Opinion: Soccer, like GAA, is the glue that truly holds us together
We’ll hold collective breath as we dare to dream big tomorrow
When the mother in Van Morrison's song promised her son "there'll be days like this", she never finished her sentence. A wiser matriarch might have added, "They will be few and far between, so cherish and enjoy them."
Win or lose, we should cherish and enjoy tomorrow's clash against France in Lyon because, as a small sporting nation, days like this do not come around too often. Perhaps "enjoy" is too strong a word.
During each Ireland game I've been to in recent decades, I was too beset by an anxiety that saw me not only biting my fingernails but the fingernails of anyone near me. Enjoyment only came in the euphoria following the final whistle, a cornucopia of elation, relief, disbelief and primeval joy.
I first experienced this as a 15-year-old on the dangerous terraces of Dalymount Park, when Don Givens scored a hat-trick in a famous victory against the mighty Soviet Union. Dalymount's terraces were like tectonic plates that shift position during earthquakes. Each time Givens scored, my feet were lifted into the air in the explosion of joy and came to rest 15 concrete steps down from where I had stood.
Thanks to Robbie Brady's innate courage, he joins a pantheon of Irish heroes. Ray Houghton in Stuttgart and the Giants Stadium in New Jersey; Niall Quinn against the Dutch in Italia '90; Alan McLoughlin in the cauldron of hatred that was Windsor Park in 1993; Jason McAteer against the Dutch in the old Lansdowne Road; Robbie Keane against the Germans in Ibaraki in the 2002 and Shane Long again against the Germans in the Aviva.
Each such goal caused a moment when a nation literally held its breath and - by and large - our hearts beat as one as we momentarily forgot the numerous issues dividing us. It is astonishing that soccer has often been the glue holding us together, especially when sport was once so politicised.
In 1938, the GAA used the excuse of Ireland's first president, the infirm Douglas Hyde, attending a soccer international in an official capacity, to gleefully rid themselves of a protestant patron by expelling him from the GAA.
Who could ever have believed that, seven decades later, international soccer would be played in Croke Park, with soccer and Gaelic stronger for it, no longer competing but complimenting each other?
Surely when Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick - born two weeks apart - lined out as schoolboys for St Kevin's Boys in Dublin, they could never have envisaged standing together in Lille, emotionally and physically wrecked, but brimming with pride.
Both were wide-eyed ten-year-olds when another ex-St Kevin's Boys star, Damien Duff, bowed to delirious Irish fans after scoring the 2002 World Cup in Japan. Brady and Hendrick surely re-enacted Duff's goal a thousand times, just like 10-year-olds playing for St Kevin's Boys and Tolka Rovers will re-enact Brady's goal for months to come.
Something else that soccer and Gaelic have in common is the thousands of unpaid hours which adults put into help schoolboys and schoolgirls embrace sport. Most soccer coverage involves agents and sponsors; but long before players enter this stratosphere, every Robbie Brady or Stephanie Roche flourishes under the encouragement of the volunteers who run young teams - selfless and unsung heroes.
Last Wednesday was a validation of their efforts. It also highlighted the unique relationship between our players and the fans. In Lille, there seemed to be little division between those two worlds. A former English international coaching an Everton youth team once posed a rhetorical question when trying to spur them on to achieve things. "What do you want?" he asked, "to earn an England cap or drive a Bentley?" The 15-year-olds all stunned him by replying, "To drive a Bentley."
It is hard to imagine Irish 15-year-olds giving that same reply, especially after the scenes in Lille. Soccer is part of our collective identity, like hurling and football. It provides a mental space which allows anyone who wishes to be Irish to be Irish. This is whether they hail from Tipperary or Donegal, or from Derry like Shane Duffy, or are children of emigrants who had to leave in bad economic times. In this Irish team, those emigrants feel themselves part of a national identity with no physical borders.
Because nothing represents our complex identity better than those 11 figures in green with differing accents and backgrounds: a team where Brady's Baldoyle and Walters's Merseyside are merged into one story. Win, lose or draw, it is our story that they represent. Wherever we are watching from - New York, Australia or Donegal - we'll hold our collective breath as a nation and dare to dream again tomorrow. COYBIG.