Irish sporting year gains a remarkable bonus
Noel King's charges gave it everything, and then gave it more, says Eamonn Sweeney
If you wanted to see the very essence of competitive spirit, you should have watched a teenage girl from Louth named Megan Campbell in the early hours of yesterday morning.
All through Ireland's under 17 soccer World Cup quarter-final against Japan in Trinidad, Campbell, who plays with the St Francis club in Dublin, had given it everything. She had powered forward effectively at every opportunity, produced a stream of timely interceptions and crunching tackles as Japan put the Irish defence under heavy pressure and swung in a series of dangerous free-kicks.
She also had one more impressive string to her bow. Young Campbell possesses a long throw which would be noteworthy enough in a senior male player but which is quite prodigious in a teenage girl. And, as Ireland strove for an equaliser in the final 10 minutes, and Japan put the ball out of play at every opportunity, Campbell was called on to use this weapon. Called on again and again, clearly exhausted but trekking from one side of the pitch to the other before unleashing another throw which sent the favourites' back four into a tizzy.
Brian O'Driscoll would have recognised what she was doing, Roy Keane and Sonia O'Sullivan too. Having given it everything, Megan Campbell was now giving it more than that. And when the final whistle blew, she sank to the ground and sobbed convulsively.
She sobbed because the Irish World Cup dream was over after a 2-1 defeat. Yet the performance of these almost completely unheralded girls is a remarkable bonus in the Irish sporting year. Earlier this year they lost the European final on penalties but the team still arrived in Trinidad as rank outsiders. Their response was to top their group. The Japanese team they faced yesterday morning is technically brilliant, supremely skilful and infinitely athletic. They had amassed 13 goals in three games and were expected to dismiss the Irish challenge without too much difficulty.
Yet the anticipated trouncing did not transpire and Ireland are entitled to feel robbed given that the Japanese opener came from perhaps the worst penalty decision I've ever seen. The player penalised when she'd clearly won the ball? Megan Campbell.
Ireland did not lick their wounds, they fought back and their wonderful striker Denise O'Sullivan from Wilton United in Cork equalised, gaining her just reward for a match in which she was often outnumbered three or four to one by defenders, yet gave them bags of trouble.
Ireland looked just about set to take over the game when they were stunned again, this time by a wonderful individual goal from Japan's Kumi Yokoyama, the closest thing to a female Maradona you're ever likely to see. They fought back again and could have scored twice in the final minutes. Then time ran out.
No matter. It was a wonderful adventure. Ireland are ranked 27th at senior level in the world, our best ever placing, so these under 17s punched way above our national weight, competing on level terms against countries whose playing numbers dwarf ours. The fire of Campbell, the ceaseless work rate of O'Sullivan, the commanding defensive play of Westmeath's Jennifer Byrne, the midfield leadership of Salthill Devon's Dora Gorman and the sublime skill of winger Siobhan Killeen from Raheny United will linger long in the mind.
It was, to be honest, not a week when the Irish national character was shown in its best light. But, out there in Trinidad, Noel King's girls showed different native qualities, a never-say-die spirit, an appetite for hard work, a ferocious enthusiasm, which have been at the heart of many great Irish sporting performances over the years.
They'd make you very proud to be from the same country.