Wednesday 21 February 2018

Stephen Hunt: Obsessive focus on Henry incident should play into Ireland's hands

Thierry Henry and Richard Dunne after the Frenchman’s infamous handball in. Photo Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Thierry Henry and Richard Dunne after the Frenchman’s infamous handball in. Photo Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
James McClean closed players down well, and got it bang on. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
Stephen Hunt

Stephen Hunt

There's a little story you might not know from the night in Paris in 2009, that could yet be a relevant factor in today's game and influence whether we can really build on Wednesday's massive result with something even more historic.

Patrice Evra shared a car with me and a few of the other Irish lads after the game that night as we were all going back to the UK. We were talking to him about what Thierry Henry had done, and whether he had seen it. The thing was, they were in turmoil themselves. They weren't exactly delighted to qualify given all the problems their camp was having - problems that would reveal themselves in the World Cup - and I think Evra realised they got away with it on the night. Without wanting to put words in his mouth, I think he got the Irish mentality.

I'm not saying he'll feel any guilt today but, believe me, the amount of focus on the Henry controversy will influence the match, because it will influence their minds - especially for those players involved in 2009. Yes, the obsession about it might be tiresome by the time the match comes around, but that's a lot worse for France. Everyone remembers it and, the truth is, every team wants to be loved. That could turn some support against the hosts - especially given how few Irish fans will be in the stadium - and create more pressure for them.

It will also give the Irish players something else to concentrate on rather than just living off the emotion of Wednesday night, something that can run out and lead to a mental exhaustion and drop-off.

That is why the Henry angle is perfect for us, at a perfect time. Revenge is a very useful thing for players to focus on, and something else to get their teeth into. Sure, our lads will deny it but, deep down, they're aware of it. They'll already be visualising being the ones to consign the Henry thing to history, to reframe the whole way it's discussed. And imagine what a campaign it will be if that happens.

I was on the RTÉ highlights show last Wednesday and I really found it hard to keep my emotions in check. Beyond just being Irish and what it means for our football history, some of the players are good friends of mine and I've known the rest through the years. I was so pleased for them, especially the way they did it. They played with a spirit and football intelligence that was great to see.

I know for a fact they were driven to give something back to the fans. Again, I know that's easy to say and it can often just seem like a cliché, but not in this case. And there's a very specific element to that with the players too.

It's because the fans are so good in defeat, and I don't mean singing The Fields of Athenry in Gdansk. Many Irish supporters will have issues with players and slag them off to their heart's content in the pub but, crucially, you never feel it in the stadium with them. They are there to properly support. The cheaper way out for Irish fans when losing would be to abuse the players, but they don't. They encourage. That makes the lads want to do better for them.

Compare it to the Raheem Sterling situation. We've had players who haven't been good, James McCarthy being one in the first two games, but he hasn't been made feel a pariah. Generally, when our fans are in the stadium, they are the best in the world. That does put more responsibility on the players. Sometimes, when you are getting booed or whatever, the natural thought is to think, 'fuck you, why should I play for you?' That will never happen for Ireland.

And, on Wednesday, the players responded. They wanted to give something back. They weren't ready to leave them with another disappointment.

From a pure football perspective, it's amazing to think a team can go from the dispiriting flatness of that 3-0 defeat to Belgium to the energy and intensity of the Italy match. It's a hard one to explain, but it's just a different kind of pressure that drives it, like a defiant boxer on the ropes.

Martin O'Neill also deserves credit for his team selection. There's always a little bit of risk but as many decisions as possible will have been calculated according to his knowledge. It wasn't just a last throw of the dice.

From a player's perspective, though, there's no way I'd have seen that coming if I'd been in the squad. And, unless they were injured, there's no way John O'Shea or Glenn Whelan saw it coming. Being good professionals, though, those lads won't have rocked the boat.

O'Neill is probably freer than a club manager in such situations because he doesn't have to feel the repercussions of decisions with players over the rest of a season. In a tournament like this, when it comes to do our die, there are no individuals and that makes it easier for him to make such calls.

Maybe that's why O'Neill doesn't pick the team the day before. Shane Duffy didn't know he was playing until an hour before the game, and that can be perfect for a fixture like that. There's no time to think. If you do have that time, but don't have much experience, the excitement of playing can turn to fear. By telling them an hour beforehand, there's no mental space for that. You think: 'I'm out there, brilliant'. You can become fearless. There's always an argument for both sides, but it paid off here.

At the same time, I'd wager some players had an idea they were playing. What usually happens is that those who are out are told earlier. So, I'd say John O'Shea and Richard Keogh - as good team-mates in a close squad - gave the other lads the heads-up.

This is why O'Neill ultimately gets paid, though. This is proper tournament management, to make those decisions and force situations.

Forget all the stuff about Italy not being bothered. Ireland still had to recover from the bad day against Belgium to actually produce. That required action on our part, from the players and management. O'Neill did act, and one decision he got especially right was McCarthy, and credit to the player too.

He was on a yellow card and, given previous games, the natural thing to do would have been to run around headlessly trying to overcompensate and 'prove' himself. It would have been easier, but he didn't. Instead, he was brilliantly disciplined and protected the back four intelligently. I imagine O'Neill will have been clever with him. 'Do a good job for the team and I'll be happy with you.'

James McClean (pictured) was much the same with that controlled aggression, and I'd like to praise him, given I've criticised him before. He closed players down well, and got it bang on.

It was a night of heroes, of course, but I think there are a few players who didn't get as much credit as they should have.

For example, Daryl Murphy was excellent. He won his first big header that had to be won, and that set a tone. It created momentum, and he held the ball up so well throughout. He was also clever in closing down their players, with strong tackling.

It also invites the question why Murphy didn't come on in the previous two games, when Robbie Keane did. It suggests that he must not have pressed the right buttons in training, but maybe O'Neill should have had more faith, having trusted him by picking him in the squad. It shows why you can't always judge players on training and friendlies. He had a big part to play.

Shane Long also looked better beside him, but I'd still like more chances being created for him.

As regards the biggest chance of the game before Robbie Brady's - wow - Wes Hoolahan's was pure drama. Now that we know the happy ending, it was like being at a show, everyone on the edge of their seats. It was also a goal coming at a perfect time.

We didn't have to defend that long afterwards, but we did defend well. It was like Ronan O'Gara kicking for touch, but all of it does say a lot about the spirit of this team. That is something often overplayed and a lot of international sides do have team spirit, but the one thing I would say, we don't give up when we are rock-bottom. That resilience has been a feature of our teams.

I get the impression that's why we're respected - if also because of the fans - and there was proof of that in Gigi Buffon's reaction. That was really nice.

When we beat Italy in a 2011 friendly, he came in to the dressing room asking to swap shirts with me. The boys thought it was great craic, of course, but it was a highlight for me. I did play well, but it was just a nice touch, and we said 'ciao' to each other as we left for the airport.

I'd say it was Friday when the players - and especially the staff - started to say 'ciao' to Wednesday night and properly turned minds to today. The management will have allowed them to enjoy the win over Italy on Thursday. That's necessary, and wasn't something that Giovanni Trapattoni did.

By Friday, though, they'll have noticed a switch in the body language of Martin and Roy Keane. It would have happen as they got off the bus, those little indications that they were now fully thinking about the next game. That's how you manage emotion.

The FAI will have had a responsibility here too, to sort tickets. Players will otherwise use a lot of unnecessary energy worrying about ensuring all their family and friends are set up for the game. The more efficient the FAI are there, the better the lads will be.

That mood will be crucial.

I mean, if you're talking about how we went from the mood of the Belgium game to Wednesday, it is my one big fear about this match: how we go now from Wednesday to this, and what will happen next. The emotions from something like the win over Italy can be energy-sapping.

Again, that's why the Henry focus is good for us. It will be a different source of emotion, and ensure we're not just carrying over from what happened in Lille.

As regards what happened in that game in 2009, it's a funny thing. When I said on these pages a few weeks ago that my main memory was a selfish one: all I could think about was how I hadn't played! We were still brilliant that night, though, and that's what made the injustice of it all even more disappointing. We deserved to go through, but that handball just killed it. I still remember that bloody song coming on at full-time, too: I Gotta Feeling by the Black-Eyed Peas. When people play it now, I still tell them to turn it off.

As regards the many players who weren't involved in that match now involved today, they'll still feel it. They'll have the memories. It will affect them, no matter what they say in the media. Players do talk about it. They will think it's our time to make history.

I'm not sure whether O'Neill will pick the same team. He won't pick people because they have played well in the last game. He'll pick players to win this game. It is another challenge for him, as it's also a risk to try the same formation as Wednesday night. We could play it then because Italy had wing-backs. O'Neill got it spot on there. Since they had no wingers, we could release the full-backs, and add to our intensity and attacking impetus. Italy tried to be clever in the second half, pulling a central midfielder out to Stephen Ward's side to overload him two on one but we adjusted well.

The flanks could be just as key to this game - and this is where little details with Evra could again be important. France's two full-backs - him and Bacary Sagna - have had great careers but they're also weak links. They get left alone to defend a lot of the time. Seamus Coleman in particular will have a lot of opportunities to go forward because Dimitri Payet doesn't like coming back. The question is whether we can be clinical enough to punish them, and make that risk pay off.

Evra getting forward himself could also drag Long back, away from where we want him. He didn't have to do that the other night because Italy didn't have full-backs. Our strength can be our weakness in that way, with or without the ball.

Something of what happened on Wednesday can also be crucial: keeping one of our 'impact' players on the bench to release in the second half. I would see those players as Long, Hoolahan and McClean. It won't be Long so it should be one of McClean or Hoolahan. They can change the game when they come on, as Wes did against Italy. I should know, I was pretty good at that role.

France are obviously a very good team, but they haven't yet been truly convincing, and lack a cutting edge. They are dangerous, though, especially with shooting from the edge of the box. Payet seems their man on a mission to win this tournament, but they're at big clubs and are under pressure from the home nation. The Henry story will only add to that.

And, difficult as it all seems, it could be the day to change perceptions of that controversy for good.

Sunday Independent

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