Amnesia sets in fast as a giddy nation dares to dream
It's a fickle business alright: eight days ago one bandwagon fell off a cliff and, with indecent haste but perfect timing, along came another one to fill the void.
By Thursday afternoon the sporting public was warming to the prospect of a first major tournament in 10 years for Irish soccer. A national side that had been increasingly shunned during that period was coming in from the cold.
And a national rugby team that had broken new ground for the sport in terms of popular appeal slipped suddenly beneath the waves. In the blink of an eye they were forgotten as thoughts turned to, of all places, Estonia.
The draw for the Euro 2012 play-offs took place in Krakow at lunchtime Thursday. Zbigniew Boniek, the ginger magician of 1980s Polish football, was tasked with pulling the balls from the bowls. When he paired Ireland with Estonia it was potentially the greatest gift to Irish football from a random stranger since Gary Mackay's goal against Bulgaria in 1987.
It generated a surge of optimism that the team itself could not manage through the 10 games of a tortuous qualifying campaign which concluded with that 2-1 win over Armenia on Tuesday night. It was a result that delivered Ireland into the play-offs but it left supporters as divided as ever about the team, the manager, his selection and tactics.
Had Boniek pulled any other name from the bowl the mood music across the country would've been a lot more cautious, if not downright pessimistic. It was purely the luck of the draw that sent up the balloon.
But it's up there now and the scepticism that had lingered over this team like a bad smell has dissipated. It's not just the new optimism that has blown it away. Another medical condition to which sports fans are vulnerable has also helped: instant amnesia.
When Estonia came out of the bowl, the Armenia game was blanked from the memory bank. It was another deeply flawed performance but what did it matter now? We're nearly there anyway! Bring on the Estonians, bring on Euro 2012.
And that's fair enough too, if the whole point of any qualifying campaign is just about getting there at the end of it. We don't have the heritage, we haven't reached enough major tournaments to start getting sniffy about the way we qualify.
But still, one couldn't help but wonder, more than a few times during this latest campaign, what's the point in qualifying if we're going to stink the place out when we get there? Do we really need to show to a wider world how backward we are as a football nation? We watched Tuesday night's game in that familiar state of ambivalence: wanting Ireland to win, disillusioned at the same time by their wretched style of play.
Armenia, even down to 10 men, made Ireland look crude and wooden. It didn't seem to dawn on the home side that they were a man up for a full 20 minutes of the first half. Presumably someone reminded them of this rather salient fact at half-time because for the first 15 of the second they actually kept the ball and controlled the game. They even stitched together passing moves that went into double figures.
Richard Dunne's goal should have sealed the deal but instead it was their opponents who took over. As soon as they upped the tempo, Ireland reverted to type: the long ball hoofed forward by Shay Given and picked up by a hungry, progressive Armenian side.
The lack of composure on the ball we've come to expect; the lack of composure when Armenia had it was another worry. The pressure of the occasion seemed to erode their normally disciplined tackling. The foul count escalated, yellow cards were accumulated, there was panic in the air. Armenia still needed to score two more goals; they were still a man down. A few cool heads were needed to calm the climate but no real leaders emerged to take control of the situation.
In the end Ireland were throwing bodies in the way of shots and reefing the ball downfield to no one in particular. They seemed more comfortable in siege mode. But finally they got the job done. The spirit in the side was once again honest and honourable, the football they played once again dire.
Then along came Boniek some 40 hours later in Krakow and Armenia was suddenly consigned to history. Do all sports fans, all over the world, have such goldfish memories -- or is it just Paddy that's the full eejit? Is it the same strain that, when the world went mad with money, made Paddy go madder than most? Whatever it was, he couldn't be stopped.
And now the ball comes out of the bowl, they peel open the paper and bedad if it's not Estonia. Sure we'll bate them no bother. The same way the rugby team, only eight days ago, was going to bate Wales no bother. Poland and Ukraine: we're coming next summer, even if we have to re-mortgage the house that's about to be repossessed.
It's no wonder Giovanni Trapattoni sounded like an exasperated teacher, remonstrating with a roomful of giddy schoolboys, when he tried to dampen down expectations on Thursday. Bad enough having to keep tabs on the team, without having to talk some horse sense into an entire nation too.
Sunday Indo Sport