Praising their “great effort in sport” he said “the contribution that they have made to all of our happiness is just marvellous,” as he presented the medals to former footballers Packie Bonner, Niall Quinn, Shay Given and David O’Leary and former women’s team players Olivia O’Toole and Paula Gorham.
“We must all support, not only the great international soccer but the League [of Ireland],” he said, adding one of his priorities after the end of lockdown is clearing his diary on Fridays to attend league matches.
Last night’s programme was dedicated to celebrating the formation of the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) in 1921 and included archival footage of the extraordinary scenes on and off the pitch when O’Leary scored a goal in a penalty shootout and defeated Romania to reach the World Cup quarter-finals in Genoa.
An estimated 500,000 people took to the streets of the capital to welcome home the Boys in Green following their triumph while an estimated crowd of 50,000 welcomed them home at Dublin Airport.
Mr O’Leary said he is still getting free pints from football fans.
But he said his proudest moment was looking out at the Irish army of fans at the stadium, saying: “I saw this explosion of green,” after he won the penalty shoot-out.
Goalkeeper Bonner, who pulled off a historic save, recalled how he “jumped as high as I’ve ever jumped” during the match and “even to this day people come up to me and say thanks for getting us all together,” he said of the sense of national pride and euphoria at a time when Ireland was in the throes of economic hardship and political turmoil during The Troubles.
Niall Quinn recalled how the victory over Romania which propelled Ireland into its first-ever World Cup sent the message that “we as a nation can do things now.
Meanwhile, John Charlton, the son of the late legendary Republic of Ireland manager Jack Charlton, who died in 2020 following a battle with dementia, was presented with a massive book of condolences signed by Irish fans following his death by football legend Paul McGrath.
McGrath spoke of how his former manager was like a father figure to him who always forgave him when he messed up due to his battle with alcohol.
“We had a great rapport with each other,” he said.
“For me it was the best ten years of my life.”
He added that the affable Englishman was well regarded by the entire squad.
“We just loved him, he made it so simple for us to follow what it was we had to do,” he said.
But one topic of conversation that was conspicuous by its absence was the controversy surrounding the infamous ‘Saipan incident’ in May 2002 between Republic of Ireland team
team captain Roy Keane and manager Mick McCarthy
when the team was preparing in Saipan for its matches in Japan in the 2002 FIFA World Cup that led to Keane being sent home from the squad.
“It’s been twenty years since Saipan, let’s leave it there,” host Ryan Tubridy said.