Friday 28 October 2016

Ian O'Doherty: If only once Ireland could be bad winners rather than good losers

Published 21/06/2016 | 02:30

Our loyal supporters deserve a victory to cheer about: Irish fans Chloe Prendergast, Sinéad Ray, Ann Donnelly, Róisín Gallagher, Orla Core and Rachel Fitzpatrick from Dublin in Bordeaux for Ireland’s clash against Belgium Photo: Mark Condren
Our loyal supporters deserve a victory to cheer about: Irish fans Chloe Prendergast, Sinéad Ray, Ann Donnelly, Róisín Gallagher, Orla Core and Rachel Fitzpatrick from Dublin in Bordeaux for Ireland’s clash against Belgium Photo: Mark Condren

Oh dear. There are other, choicer, phrases which spring to mind. But this is a family newspaper and 'oh dear' is a perfectly adequate replacement for the more industrial language which has been used since the disaster on Saturday.

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'Disaster' might seem like a rather hysterical response to finding ourselves going into the last group still playing for something.

But we knew within a couple of minutes of kick-off that the wheels were about to come off, it was just a question of how soon and how badly.

A stranger to Irish ways would wonder why the country is so downcast. After all, most of us had emotionally budgeted for a loss to the Belgians.

In fact, in many ways, our progression through the group has confirmed what many of us suspected beforehand - we'd need to get something out of the Swedes, hope for the best against the skittish and mentally unstable Belgians, before going for broke in a balls-out cup final against the Italians in the last game.

That is still on the cards, of course. But the psychologically crushing manner of the defeat, as well as the potentially fatal scoreline, now means that nobody is going into tomorrow's match with anything other than a sense of dread and a new-found realism about the standard of the team.

So how come everything has gone sour?

Even the failure of the ref - whose performance was easily as bad as that of the Irish team - to award a penalty failed to provoke any great sense of wounded outrage.

We were well beaten by a better team, but we were well beaten by a better team without ever even asking any questions of them or testing their much-derided mental strength and character.

As the fans began to belt out 'The Fields Of Athenry' just after the third goal went in and the goal difference suddenly took on sinister proportions, we may as well have been back in Gdansk.

This felt a lot like a four-year-long game of snakes 'n' ladders and we had just landed on a big snake to drag us back down to a place we thought we had left behind.

The fans, of course, have been a bright spot. Yet despite the genuinely heartwarming moments and incidents of pure decency from many of the travelling support, is this the sum of what we can offer at a major tournament?

Is this our future? To turn up occasionally and maybe pick up a point before we go home in ignominy with the strains of that bloody song ringing in our ears?

That the fans have been a credit to their nation is beyond doubt. But they should only ever be a minor afterthought to a tournament, not the highlight of it.

Yet to read some of the papers on Sunday would give the impression that this wasn't a football tournament at all, but a fan tournament.

England and Russia were bottom of that table, while we were the undoubted winners. Shouldn't that be a source of great emotional consolation, as one pundit asked?

No, it shouldn't.

Frankly, I'd much prefer us to be bad winners than good losers.

Even the strident bonhomie of the fans has now become wearisome to many in France and we should be careful that such familiarity does not breed contempt.

After all, you can have too much of a good thing and it is interesting that the only people who seem to really, genuinely care about what the supporters get up to are the very ones who don't seem too bothered by what happens on the pitch.

You shouldn't be singing for your team when they are three goals down. What was a spontaneous explosion of emotion four years ago was, contrary to what Roy Keane said at the time, a thing of beauty; a raw outburst of defiance, so visceral it famously moved even the German TV commentator to stop talking and simply allow the viewers to appreciate the Irish spirit.

Now, it just seems rather trite and hackneyed - here come the Irish, they know they're going to get hammered but they'll get drunk and they'll sing their little songs.

If we're not careful, we run the risk of becoming the country which never quite knows whether people are laughing with us or at us.

We weren't as good against the Swedes as people claimed, while Wes Hoolahan's lack of impact against Belgium was an extremely untimely reminder of why the big clubs never went for him, even when he was in his prime.

Having analysed the Belgian body language with all the forensic detail of an obsessive shrink, we got that wrong and now we have moved on to obsessing about how many first-team regulars will start tomorrow.

Gone are the days when we made teams worry about us. Now we fret and pore over irrelevant details about the opposition, like kids hoping their exam paper will be easier than expected.

There is hope, of course. There always is, until you're out.

But does anyone really think this Irish team can beat the Italians, even if they field a largely second-string team?

I don't.

It turns out that the ghost of Gdansk hasn't really been exorcised after all.

Irish Independent

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