Over the years I’ve had a strange old relationship with Irish Football. I love the sport and I love my country, one would think that meant I was always an avid supporter of the boys in green, but if only things were that simple. My passion for the beautiful game is rooted in the fact that it is just that, beautiful. Having grown up on the Premiership and La Liga and Serie A back in its hayday I’m used to seeing the game in all its glory played by players who love to entertain as much as win.
I’ve genuinely tried to foster some kind of affection for Ireland’s own domestic league. Try as I might, the truth remains that every 90 minute ordeal will inevitably be decided by a deflected handball own goal, leaving your’s truly in a cold sweat and desperately flicking for highlights of El Classico to restore my faith in the game. So I’ve given up on the Irish league, but what about the national side? Im very proud of my Irish heritage and would consider myself relatively patriotic. Besides, you can’t just turn your back on your country because they dont play the most attractive football!
After the highs and lows of Saipan the Republic have struggled to find any sort of direction. Managers like Brian Kerr and Steve Staunton stamped no authority on the team and failed to inject any sort of impetus. The result, failure to qualify World Cup ’06 or Euro ’08 and a nation left dejected. For me a sense of resentment grew, I was supporting a team whose game plan was not to let the opposition play rather than outplay them, and it wasn’t working.
The appointment of Geovanni Trapattoni in 2008 sparked curiosity. Here was a manager who must be ranked amongst the best ever and he believed he could take Ireland to the world cup. It was clear from day one that Tap had what Staunton and Kerr lacked, a vision for the team. He knew how he wanted to play and the players he needed to do it, and Ireland started winning. Lets not get carried away here, it was never Champagne football, the Italian’s flare and flamboyance wasn’t replicated by the team’s performance but a rejuvenated sense of pride and passion was clear for all to see. The fans responded and belief was simmering.
The draw was made for the WC 10 qualifiers. Ireland were matched against the World Champions Italy and Bulgaria as well as tricky customers Cyprus who had hurt us in the past, but the Irish fans knew we had a good chance. With leaders like Dunne and Keane as well as warriors in the shape of Doyle, Whelan and Andrews the side was brimming with a dogged determination and a refusal to lose. The football may not have been the prettiest, but it wasn’t a beauty contest and was gripping to see such pride in the Irish jersey again. Four victories and six draws later we were in the play-offs…against France.
The FIFA play-off ranking system had given Ireland a raw deal. France was a side oozing with class, but a temperamental one that could be beaten. The first leg rolled round and Croke Park was a cauldron of noise. The anticipation was palpable. The performance however, lacked energy and we were undone by a deflection. The score line didn’t signify the end but the performance gave little reason to be optimistic. But, in the face of adversity this Irish team rallied and went to Paris with real belief.
By now my regard for aesthetics had long been forgotten. The courage and spirit of the current squad reignited my love for Irish football. Nobody expected the performance put in on Wednesday, certainly not the French. With ‘nothing to lose’ the Republic threw caution to the wind and really took control of the game. This wasn’t a dogged or resilient showing, it was classy and well organised. Frenetic work rate coupled with slick passing and movement saw Ireland pick the hosts apart on numerous occasions. When one such combination resulted in a fantastic Keane goal on 32 minutes it was no more than they deserved.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the performance was the refusal of the Irish to sit back. Buoyed by the goal the visitors went in search of the killer second goal. While the game had been inspiring, anxious looks were shared between fans and players alike when Keane, Duff, Doyle and O’ Shea missed good opportunities, one of them really needed to go in.
And then it happened. Extra time and a free kick swung in by Malouda. It seemed to happen in slow motion, the ball inexcusably was allowed travel to back post, the nation collectively held its breath, clenched it’s fists and grinded it’s teeth before an outporing of disgust and rage. It was almost fitting, we had come so far and developed so much, outplayed the French in their own backyard and were thwarted by a goal assisted by an offside and a handball. A nation dejected again, but with no shortage of pride. The love affair continues…