Saturday 16 December 2017

Making dreamers of us all

Eamonn Sweeney

Do you remember all those feelings? The first one was the dull ache of regret which struck when another World Cup or European Championships rolled round and there was no place for Ireland. We imagined what it would be like to see a team in green on the big stage and doubted it would ever happen. We watched major tournaments like a poor man looking up at a mansion he knows he'll never live in.

In 1982 and 1986 we thrilled to the exploits of Northern Ireland but also wondered why the Republic had never enjoyed days like these. Scotland's World Cup experience was somewhat less happy but they always seemed to make the tournament nonetheless. Even Wales had got there, back in 1958 when both they and the North made it all the way to the quarter-finals. Imagine. They had their stories of John Charles and Peter McParland but our legends were all about what might have been.

John Atyeo's last-minute equaliser for England in Dalymount, the play-off loss in Paris to Spain, the litany of disallowed goals in the Giles and Hand eras, were all part of a seamless narrative of woe. And when the qualifying campaign for the 1986 World Cup ended with Ireland second from bottom in their group, having won two games out of eight, it merely seemed to confirm that qualification, like economic success, was something that happened to other countries.

So prevalent was this feeling that when we did make it to the 1988 Euros an aura of unreality attended the build-up. It was as though Irish fans didn't know what to make of it all. After all, we'd qualified in a weird manner, Gary Mackay's late goal for Scotland in Bulgaria putting us through when most of the country had forgotten we even had a chance to make it.

Strange as it may seem now, Jack Charlton wasn't a popular manager at first. People complained about the style of football he favoured and the boring displays it produced. It was a time when you could buy tickets for any international on the morning of a game, the general sporting public having not yet fallen in love with soccer. Two excruciatingly tedious home 0-0 draws against Scotland and Belgium and a couple of scraped victories over Luxembourg seemed to suggest the FAI had appointed the wrong man. When Ireland beat Bulgaria 2-0 in their final qualifying game, there were 26,000 people in Lansdowne Road, not much more than half the capacity. As Jack's team travelled to Germany there was a general feeling that they were about to be found out. Sound familiar?

That's why nothing sums up our initial Euro adventure better than the sight of Jack Charlton rubbing his head in apparent amazement after Ray Houghton gave us the lead in the sixth minute against England. The manager actually did it because he'd nearly taken the head off himself by banging it against the roof of the dug-out when he leaped up to celebrate. But it's the perfect gesture because a feeling of bemusement was general all over Ireland. This couldn't be happening, could it?

That feeling was quickly replaced by one of suspense as England battered us for the remainder of the game. Midway through the second half the tension was so great you almost wished they would just hurry up and score and put us out of our misery. And at the final whistle a feeling of relief was superseded by a surge of uncomplicated joy.

When Ronnie Whelan scored his spectacular goal against the USSR, it became apparent that all kinds of impossible things were going to happen for Ireland under Jack Charlton. We were brought back to reality by Oleg Protasov and Wim Kieft but, wonderful and all as 1988 was, the 1990 World Cup was an experience of a different order altogether.

This time round we were primed to enjoy ourselves to the full. The epic qualifying campaign with the emotionally satisfying climax which had been absent last time round materialised in spades. When England led us well into the second half of our opening game, we seemed set up for a let-down. But once Kevin Sheedy equalised we were once more in fairytale territory. Niall Quinn's goal against Holland offered further proof that for this Irish team the unlikely was always liable to happen.

And when Packie saved and Dave slotted, it released a wave of communal excitement which we probably didn't think we were capable of. A country in thrall to economic and emotional austerity discovered a talent for happiness. Cities, towns and villages all over Ireland went all South American as people danced in the streets, hung out of car windows, hugged perfect strangers and cried tears of joy. We didn't think we had it in us but we were wrong.

We also discovered to our surprise that other people liked us. The constant refrain in 1970s and '80s Ireland was that we were 'the laughing stock of Europe,' while people proclaimed themselves 'ashamed to be Irish' after the latest of the bombings and shootings which were the only reason the island ever hit the world headlines. Ireland didn't just have an image problem, but a self-image problem.

Football changed that. It's easy now to be glib about that 'best supporters in the world' tag but the fact is our fans deserved it. At a time when their English counterparts were laying waste to the city centres of Europe, our gang travelled in huge numbers, drank plenty, fought nobody and made plenty of friends.

The exploits of Jack Charlton's 'little team that could' caught the imagination not just in Ireland but all over the world. We were a good news story for once. It didn't 'provide the foundation for the Celtic Tiger' or any such nonsense but it cheered up a miserable country which was enough to be getting on with.

The euphoria reached its high point when we beat Italy at the 1994 World Cup and the nation went home that night and dreamed of what it would be like to see us playing in the final. After that the experience turned slightly sour. We regarded the hot weather during the Mexico game as a personal affront and began to act like people who demanded rather than welcomed success. The ill-advised welcome home in the Phoenix Park was an attempt to artificially recreate something which had been wonderful precisely because of its organic and unrehearsed nature.

Actually, 2002 was a more fun experience than 1994. Once the Saipan kerfuffle was out of the way, the old feeling of national togetherness returned. Nobody thought of

the rights and wrongs of Mick and Roy's contretemps when Robbie Keane scored in the last minute against Germany and repeated the feat against Spain. With a golden generation of young players coming through and the era of 16-team European Championships and 32-team World Cups dawning, we looked set for many more super summers.

Shows what we knew. By the time the Steve Staunton era ended the idea of an Irish team in a major tournament finals seemed almost as unthinkable as it had done before Jack Charlton wove his spell. The suspicion arose that, like Hungary or Scotland or our neighbours to the North, Ireland had become one of those countries which had simply lost the knack of being good at football.

Yet here we are again today, back with a chance to create new feelings and memories, a few hours away from a shot at resurrecting that old communal joy which saw us dance and laugh and hug and drink and hope and cheer together as though, for a brief moment, nothing in the world mattered as much as what was happening within a small green rectangle on foreign soil.

Dammit, I've tried to be cynical about this tournament, tried to subject it to the rational analysis which tells me that we haven't a hope in hell in Group C and that this time round the magic won't work and lightning won't strike.

But these tournaments make dreamers of us all and so I can't help thinking of Oscar Hammerstein's great lines from the song 'Cockeyed Optimist' in the musical South Pacific, "I've heard people rant and rave and bellow that we're done and we might as well be dead but I'm only a cockeyed optimist and I can't get it into my head," and "I'm stuck like a dope with a thing called hope and I can't get it out of my heart."

I suspect you feel the same. Come on you boys in green.

backpage@independent.ie

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