World Cup odyssey: The day Republic of Ireland fans caught the train to Italia '90

Republic of Ireland fans at Italia 90
Image caption More than 1,000 Republic of Ireland fans made their way across Europe by train for the 1990 World Cup

On a dusty evening in Sicily 26 years ago, a railway line has been blocked by striking workers.

Fiat employees from Termini Imerese are making their presence felt and no trains are getting through. Not even the huge train that rolls up to the blockade at this moment.

A huge train packed with more than 1,000 Republic of Ireland fans, that has travelled 3,000 miles across Europe - from Calais and up and down Italy - only now to be faced with potential World Cup derailment.

These fans are a bit tired. Emotional. And anxious. The Republic's final group game against the Netherlands is kicking off just up the road in Palermo.

They came together two weeks previously under the full-on football mania that had engulfed the country.

The Irish public had acquired a taste for major tournaments after Euro '88 and there was an unprecedented demand for tickets and transport for the Republic's first World Cup.

A unique situation requires unique solutions. Enter a madcap cross-continental scheme and a really, really big train.

Image caption Republic of Ireland fans during the group stages of the 1990 World Cup

In 1990, Pete O'Hanlon was working for Funtrek, a now-defunct travel company specialising in European coach tours.

"We had managed to secure tickets for the World Cup, so it was decided we would do it by train," said Pete.

"With the amount of people we were hoping to take, it just wasn't possible to do it with coaches. Plus, the lads would be having a few beers so..."

While Pete was in charge of much of the day-to-day management of the trip, another Funtrek worker, Dundalk man Colm Crosson, was tasked with the logistics.

In an era before cheap air travel, Google maps and smart phone apps, it was no small undertaking.

"The truth of it is that it's almost incomprehensible from where we sit today to understand how it worked," said Colm.

After securing a train through the Italian railway authorities - one of the easier tasks of the trip according to Pete and Colm - the next problem was the route.

Image caption Pete O'Hanlon (left) and Colm Crosson (right) grab some downtime during their cross-continental train trip

On Wednesday, 6 June 1990, about 1,100 (mostly) men and women left Dun Laoghaire, near Dublin, on a ferry to Holyhead in Wales.

The plan was to take a train to Dover and a ferry to Calais before hooking up with the carriages that would take them to Italy.

To make matters more awkward, the Republic games would be played on the islands of Sardinia and Sicily.

It would be understandable to think a body of water, an actual sea, might stop the train dead in its tracks - but you'd be wrong.

"Oh no, we had a special boat that the train could go on to get to Cagliari and Palermo," said Pete. "The engine was taken off and the carriages loaded on. It was all sorted."

There were some other inconveniences on the way though.

"The toilet situation wasn't great," said Pete. "We also brought food with us for sandwiches and we planned to pick up bread in Paris - but by the time we got to Calais, most of the sandwich material was gone."

Image caption The World Cup tour in 1990 took in Holyhead, Dover, Calais, Paestum, Palermo, Cagliari and Genoa

Regardless, it was full steam ahead to where the group would be based - Paestum, a small town about 60 miles south of Naples on the west coast of Italy.

Paestum was originally an ancient Greek city and, according to Wikipedia, was conquered by the Lucranians in the fifth century BC.

Now, the Lucranians were no doubt a tough bunch. But even they would have been impressed by the Irish invasion force that more than doubled the village's population in 1990.

"We had to get off the train and walk up this hill from the train station to the town itself," said Pete "I'd imagine the locals wouldn't have seen much like us arriving that day.

"We had a job finding accommodation for that number," said Colm. "Even having enough beer, that was a huge issue - I'm not kidding. The Italians really underestimated it.

"The other challenge was there was a voracious appetite for information.

"This was pre-internet, pre-Google. So we used to print out match reports and tape them together to put on display at the hotel or wherever.

"Huge crowds would gather round to read this stuff. It was amazing."

Image caption Most of the 1,000 fans who travelled to the World Cup stayed for the second round match against Romania in Genoa

While everyone was having a good time, Colm and Pete were working flat out to make sure things ran smoothly.

"Honestly, I've never worked so hard as I did those two or three weeks and I doubt I ever will," said Colm.

"It was constant pressure, 18 or 20 hours a day. We had a lot of virgin travellers on the trip who were causing a herd mentality.

"People were asking me the maddest stuff. 'What's the exchange rate?' 'Why is the exchange rate like that?'

"It got to the point where I was going a bit crazy."

As Pete describes it: "It was a tough journey. Even the journeys from Paestum to the islands were 10 or 12 hours.

"Some of the guys were really unhappy. They thought we'd be in Italy in four or five hours initially."

But, overall, things were running relatively smoothly.

Image caption Joe Ó Bruadair, the hero of Termini Imerese, with Colm Crosson

On the pitch, the Republic had snatched a 1-1 draw with old rivals England before a 0-0 bore draw against Egypt. Their last game against the Netherlands, in Palermo could see them through.

And then the Fiat workers brought the train to a grinding stop.

For Colm and Pete, the problem was not just how to get through the blockade, but how to keep people calm as the seconds ticked over to kick off.

A novice tour guide approached Colm in an "animated" state wanting to tell the passengers about the hold up.

"I told him to go ahead - but that he wouldn't be coming back. You couldn't have told them, it would have been crazy."

It was a time for heroes. And one was to emerge from the Irish masses.

"Joe Ó Bruadair spoke Italian but he was also a 'union man'," said Pete. "So he headed off in a police car to negotiate with the workers.

"Joe was able to speak the language of the strikers, and I'm not talking about Italian," added Colm.

"He told them that the people they were stopping here were the proletariat, not the fat cats who'd be flying into the matches on planes.

"These are your fellow workers,' he told them. In the end, ours was the only train they let through."

Image caption Republic of Ireland fans taking over at Stadio La Favorita in Palermo

If Joe sounds slightly mythical, it is because he feels mythical. We have tried to get in touch with him for this feature but, 26 years after the event, the trail has gone cold.

Joe, if you're reading this, we'd love to talk to you about a train, a strike and 1,000 increasingly frantic football fans.

In the end, said fans arrived at Palermo's Stadio La Favorita just 15 minutes after kick off in plenty of time to see Niall Quinn's equaliser qualify the Republic for the second round.

The rest is history. The train and most of its 1,000 strong squadron stayed on for the game against Romania in Genoa.

Image caption More than 1,000 Republic of Ireland fans made their way across Europe by train for the 1990 World Cup

Penalties. Packie Bonner. David O'Leary. Delirium.

With even the most generous savings accounts running thin, only a fraction stayed for the quarter-final defeat to Italy.

For Pete and Colm, the hard work was rewarded with tickets to the World Cup final between Germany and Argentina.

"It was a lifelong ambition," said Pete. "But a terrible, terrible final."

But, a poor final couldn't spoil two or three weeks riding the rails of Europe alongside the Boys in Green.

"It was a fantastic experience," said Colm. "I was fortunate to go in 1988 and the World Cup in 1994. Germany was exceptional - but Italia '90 runs it damn close."