Fans weren't paying tribute to failure, they were showing moral support
"YOU only sing when you're winning" -- it's one of the most enduring football chants, up there with "you're sh*te and you know you are".
But while the latter can be hurled at Ireland by opposition fans after Thursday night's debacle, at least the former won't.
Irish supporters' rendition of 'The Fields of Athenry', at 4-0 down and time almost up, seems to have captured the global imagination.
Newspaper articles, discussion boards, TV comment: most were impressed and praised this generous, stoical and sporting gesture.
German TV even muted the commentary for a few minutes, showing footage with the song as an emotive, if slightly eerie, soundtrack.
Roy Keane, however, begs to differ. The former Irish captain grumbled: "I think players and even supporters, all have to change their mentality . . . I'm not too happy with all that nonsense. To praise the supporters for the sake of it . . . let's not just go along for the sing-song."
At this stage of his life Keane is basically just a crank and professional malcontent; whatever anyone does, it is wrong. But was he right, this time, in what he said (even if the timing was off)?
You could argue that, rather than pride, the mass sing-along showed a lack of it. And it might have seemed a bit weird to outside observers.
Irish fans had spent thousands getting to Poland and now, seeing their team get hammered, they seemed to be enjoying it.
You'd imagine a relentlessly logical German or Dutch supporter wondering about the psychology of it. Were we actually celebrating failure? Why did we seem happy to accept gross ineptitude?
There's no naysaying it, the team was slaughtered. Spain had 15 shots on target; Ireland had two. Spain enjoyed 76pc possession, making 860 passes (a record). One Spaniard alone, Xavi, made 136 passes (another record). Ireland made just 254 (and "passes" is a kind description of all those miscued kicks, desperate clearances and Hail Mary punts).
But that's how it goes sometimes. There's no shame in being thrashed by vastly superior opposition, and that's what Spain were.
Many people seem to think this country has amazing footballers just waiting to be unshackled from Trapattoni's conservatism. That isn't the case, never was and never will be. To be blunt, we're just not that good.
The only shame is in abdicating responsibility to your country, teammates, fans and, especially, self-respect -- which didn't happen. The Irish players did their damnedest. It wasn't nearly good enough. So it goes. Sure, they made mistakes -- that's what human beings do.
So yes, the singing is something to be celebrated. Most of us, press and public alike, go overboard with the self-congratulatory 'best fans in the world' stuff. And I'm bored of all that 'Green Army on the march' nonsense, as if it's some great achievement to go abroad socialising with your pals for a few weeks.
But -- Thursday night was genuinely special. And it's okay to temporarily park the cynicism and acknowledge this.
The supporters weren't paying tribute to failure, they were showing moral support -- and it's in the midst of failure that others most need it. It's just a game, meant to be positive and life-affirming, not an excuse to act like a nihilistic brat.
Would critics have preferred if the fans had run riot, broken some heads and trashed the stadium? Would that have shown 'real' pride and passion? Would that make some kind of statement about how we're not prepared to put up with under-achievement?
And here's something the likes of Roy Keane just don't seem to get: sentimentality, illogicality and blind, dumb loyalty are intrinsic to following sport.
The huge irony is, if everyone was as unforgiving and rational as Keane, he'd never have had that well-paid career, because nobody would really care enough about football to follow it.
They'd go to the cinema or a concert instead, where you're almost guaranteed entertainment, satisfaction and value for money. Going to a match, especially when your team is mediocre, is by definition irrational.
The Irish fans did right and they'll be remembered for it long after Euro 2012 has become a footnote in history. Every sporting event has winners and many fade into lost memory -- in a funny way, even the victors become another statistic. People will always recall, though, where they were during those unprecedented, magical moments like Thursday's.
But don't take my word for it. This is Liverpool, Real Madrid and Man United striker Michael Owen on Twitter: "Imagine how loud the Irish fans would be if they had something to shout about! #properfans".
Michael Owen, by the way, broke scoring records for club and country, and was named European Footballer of the Year -- something Roy Keane never managed. How's that for achievement?