Many of the people watching the football in the pub tonight weren’t even born when the party started. The party started in 1988, when Ray Houghton put the ball in the England net; it peaked two years later when Italia ’90 mesmerised the Irish nation. (Spoiler alert: Hard to believe that the next World Cup will take place without both Ireland and Italy).
1988 was great, 1990 was world class (in terms of being memorable). We qualified from our group with three draws, and then faced Romania on a Monday afternoon. Roscommon town and county – the whole country – fell silent, streets deserted as the expectant masses were drawn to living rooms, pubs and hotels.
At the Roscommon Champion, we abandoned ship and took Romania on in the Lions Den, or the Lyons Den (a popular pub at the time). The place was packed, a manic Monday. A tense draw, extra-time and penalties. Packie’s immortal save, then gasps as David O’Leary – he had never taken a penalty before as a professional player – walked towards the spot. A nation held its breath, as George Hamilton memorably noted. I knew O’Leary would miss. So I thought. Remarkably, he scored, and then disappeared under the collective ecstatic embrace of colleagues (unfortunately reappearing as manager of Leeds United some years later, but I digress). Still, we’ll never forget Dave for that strike. The Republic of Ireland into the World Cup quarter-finals! A question for the nation: Could we go even further? A question for the Lyons Den: Could we really go back to work?
Twenty-seven years on, and skipping the madness of Saipan in 2002, we’re back on the edge of the world. Undoubtedly the bond between the public and our soccer team is nothing now like it was then; we’re no longer really in love with the boys in green. Well, maybe that’s a bit harsh. We genuinely do respect them. We know they give us everything and more. But the magic has been replaced by something more mundane. For many of us, watching the Republic of Ireland these days isn’t the essential viewing it was during the glory days…in the same way that we don’t watch Wimbledon with the enthusiasm we had when Borg, Connors and McEnroe were in their pomp, or the snooker when Hendry and Davis ruled (and Alex transfixed us).
But now, on this potentially fertile Saturday night, there’s renewed hope, and the prospect of a remarkable achievement, as Martin, Roy and ‘the boys’, via a great courageous win in Wales, have made it into the play-offs. And Denmark felt like a great draw from the hat, just about the best we could have hoped for. We may yet be partying like it’s 1990 all over again.
In the pub tonight, it’s almost like old times. A big crowd, a large screen, a good atmosphere, yours truly, a few peers, and lots of intrigued millennials. The game in Copenhagen gets off to a poor start, and then it gets worse. Quality Police would make immediate arrests, with no questions asked. Still, we defend with great heart and application, and secure a 0-0 draw. We’re conditioned to consider an away draw to be a good result. Yeah, but what about that away goals rule? If the Danes score just one in Dublin, we need two. How is this utterly honest but limited team going to achieve that goal(s)?
At full-time, a cover descends on the giant screen in the pub, erasing everything, creating a 72 hour vacuum. Nervousness is the uncomfortable mood music accompanying the applause of the audience. 0-0 in Copenhagan. We’re part-happy, part-concerned. Happy daze, you could say. The millennials and the 1990 veterans have witnessed the birth of a new terrible beauty!
More hopeful than optimistic, I’m home just in time for kick-off, glad to have missed the RTE preview, which I’ve no doubt was another tedious episode of ‘All Quiet on the Wes Front.’ All weekend, the experts have been predicting a tight game, maybe a 0-0 followed by penalties. Big stage, big stakes. But there’s a surprise start, Ireland scoring on six minutes, the stadium now alive with the possibilities. Russia beckons! Only eighty-four heart-stopping minutes to go!
We miss two half-chances to double our lead, to devastate the Danes. Our opponents take advantage of glaring gaps in the Irish defence. Two quick Danish goals darken our dreams. If this was Eastenders, it would be time for that stark theme tune that signals the final twist at the end. At half-time we’re 2-1 behind and in big trouble.
The second half is a disaster. Ireland are outclassed, Eriksen is the flash kid in the schoolyard. We’re error-prone, wide open, pretty much clueless; the stage belongs to the slick Danes. We can have no complaints. Denmark played all the creative football on the night and our limitations have been exposed. Our World Cup dreams fizzle out, humiliation replacing hope. Slightly oddly, philosophical fans find some solace in a spirited rendition of The Fields of Athenry.
Thank God we didn’t go out on away goals or in a penalty shoot-out; at least it was decisive, at least there are no credible ‘what ifs.’ That didn’t stop Tony O’Donoghue turning the screw with Ireland manager Martin O’Neill in the latest box office post-match exchange involving the duo. I’m no big fan of O’Neill’s, but O’Donoghue’s line of questioning is generally tiresome, in my opinion invariably shaped by what the RTE panel have been saying earlier. It’s almost like our very, very eager Tony is out to impress Dunphy & Co. I really don’t have a big time for O’Neill, but in all fairness he and Roy Keane have done a very decent job with the players available to them.
Wes Hoolahan is a very nice player, but the hype about him has been, if not ridiculous, certainly excessive. Tonight, he played the whole second half; we were still outclassed! Yes, I know the ship was already sinking by the time he came on board, but I still think the Wes-hysteria is too simplistic.
Truth is, we’re a very average team, journeymen of terrific heart. You had to feel sorry for the players. Their dreams of playing in the World Cup had been crushed. I’d have loved to have seen them qualify. They have put in a fine campaign; and it was heartwarming to see fans who were interviewed as they exited the stadium after the game being understanding and appreciative of the Irish effort.
Bad night, decent campaign, good guys. Even Dunphy, in studio, was gracious and measured. Sometimes it’s best to acknowledge what’s in front of you, instead of chasing riddles, conundrums. Denmark, with more than one young Wes in their team, were and are better than us.
When it was all over, I avoided social media, because I didn’t fancy having anything more to do with the carnage. All Eriksen-ed out, I was and am philosophical about us not getting to Russia. It wasn’t meant to be. At least it wasn’t a last-minute goal, or a cruel penalty shoot-out. It was decisive.
Unfortunately, we’ll be spectators next year, frustrated with our absence but fascinated by those who will be there, and at least still able to cherish the magic memories of 1990 and all those Olé, Olé, Olés.