AS the final whistle rang out, the chant spread quickly through those sections of Poznan’s Municipal Stadium which had been temporarily redecorated green. Rarely has ‘The Fields of Athenry’ sounded such a stirring calling card. Loud, proud and resolute, its cry of resistance reverberated under the vast steel roof.
What a pity the song bore so little resemblance to what the fans had witnessed: Croatia had not just defeated the Irish; they had done so easily. The boys in green, in truth, had not stood up to the challenge.
And thus their Euro 2012 adventure appears likely to have ended before it really began. The earlier result from Gdansk had no bearing on their immediate prospects. Points shared between Spain and Italy, the two strongest members of Group C, did not change the imperative for Giovanni Trapattoni’s team to glean something against Slaven Bilic’s men.
It could not have started worse here. Just two minutes had elapsed when the Irish defence went into temporary stupor and allowed Croatia’s Mario Mandzukic to slip on the rain-sodden turf, pick himself up and loop the most unprepossessing of headers into the corner of Shay Given’s goal.
Suddenly, the bubbling enthusiasm which had filled Poznan all weekend vacated the building. And the checkerboard corner of Croatia fans, which looked from a distance as if someone had laid a giant tablecloth over the stand, erupted in fire-cracker celebration.
What a shame for those who had made this such a memorable weekend in central Poland. A whole decade has passed since the Irish were last invited to the top table of international competition and the fans were making the most of their moment. Never mind the dire fiscal times, some 20,000 green-shirted followers had found sufficient cash under the mattress to make the journey eastwards.
Exactly the guests the Poles had wanted at their Euro party, they had pumped sufficient money into the local brewing industry to fund a Brussels bail-out..
Inside the stadium, the Irish flags reflected harsh economic times. “From dole-land to Poland,” read one. “Famine, oppression, depression: you’ll never beat the Irish” insisted another.
But, whatever the punishment inflicted by Berlin and Brussels, the Irish have one European they still favour: Trapattoni is a far more embraced Italian coach than Fabio Capello ever was by the English. In Ireland, they believe he has the wherewithal always to give them a gift to cheer, albeit in cagey wrapping.
For a moment here it appeared the case. In the 18th minute, Sean St Ledger ran on to Aiden McGeady’s free-kick to equalise the whirlwind Croatian start.
At that point, the Irish followers refound their voice; the eruption of noise could not have been matched had news reached Dublin of an Angela Merkel election defeat. There was a spirited attempt in some Irish sections to reflect their surrounds and do a celebratory Poznan. Though given the amount of alcohol that had been consumed, the fans might have just been confused about which way round to stand.
For a while, Republic of Ireland,stood tall. Keith Andrews and Glenn Whelan momentarily seized possession of midfield, Damien Duff jinked and checked, Robbie Keane ran and ran. But it was not to last. Luka Modric, in one peerless cameo flicking the ball over his own shoulder to deceive two Irish opponents, took back the initiative. And two quick Croatia goals either side of half-time stifled the green resistance.
What was most dispiriting for Ireland’s long-term interest in the competition was that for both goals their defence was about as sturdy as the Dublin housing market. The solidity which had been their hallmark in qualification seemed to liquefy before disbelieving green witnesses. From here, the way forward looks rocky indeed. But the Irish support refused to let impending reality disturb the main purpose of their trip.
“Cheer up for the boys in green,” a group of them were singing as they set off immediately after defeat in search of the nearest open bar.