Sunday 15 September 2019

Ireland's adventure

Twenty years ago today, Ireland faced off against Belgium in a World Cup qualification play-off that ended in heartbreak. As they prepare to face Denmark tonight at the same stage of the competition, our reporter looks back at that night in 1997 and the memorable performances - and play-offs - in between

Joe Callaghan

George Hamilton's voice is just a little muffled at the end of a sodden, sombre Brussels night. It's November 15, 1997, and the man who has soundtracked the nation's modern love affair with the beautiful game over the previous decade does something so utterly out of character: he gets it wrong.

"Ireland's great adventure comes to its end," Hamilton reports solemnly.

In that moment - Mick McCarthy's Ireland side had just been narrowly, agonisingly beaten 2-1 by Belgium in the second leg of a World Cup qualification play-off, and as a result missed out on a place at the following summer's festival of football in France by the slimmest of margins - the RTÉ commentator was, of course, not incorrect.

But it's the two decades that followed that have proved Hamilton's hypothesis to be untrue. Ireland's adventure hadn't come to an end… it was just getting going.

That November night in the Belgian capital closed out European football's first flirtation with the format of home and away play-off matches to divvy up those priceless final places at major tournaments.

The break-up of Yugoslavia had already sparked a huge jump in UEFA member nations by the mid-1990s and as the gang kept on growing (there are currently 55 members in football's extended European family), play-offs have long since become a staple. And despite the bitterness of that first taste, Ireland's appetite for the play-offs has proved voracious.

Tonight, Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane will look to plot a route past Denmark to secure the current Ireland team a place at next summer's World Cup in Russia. It will be the 11th instalment in Europe's play-off drama over the past 20 years and Ireland will be making a record seventh appearance as central characters.

This final round, a last-chance saloon full of hope and despair and good luck and hard luck and no luck, has become part of our sporting culture. The clocks go back and we gear up for 180 minutes (sometimes more) of nerve-shredding theatre. Two late-autumn contests that will signal either a long march into winter's darkness or giddy months spent pricing campervans, charming Credit Union chiefs, plotting routes to gleaming new venues and scouting Cameroon or the like.

In short, we've taken to the play-offs…and they've taken to us.

And an adventure, in every sense of the word, it has been - one that has spilled even beyond the borders of Europe. The soaring highs - McCarthy's sweet relief at finally getting the job done in the alien surrounds of Tehran in 2001; Giovanni Trapattoni's ultra-conservative version of Ireland shaking off the shackles to destroy Estonia in 2011; O'Neill's side emerging from the eerie mist in Bosnia and securing surprisingly breezy passage to Euro 2016 - have been more than matched by crushing, chaotic lows.

That 1997 defeat to the Belgians wasn't without its contentious moments. The Ireland backroom team fumed over a disputed throw-in in the lead-up to Luc Nilis' decisive goal. But Packie Bonner's pitch-side finger pointing that night seems almost quaint in comparison to the diplomatic incidents that have followed Ireland's other play-off defeats.

Two years removed from Brussels, McCarthy's side were still a work in (slow) progress as they travelled to Bursa. Turkey had chosen the venue because of its less-than-welcoming aesthetic. It worked: 90 minutes of niggling negativity secured the hosts passage to Euro 2000. The nastiness boiled over at the final whistle as Turkish players and fans attacked Tony Cascarino. The final images of the striker's international career capture him in the thick of the red mist, brawling with Bursa's boys in blue as riot police frogmarched Ireland off the field. (Most of the country had to wait until the following morning to survey the evidence, as Turkish TV had also been less than welcoming, pricing RTÉ out of broadcasting the debacle live.)

"When you go to Turkey, the police are not too helpful," Cascarino deadpanned years later. "It is, without a shadow of a doubt, the most hostile place I've ever played football."

And Paris… we'll always have Paris.

One of the crueller ironies of the country's most infamous November night is that our finest play-off performance was all but wiped from the memory by one swipe of Thierry Henry's left hand.

An utterly heroic display at the Stade de France from veterans like Richard Dunne and Damien Duff and Robbie Keane and Shay Given was distilled down to four incongruous words - the Hand of Frog.

With a place in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa up for grabs, Trapattoni's Ireland had been much too conservative in Dublin in the first leg and looked all but done for. In Paris, the players went their own way and turned the tie on its head. Until Henry quite literally clawed it back France's way and became public enemy No. 1 - just ahead of a balding, middle-aged Swedish firefighter who had the misfortune to be the referee who didn't see the handball.

When he finally broke cover a few days later, Martin Hansson insisted that "life must go on". His vision had again let him down. Life instead had stood still as Ireland lost its collective mind. Statements in the Dáil, threats of legal action, wailing and gnashing and a reported request to become the 33rd participant at a 32-team tournament that rightly led to ridicule. History would later tell us that in fact, €5 million of FIFA hush money proved enough for the FAI to quieten down.

But Henry was scarred forever - "It was like I had killed somebody," he said in 2015 - and so too was our national psyche.

And yet, we can't help ourselves. As autumn readies for winter's arrival, here we are again, 180 minutes of away and then home torture ahead of us on Tuesday.

Denmark are no great shakes, we tell ourselves. Second leg at Lansdowne? We're sorted. But we know nothing is sorted. Nothing is ever sorted in Irish football.

In his preview of that date with destiny in Brussels 20 years ago, Philip Quinn, then Irish Independent football correspondent, weighed up the myriad permutations and possibilities facing McCarthy's men as their first experience with the play-offs reached its decisive point. Quinn made sure, however, to add a most pertinent point: "Not that qualifying for a major tournament has ever proved straightforward for Ireland."

Twenty years may have passed but some things never change.

For O'Neill and co, Copenhagen is now calling. It will be many things… but not straightforward.

Ireland's great adventure rumbles on.

Weekend Magazine

The Throw-In: Selection dilemma for Dublin and All-Ireland ladies football final preview

In association with Bord Gáis Energy

Also in Sport