Monday 16 December 2019

Tommy Conlon: Tiring Irish deliver where it matters most - in the stands

"The constant chanting and clapping and singing in the stands did not cease; the players in turn did not cease on the field." Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Tommy Conlon

It was well after midnight before we left the stadium and headed for downtown Lille, expecting to find the mother and father of all street parties in full parade.

Italy had been beaten, Ireland had made it into the round of 16, and a famous victory would surely be celebrated until dawn broke.

What we found instead was more akin to a wake than a carnival. The green-white-and-orange army had finally succumbed to exhaustion. There was no singing or dancing or general japery. They had taken over the bars as usual, but the mood was quiet and subdued. They supped from their plastic glasses and rested their weary bones.

And these were the lucky ones who'd been able to find a vacant chair at an available table and get served a beer. Because most of the bars and restaurants had already shut down for the night; those that were still open were in the process of closing down. There wasn't a shop open either and only a few fast food outlets were doing business.

It is not untypical of France, apparently, but most of the local traders couldn't be bothered catering for the large influx of visitors - not even with a bonanza waiting to be made. The few bars and kebab joints still open couldn't cope with the numbers. The result was that thousands of Irish fans were left more or less to their own devices. Some of them stood patiently in hopelessly long queues waiting to be served a beer or a bite to eat. Hundreds more sat on the pavements or roamed the streets, searching in vain for a taxi.

The night before, Lille city centre had been their playground. The place was hopping with their madness. They'd gathered around the fountains in a few of the grand squares and inevitably some of our heroes went swimming. Locals and other visiting Europeans stopped to watch and wonder and take photos of the barmy Irlandais jumping fully-clothed into the water.

But on Wednesday night/Thursday morning they just sat on the fountain's low surrounding wall and stared into it; the water had been switched off; there was no fun and games anymore. Their energy, like the fountain, had been drained.

The match had taken it out of them. Like the players on the pitch, they had given it their all. They had done their job. They had left it all out there, back at the Stade Pierre Mauroy on the outskirts of Lille.

And it had been a long, hot day. A lot of them had started early on the beer. And when they reached the stadium they found a muggy, sultry venue, a pall of humidity hanging in the air. In addition, the roof was closed. Undaunted and undeterred, they went to work in this sweatbox for the next two hours. The Italian support had already been routed before a song was sung. In a sea of green and white, only a few scattered patches of Savoy blue could be seen. Their fans simply hadn't turned up.

And the few who did, where we were seated high up in the upper tier, listened respectfully and clapped appreciatively when The Fields of Athenry was played on the stadium's immaculate sound system. It was (we think) the studio version recorded by Paddy Reilly with full instrumentation and it had a sort of stately dignity about it that has been lost through sheer overexposure in the years since.

Some 15 minutes from the end of the match, Ireland's massed support got it rolling again. They had been unrelentingly loud and proud all night. But still it was 0-0 and still the team needed their spiritual uplift, so they continued to give it. This generosity of heart was magnificent to hear and to witness.

Maybe this is the point that gets lost amid all the stage Irish behaviour performed with such tedious regularity in various cities the world over. What matters is what they do inside a stadium, not outside of it. On nights like last Wednesday in Lille, there is a palpable and undeniable lifeline between the players and the supporters. It cannot be seen or touched or quantified. But it can be felt and absorbed; it is a real and vibrant energy source for the team.

The constant chanting and clapping and singing in the stands did not cease; the players in turn did not cease on the field. At the heart of this support, its wellspring perhaps, is an intense and vulnerable yearning. One could feel this yearning in the core of the Irish crowd.

And so when Robbie Brady scored into the goal that was virtually all Irish in the stand behind it, Vesuvius erupted. The crescendo was deafening. The eight minutes or so that remained were played out in the best atmosphere I have ever experienced at a sporting event. When Come on You Boys in Green was unloaded, it rolled in giant aural waves around the stadium, amplified into thunder by the closed roof.

At the final whistle, the players acknowledged their debt to the crowd. The crowd in turn showered them with love. In the precincts outside, it was a milling delirium of Irish voices from all parts of the country.

Somewhere between there and the city, the crash came and the comedown took over. But in Lyon today they will be ready once more for another selfless marathon of noise and emotion.

Sunday Independent

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