So the Irish adventure is over but at least this was an adventure with purpose and pride rather than the previous foray
into tournament football which ultimately saw the Irish team as nothing more than ‘also rans’. As an Irish fan, there was nothing more annoying than hearing reports that the outstanding support in the stands wasn’t matched by performances on the pitch.
Indeed, Roy Keane was damning in his assessment when a pundit on ITV. It was about time that the national side gave the fans and the nation something worth celebrating. Something worth spending money on, and more importantly, something worth remembering. Irish football needed it. I grew up watching Italia 90 and my childhood was taken over trying to recreate Kevin Sheedy’s goal against England and Quinn’s equaliser against Holland. I can’t even tell you how many goal kicks it took to provide the perfect Packie Bonner kick out, together with his hop, to recreate that one but the important thing was we were out there trying it. Fast forward to 1994 and we had Alan McLoughlin’s equaliser in a qualifier against the Northern Irish to whet the appetite and get the kids entranced in Irish football. This feel good factor was rammed home by Ray Houghton’s goal against Italy which got us all back on the street trying to recreate that golden moment. Whether on grass or on concrete it was always followed by that famous forward role of his.
2002 provided Matt Holland’s moment against Cameroon, Robbie Keane’s rocket against Germany and Damien Duff’s mesmerising skills in the Irish attack. The kids were back on the streets and they had, once again, home grown heroes to aspire to. Since then, it’s been flat. Yeah, we’ve had our moments and near misses but the football has lacked a certain something, perhaps a certain “Irishness” to recapture the national imagination. The qualification campaign for France was a mixed bag, the lows of defeat to Scotland coupled with the highs of victory against world champions Germany.
It was Long’s strike in the latter, similar to McLoughlin’s in 1993, which got the nation believing. Here was an Irish team and manager which went a long way to restoring the Irish doggedness that was so fruitful in the Jack Charlton era. Just like the teams of Charlton and McCarthy, when an unlikely result was needed, just like Northern Ireland in 1993 and Holland in 2001, it was usually delivered.
The bar was set with that result against Germany and so, the tournament performance needed to follow suit. The Sweden game was cagey. We should have won but at least the next generation of Irish footballers got their moment to recreate in the form of Wes Hoolahan’s perfectly executed volley. The Belgium game was forgettable and this led to a do or die clash with the Italians. This was the game that recaptured the Irish imagination.
An inspired team selection followed by an inspired team performance and the birth of a new Irish footballing hero. That man was Robbie Brady. When a team performance is needed, a team needs a star and Brady delivered. He was everything Irish football needed. Home grown, technical, hungry and passionate. That moment against the Italians was special. The euphoria, the passion, the tears. With one flick of his head, he united a nation in optimism and joy but more importantly he got the kids back on the streets with a ball.
For 56 glorious minutes against the French it looked like the jubilation would continue but alas, it wasn’t to be. We might have gone out, but at long last we went out matching the performance of our fans and providing much needed memories for young Irish players to aspire to. I’m happy to say that, despite the defeat, I’m a proud Irishman. Now, let’s hope the wave of positivity created is capitalised on. COME ON YOU BOYS IN GREEN.