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Salad days Frothy beer, a German girl, and oh that first hangover: My coming of age at Euro 88

Waking on the morning of that imperishable Ray Houghton goal, poleaxed by the first real can't-function hangover of my days on earth, and almost declining to board the bus for the 225-mile autobahn journey to Stuttgart


Ray Houghton puts ball in the England net.

Ray Houghton puts ball in the England net.

Jack and Maurice Setters after the match.

Jack and Maurice Setters after the match.

The fans enjoy the craic.

The fans enjoy the craic.

The fans enjoy the craic in the sun.

The fans enjoy the craic in the sun.


Ray Houghton puts ball in the England net.

Getting older, powerless to quieten the sonic boom of decade after decade fizz-bombing over the ­horizon, is to understand Shakespeare's obsession with time.

"Like as the waves make ­toward the pebbled shore, so do our minutes hasten to their end," wrote the old wordsmith in Sonnet 60, one of his many meditations on mortality.

The relentless ticking of the clock can reduce us to archaeologists sifting through the clay of our own backstories, searching for precious artefacts from our past.

Some 33 years ago this weekend, we boarded the boat in Dún Laoghaire to begin our journey - via Holyhead, ­Dover, Calais, Belgium and ­Luxembourg - to Germany, the Euro '88 Mardi Gras and a coming-of -age summer.

Thirty-three God-damn years, 12,000 sleeps: An eternity; a heartbeat. I was 19 and clueless and weighed down with wonder.

Had I by then been introduced to the Beat Generation, I might have felt a line from Jack Kerouac's On the Road coursing - alongside all that adrenalin - through my teenage veins.

"There was nowhere to go but everywhere, so just keep on rolling under the stars."

One thought silences all others: how can it be that long ago?

Do you remember when the Ma or Da would time-tunnel back to their childhood and grow teary and ­sentimental? And how we'd snigger at their warning that a life could pass in a blinding flash, in the blink of an eye?

Well, I just blinked, and some ­celestial sinkhole swallowed up the better part of my existence.

It seems like only yesterday, the Ma used to say, as she opened the curtains and looked back through the window of her days.

Writing those words now, I find her wisdom, and I feel a suffocating ache in my breast. Where does time go?

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Like Shergar or Lord Lucan or boyhood neighbours long lowered to their last sleep, those youthful days of thunder disappear without trace, elusive and uncontainable.

How, when I can reach out and touch the memories, when the tastes and smells and blinding light of that 18-day German Camino remain so vivid and fresh, can all that time have slipped through the net of impotently grasping fingers?

My mind sends a thousand clear-as-day postcards from Back Then, each one adding to the conviction that the calendar is lying when it insists it all unspooled 396 months ago.

The frothy dance of German beer on young lips; the mighty, unhurried Rhine sleepily inching through ­Cologne; the girl, German of Iranian extraction, and the certainty that in her almond-shaped eyes my heart would forever dwell.

Waking on the morning of that imperishable Ray Houghton goal, poleaxed by the first real can't-function hangover of my days on earth, and almost declining to board the bus for the 225-mile autobahn journey to Stuttgart.

The terrace behind the English goal reimagined as an ecstatic green, white and orange trampoline after Ray Houghton delivered what, to us, felt like an updated Proclamation of the Irish Republic.

Turning down pleading Dutch fans' offer of the price of a decent ­second-hand car for our tickets to the final, rewarded instead by a ­ringside seat for the Marco Van ­Basten goal that continues to chime like history's bell.

And mostly the sensation of feeling so utterly free, a whole lifetime of adventure stretching out before us.

That was yesterday.

Yet today my head is a shiny, hairless dome, I'm soft around the middle, creaking like a gate in urgent need of oiling.

I'm writing about how quickly life passes. I have become - as most of us do in the end - my parents.

Time's indifference to our mortality touches what Robert Merry called a nerve of powerful sensation.

It is terrifying, dispiriting, stark, an oppressive thought that, should you surrender to it, sits heavily on the heart and feels like an excavation of a vital organ.

But if there is powerlessness in the recognition that an invisible hand is the choreographer-in-chief on this dance through our allotted days, there is something else too.

A strange kind of liberation.

If we truly understood how tiny and fleeting life is, how quickly this mortal train ride reaches its Grand Central Station terminus, we might be less inclined to waste so many hours fretting and worrying and ­raging and scheming.

Instead, we might grasp the reins of every waking day, and, like a rodeo cowboy on a bucking mustang, savour every second of the ride: unafraid, upbeat, curious.

Life can deal some testing cards: sickness, loss, poverty, things that thieve the colour, that shade every pixel grey.

As I write, I'm an older, less athletic or innocent, entirely different person than boarded the boat to Germany.

But later today, I'm meeting Pat, my lifelong amigo, my travelling companion all those decades ago.

We'll raise a glass, two men of ­advanced middle-age.

But if we sneak a look in life's rear-view mirror (back to Germany 33 years ago, or to the reel of that 30-year-old Dublin-Meath boxset) it will not, in the sunshine of June 2021, feel remotely like a maudlin exercise.

No, it will be a celebration of a thrilling journey, a gratitude that, all those years later, we are still rolling under Kerouac's glinting stars.

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