, so that made it better.”
The move was a huge upheaval for Packie, who was, and still is, very close to his family. “I have five sisters, four older and one younger and my twin brother,” Packie tells me.
“We lost our mum just before last Christmas. She was 90 and she was brilliant. We lost our dad when we were young; I was 22. He was only 61 when he died, so there was a big period then when it was just mum looking after all of us and she was great.
“During the good times, when we were in the World Cup and all that, she handled things exceptionally well and she kept your feet on the ground. She’d never let you get carried away, in any way shape or form,” he smiles.
Packie met his wife Ann in Glasgow and they married 31 years ago. The couple have two children, Andrew (30) and Melissa (25).
“I have a grandson too, he’s seven,” Packie tells me. “We have him all this week, we normally have him every morning for an hour, when Andrew and Michelle go to work, but this week we have him all week. Trying to entertain kids these days is tough,” he laughs.
Since retiring, Packie has become a respected sports pundit, featuring on TV3 and Sky and more recently BBC TV and Radio in Scotland. “It gets me out to the matches still which is great,” he explains.
The transition from his playing days to retirement has taught Packie a lot about himself. “I think you become more aware of yourself as you get older,” he tells me. “If you had all of this experience now when you started off it would have been fantastic, but unfortunately, that’s not how it works, you learn as you go along.”
“You become aware of your strengths and weaknesses and how you fit in with other people and that comes from working in a team environment. I certainly know that I am an introvert; I am that kind of person, but I know that I can handle myself,” Packie adds.
“I know how that weakness of being an introvert when I was young, certainly would have meant that I needed time on my own a lot more than I need it now.
Nowadays, with more experience, I can handle it longer, but I still need my time in Donegal walking the beaches.
If you know yourself, then I think you get to know other people and can work with other people in a better way. But you have to go through the process, you can’t hide from the challenges.”
Packie is intensely proud of his career with both Ireland and Celtic in his adopted home of Glasgow. “I stayed with the one club all of my life in the main, with Celtic. There was a really good support network around me and maybe that’s why I didn’t move away,” he says.
“I would have loved to have gone abroad; that would have been a challenge, that’s the only thing I’d do differently and just for the cultural experience, to have learned a language and be exposed to a different way of life.”
The 2015 Packie Bonner Golf Classic, in aid of Spina Bifida Hydrocephalus Ireland (SBHI) will take place on Friday, August 21, in Palmerstown House Estate Golf Club in Naas, Co Kildare. For team bookings and/or sponsorship, telephone Peter Landy at 01 457 2329/087 737 6351 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org