Tuesday 16 July 2019

French braced for long ball and 'le fighting spirit'

Robbie Brady in relaxed mood during yesterday’s training session in Versailles. Photo: PA
Robbie Brady in relaxed mood during yesterday’s training session in Versailles. Photo: PA

Aidan Fitzmaurice

The French football world is so used to taking Irish teams and placing them in a nice, tidy compartment that they even have a special term for us.

Stick the phrase Le fighting spirit into a search engine and you'd be drawn to Ireland, Irish football and a heap of clichés, because that's how they see us.

Martin O’Neill keeps watch as Daryl Murphy goes through his paces. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile
Martin O’Neill keeps watch as Daryl Murphy goes through his paces. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile

The newspaper L'Équipe, the bible of sports here in France, last week studied the clichés attached to all of the teams at Euro 2016 and aimed to find out if they were true.

You had England (kick and rush), Turkey (hot-headed), Portugal (nothing without Ronaldo) and of course the old reliable fighting spirit for the Irish.

The good people at L'Équipe worked out that it was true, based on the fact that so many of Ireland's goals on the way to qualification were scored late on in games.

Robbie Brady went and added weight to the theory with another late goal in Lille on Wednesday night, but it's not just our enviable habit for scoring late on which has us sussed, according to the French.

We play the long-ball game. Always have and always will - at least that's their view and the host nation will expect more of the same in Lyon tomorrow.

That's why the challenge is for Martin O'Neill's side to disappoint the cliché-seekers and play the sort of game which Ireland played on their last visit to France, that thrilling display in the pride-instilling but ill-fated World Cup play-off in Paris in 2009.

We don't do ourselves any favours, it has to be said, as the tactic employed by Ireland against Belgium a week ago amounted to little more than Darren Randolph pumping the ball up to Shane Long. Swap Randolph for Bonner and Long for Aldridge and we were back in Genoa in 1990.

Maybe France didn't see, or doesn't care, that Ireland played a lot more football in the course of the third game, against Italy, and in parts of the first game, against the Swedes.

But France are expecting a long-ball game and a long day in Lyon tomorrow.

Earlier this week, the views were sought of Mehmed Bazdarevic, the coach of a Bosnia side beaten by Ireland in the Euro 2016 play-off, a man who has a long association with the game in France.

At times, his insight was pretty damning.

"In attack, they systematically use the long ball," he said of Ireland. "Against us, their keeper (Randolph) and centre-forward (Daryl Murphy) had more touches of the ball than anyone else.

"They get the ball into the final third with a very direct game-plan, without a lot of build-up or passing.


"But they are very, very dangerous with the second ball and with this simple but effective plan they can do you a lot of damage as my team, and Germany, learned in the qualifying campaign."

Brutal but effective, the Bosnia boss claimed.

"Against us, they only had four real chances over 180 minutes but scored three goals."

Yet Bosnia's coach, disappointed that his side missed out on Euro 2016 (having qualified for the 2014 World Cup finals) because Ireland were too strong, issued a warning to Les Bleus.

"France are better than we (Bosnia) are but they can't ignore the Irish qualities.

"You can't just reduce the Ireland team to a cliché, they are also good footballers," he said.

Of course, tomorrow's match will spark memories of that handball.

When gesticulating Ireland players raced towards Martin Hansson deep in extra time of the World Cup play-off on November 18, 2009, the Swedish referee was not the only one to wonder what he might have missed.

The incident that had just occurred on the Stade de France pitch was almost impossible to see for the 79,145 fans in the ground, and the 11 million people watching the game live on TV had to wait for a replay to realise what had happened.

The reporters covering the game soon understood they needed to rewrite their stories. The action in the 103rd minute of the second leg of that play-off was to keep them busy for days, making headlines all over the world.

The next morning, L'Equipe went for 'La main de Dieu' (The hand of God), in reference to the goal Diego Maradona scored with his hand against England at the 1986 World Cup finals.

The Sun chose 'The hand of frog' and displayed a front-page picture of the man at the centre of the scandal, France captain Thierry Henry.

France, who had won the first leg 1-0 at Croke Park, were trailing 1-0 in front of their own fans after a first-half goal by striker Robbie Keane when Florent Malouda took a free-kick from the halfway line.

Henry raced into the box from the left, controlled the ball with his hand to keep it in play and crossed it for William Gallas, whose header gave Ireland goalkeeper Shay Given no chance.

The final score read 1-1, meaning France won the tie on aggregate to seal their ticket to the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa.

Irish fans who were there that night tell you how they still hate hearing I Gotta Feeling, by the Black Eyed Peas, just because that song was playing in the stadium after the final whistle.

Henry, whose reputation as a fair player was shattered, soon admitted he had handled the ball and apologised.

"I am not the referee but if I have hurt somebody, I'm sorry," he wrote on his Twitter account.

The former Arsenal and Barcelona star revealed later that he contemplated retiring from international football after the incident.

The FAI's demands for a replay and a '33rd place' at the World Cup finals were turned down by then FIFA president Sepp Blatter.


With outrage over the goal in Ireland and beyond growing, world's football governing body eventually came to a financial agreement, paying the FAI a reported $5m to avoid a legal case.

France went on to play in South Africa, but they left in disgrace after the team refused to train in protest against a decision by the French Football Federation (FFF) to kick striker Nicolas Anelka out of the squad after he insulted Raymond Domenech at half-time of a game against Mexico.

The controversial Domenech quit after that fiasco and Henry announced his international retirement, saying in a statement he was leaving with "some amazing memories, mostly good".

Perhaps it's time for the sporting gods to tilt the scales of justice in Ireland's favour.

Irish Independent

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