Fans change their tune as the better side wins on the day
THE most important match.
The sentiment was the same from Irish fans once we knew we faced Croatia, Spain and Italy in the group stages. It was repeated again and again in Poznan over the past few days. Lose against Croatia and we're done.
So when the Croats scored in the third minute, the life drained out of what seemed to be almost 35,000 Irish fans in the stadium last night. This wasn't just the match slipping away -- it was the tournament.
On entering the Municipal Stadium, fans told themselves they outnumbered the Croats three to one.
"Unreal, unreal," said an optimistic 24-year-old Michelle Breegan from Knocklyon, getting soaked outside the stadium with her friends Chloe Clarke and Kelly O'Loughlin. "I'd say it's five to one Irish."
Unreal was the word, unreal was the atmosphere, added Claire Moran, originally from Kiltiernan but now living in Australia. She and her fiance, Barry Kane from Donegal, made the trip all the way to Poland.
Unreal, chimed Declan O'Brien and his son Shane, both from Ballyboden, Dublin.
When Shay Given was first beaten, and the flares and voices of the red-and-white masses erupted in a stadium-shaking boom, the ratio of Irish to Croat seemed to tighten -- only to stretch again when Sean St Ledger equalised for Ireland.
Anything their fans can do, we can do better, longer, louder. The Oles, chants and singing that powered the buses and trams from the town's old square and Fanzone to the stadium were in full flow once more.
And a Poznan in Poznan for good measure, the celebration where fans link each other over the shoulder, and jump up and down with their backs to the pitch, made famous by the host city's local fans.
The Irish crowd that had descended upon Poznan had seemingly snapped up every spare ticket going.
English touts on the streets flogged tickets for around €30 above face value, not bad for a rip-off. The sun shone for the first half of the day, giving way to heavy cloud and rain as the match approached.
Not that anyone cared too much. There was a real sense of history, with some fans a generation too young to be in Stuttgart in '88 or Giants Stadium in '94 thinking this was their time to shine.
It drained from the stadium again when Croatia scored a second before half time. People standing began to sit down, faces sinking into hands. It may have been offside, but Croatia came close again. Dangerous.
Vincent Haughney from Clogherhead, Co Louth, summed up how those in green felt. "We were always going to score from a set piece, but I can't see us getting back into it. It's too defensive, unless he changes it up front."
Phone calls back home relayed the same opinion. Soft goals that could cost us dear. And then the third sealed it.
But still the Irish fans sang, with 'The Fields of Athenry' getting an airing as the team chased a two-goal deficit to no avail. After the final whistle, the consensus was the better team won.
"We stayed and we sang and clapped them off the pitch, but did they deserve it?" asked Paul Jacques (33) from Fairview in Dublin. "Five grand, six grand for that? I didn't mind being beaten. The better team won, it was the lack of effort."
The opinion was shared on the voices coming back into town on the trams. But still they sang, although the tunes now included a slightly altered classic: 'You'll never beat Croatia'.