“Now if you could just track down Daniel Timofte… that would be one hell of a story.”
By Graham Clifford
The words had barely left Ciaran Byrne’s mouth and already I was imagining a journey across Romania from the mean streets of Bucharest to the wilds of Transylvania looking for ‘the man who missed’.
I’m knocking on doors, stopping passers-by, visiting random bars with a faded picture of him in hand and asking this question: “Do you know where Daniel is? He was last seen with head in hands in Genoa, 25-years previously, after his penalty was saved by Ireland’s Packie Bonner?”
As the witching hour neared, we ordered two more pints in O’Connor’s Pub in the Sligo village of Ballysadare and loosely mapped out how I might find the elusive Timofte. Two StoryLab storytellers doing what we love doing best.
It was to be the first step in a remarkable journey which led to the lobby of a run-down Bucharest hotel one afternoon some six months later.
With the help of a small army of people, including Ross O’Carroll Kelly author Paul Howard and many Romanians now living in Ireland, I managed to get a number for Daniel and, though his English is fairly poor, we agreed to meet.
But he was running late and I feared the 2,200-mile journey might have been a wasted trip. I’d have to drink the bottle of Jameson I brought as a gift for Daniel myself!
And then he appeared at the door of the hotel. An older, rounder, and greyer version of the 22-year-old who stepped up to take that famous penalty against the Boys in Green but undoubtedly the man himself. The same sad eyes.
We embraced and within minutes I had Daniel and Packie Bonner chatting on a mobile, hands-free, about that famous/infamous day. It was the first, and only time ever, that the two men talked.
Daniel half-joked to Bonner: “I made you a superstar,” while Packie told his former counterpart: “I’m sorry I saved the penalty Daniel. It changed my life (for the better) but I hope it didn’t change your life for the worse. I wish you well and hope life is good for you, it was great to speak to you at last.”
At one stage during the ten-minute phone conversation I stopped to take in what was happening.
The penalty miss led to heartbreak for Daniel and his family. His life would never be the same after that miss. But yet here he was with Bonner and each treating each other with such decency and respect.
When the call ended an emotional Daniel and I went for a few drinks in a local bar. We talked football, life and about what the future might hold.
After a few hours, we parted company and immediately I telephoned my editor at the Irish Independent to tell him of this amazing exclusive.
The article was nominated for sports story of the year at the National Journalism Awards held in the Mansion House last year and I also made a radio piece on it for the RTÉ Drivetime programme.
It was, undoubtedly, one of the highlights of my journalistic career… and it all came about, like many good stories, over a pint in a small Sligo pub.