Tuesday 25 October 2016

Football - just when you think you're out, she drags you back in

Published 26/06/2016 | 02:30

The only way is up: Shane Long celebrates after Robbie Brady's late winner against Italy on Wednesday.
The only way is up: Shane Long celebrates after Robbie Brady's late winner against Italy on Wednesday.

Well, that wasn't in the script, was it? In fact, little of what happened on Wednesday night was in the script, which is why football is quite simply the greatest game in the world.

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The mood was grim following our disastrous performance and result this day last week.

The fear - and it was a genuine fear, based on previous history - was that we had shot our bolt against Sweden.

That performance contained some of the best football we've played in a long time, and was certainly better than anything we had endured four years ago.

But when we went out against Belgium and looked a beaten team shortly after kick-off, the horrible spectre of the last tournament once again raised its ghoulish head.

Even Martin O'Neill looked ­worried before kick-off. The sight of an ashen-faced manager ­admitting that he, and the players, had ­butterflies may have been a picture of honesty, but it wasn't what we wanted to hear.

It would be wrong to say that we entered this tournament with any great sense of real optimism.

After all, the words 'optimism' and 'Irish football' seldom appear in the same sentence and when they do, it's usually dashed in some cruel or ­comical fashion.

The manner of the defeat to Belgium seemed to reinforce our worst, most-secret fears - that one of these days a quality team was going to be able the weather the Irish storm and then pick us off at will.

That the undeniably classy Belgians were able to bat away any sporadic attempts at Irish resistance with such ease certainly didn't augur well for what was to come a few days later.

In fact, what makes the other night so utterly, utterly joyous was that nothing augured well.

The players looked dejected. The management team seemed ­strangely subdued, even baffled. And for all the ferocious attempts of the fans to win the award for best travelling support, the omens were grim.

But it was a different team, both in terms of personnel and attitude, which took to that badly ploughed field in Lille where another piece of Irish football history would be carved into our memories forever.

Seldom had we gone into what was essentially a knock-out game so short on confidence

In fact, not since Holland brought the curtains down on Jack ­Charlton's reign in the play-off in Anfield ahead of Euro '96 had people been so downcast - and with good reason.

But as I wrote in these pages just before the tournament started, ­football is a bitch of a mistress who can toy with emotions like nothing else.

Even though most of us had ­privately given up hope, you're never out until you're out and as I walked the dog around 6.30pm on Wednesday, the streets were unusually busy with fellow dog-walkers.

People may not have held much optimism, but this was still the biggest game we have played since, arguably, the Round of 16 tie against Spain in '02, so it was a case of get the dog sorted, get the dinner out of the way and warn any high-spirited children that tonight was not the night to be acting the maggot.

Religion hasn't been the opium of the people for a long, long time in this country. Football has long been its far more attractive replacement. Or, perhaps to be more accurate, international football and us doing well in a tournament has become the national drug of choice.

Is anything else capable of uniting the people and bringing such pure, unadorned communal joy?

And let's not forget the other prominent emotion - relief.

Relief that Wes Hoolahan wouldn't have to spend the rest of his life carrying the weight of that miss on his shoulders.

Relief that we were capable of ­producing a performance up there with the best of the greatest days in Irish sporting history.

Relief that we didn't go out with a whimper and then have to spend the next few days listening to eejits telling us that we should all now support Northern Ireland. (That's certainly not because I wish them ill, I just don't care about them. Which pretty much sums up my position on the North in general.)

Thursday started bright and sunny and warm, and that was the cherry on top of the cake of what was probably the happiest day in this country for years.

Frankly, we could have had downpours for the entire day and it still wouldn't have washed the smile off people's faces.

Then, after the joy, the anticipation began.

We haven't played France since that night in 2009, and if ever there was a country we wanted to stick one on, it is surely them.

They've stuttered their way through with a succession of late goals, and while they obviously have a better squad, they will fret about coming up against an Irish team which now, hopefully, will have to play without shackles.

After all, we're going to want to settle that old score on Sunday, we've been denied a couple of stonewall penalties, Jeff Hendrick brought his shooting boots and just needs to ­adjust his telemetry slightly and if we play like we did the other night, then we're in with at least a 50/50 shot of causing an upset.

As frustrating as it was to see Irish fans singing when we were three down, they were back to their best on Wednesday.

Only sing when you're winning?

Let's hope there's plenty of reason to sing tomorrow.

Bring it on.

The people have spoken - make them shut up!

One of the most obvious traits of many socially liberal types is their contempt for the general public. In fact, many of those who shout loudest about protecting the vulnerable seem to despise ordinary people.

That's because public opinion is often at odds with the opinion of the oh-so-progressive elite. We saw a perfect example earlier this week, when Colm O'Gorman wrote that when it comes to abortion: "Public opinion cannot be allowed dictate whether or not a State will stop violating human rights."

What a scarily authoritarian attitude. But no great surprise.

The likes of O'Gorman are no different to those Catholic lickspittles who were quick to kiss the bishop's ring. They've simply swapped the Church for a new master. That's all.

Talk to most progressives these days and they would genuinely prefer to surrender our sovereignty to a group as corrupt and positively deranged as the UN rather than trust 'public opinion' to make our choices.

As it happens, I reluctantly but broadly agree with O'Gorman on the issue of abortion. But I no longer see everyone on the pro-life side as religious bigots or fanatics.

They merely have a different view, one which is morally consistent with their beliefs.

I don't share those beliefs but I understand them - if you believe that abortion is the murder of a child, how can you possibly compromise?

Would he argue equally vociferously that we shouldn't have voted on gay marriage last year because 'public opinion' can't be allowed to dictate?

'Public opinion', 'populism' and 'populist' are code words for the great unwashed; those idiots too dumb to see the world the way O'Gorman does - the correct way

Well, I'd rather trust public opinion on these matters than O'Gorman and his allies in the UN.

It's called democracy, dear.

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