Sunday 16 December 2018

Henry's handball still makes my blood boil

Thierry Henry sits with Richard Dunne after his handball helped France to a play-off win in 2009. Photo: Sportsfile
Thierry Henry sits with Richard Dunne after his handball helped France to a play-off win in 2009. Photo: Sportsfile Sportsdesk

We lost 1-0 in Dublin in the first play-off leg on November 8, 2009 and we were rubbish. Nicolas Anelka capped off a poor game with a poor goal, a deflected effort that just about summed up the night.

What disappointed me most - and the rest of the guys were the same - was that we were too rigid, we were too stiff, we were too by-the-numbers and predictable. Where had our spark gone, where had our mischief gone? We'd gone from a side that would gamble - and believe - that they could pull something from somewhere, like Robbie had done against Germany in 2002 for instance, to becoming a side that had lost its devilment, its fuck-this attitude, in essence its Irishness.

That was all about to change.

For the second leg in Paris, Trap wanted us to remain as we had in the first match. He wanted us rigid and deep without pressing too much. He wanted us to nab a goal from somewhere and maybe force extra-time - and then who knows what might happen?

As a squad, though, we felt this was the time to roll the dice. On the day before the match, driving through the streets of Paris with The Dubliners blaring out, the message was the same.

We're after ye France.

The Boys in Green are coming after ye.

I'd said my piece in the build-up to the match and I was as black and white as I could be.

"Lads, I don't care what he says, we're going to go at these tonight," I said. "We're going to fucking go for it, we're going to press them, we're going to hurry them, we're going to throw everything at them. Whatever happens, if we get beat we get fucking beat - but nobody gets back on this bus without giving it everything."

Even thinking about it now is making the hairs on my arms stand up. We weren't being disrespectful to the Trap at all and it wasn't like we were going to disobey him but we wanted the shackles to be off, we wanted to just go for broke.

"Lads, this is the chance of a lifetime," I said. "We're going for it." In the huddle before the game, the message was pressed home by Robbie. "This is why we play boys, this is where we want to be," he said. "We go out there now and we hit them with everything we've got until they don't know what the fuck's going on."

We're after ye France.

The Boys in Green are coming after ye.

Maybe because it was our last chance to get to the World Cup or maybe it was because I was older, I don't know, but I was so relaxed that night. We were sipping a Guinness in the last-chance saloon, you know? Why get tense, why play tense, when we have absolutely nothing to lose?

All the lads were the same. It's the least nervous I've ever been on a football pitch for Ireland - it was more a feeling of enjoyment and liberation. It was time for the Ireland team to play like the Ireland team and we came out and did exactly that. Everyone was at it and on it all night. Dunney had Henry asleep in his pocket, Duffer was class, Robbie was the same. We didn't overthink, we didn't overplay, we just crossed the white line and played with our hearts and finally, Robbie gave us the lead after about half an hour, beating Hugo Lloris.

After the break, Duffer missed a good chance but at 1-1 on aggregate after 90 minutes, we went into extra-time and still felt solid and strong. We again spoke and the message stayed the same. We've got these lads. We can do this. They don't know what's fucking hit them.

Early on in extra-time, Anelka went down in the area as I challenged him but it was one of those that can go either way and the referee Martin Hansson waved away France's claims. He'd just made the last decent call of the night.

Then it happened. France got a free-kick about 25 yards out, just to my left. Florent Malouda floated it into the back post. Lurking there was Thierry Henry. The worst thing we did was let the ball bounce in the box. We should've just headed it clear - somewhere, anywhere.

Anyhow, the ball fell across Henry and bang, straight away, the arm goes out to control it. Only for a split-second but it was blatant. I was so close to it that I could even see how the ball being touched by Henry had changed the spin and altered the pattern on the ball. Then he tapped it again, ever so slightly, knocked it past me with his right leg and William Gallas poked it in.

You bastards.

It all happened so fast but the moment Henry had done it, my first thought was, 'Get the ball for a free-kick, let's get up their end' but as I looked up, Hansson was pointing to the centre-circle.

You're having a laugh here, surely? I just couldn't believe it. He stopped the ball with his forearm from going out then pulled it back in with his hand! It was a double handball, how had the ref missed both? If you miss the first, you must see the second one?

Immediately I was off, sprinting over to him.

"HANDBALL, HANDBALL, REF, REF, HANDBALL!" I was like Usain Bolt after him and then the linesman but they just wouldn't have it.

It was the most blatant act of cheating I'd ever seen on a football field, it was simply unbelievable that the goal had stood. It was my worst nightmare coming true. I just wouldn't and couldn't let it lie and the rest of the lads were the same.

I remember Kevin Kilbane hammering the referee, telling him he was a joke and that he'd just made the biggest mistake of his life. I was into him as well, giving him loads. "YOU'RE A DISGRACE, HE CHEATED, HE'S CHEATED US."

It was just so blatant. Watch the video back and you can tell straight away that Henry knew what he'd done because he immediately set off around the back of the goal celebrating, trying to buy one over the ref. It worked, didn't it?

At the time, the Irish fans in the stadium didn't get a replay on the big screen and they hadn't realised what had happened, so when the final whistle went they just cheered us but the feeling inside me was desperately low, the lowest I've ever felt in an Ireland shirt.

Not qualifying for the 1998 World Cup was one thing and it was bad enough. But at least we got beaten fairly and on merit. Yet when that final whistle went in Paris, Ireland had been denied another World Cup and this time we'd been mugged, robbed, call it what you will. I was shattered by it. Fucking Henry.

We must've had about 25,000 in the ground as we sloped over to them and they were all cheering us - the plucky, unlucky Irish once again - but then later on, when they got word from back home over their phones, they began raging with the rest of us.

The fans were there in their thousands that night and I can remember the noise now. I never talk about any of this stuff really but it's only now, as the memories come back, that I can feel the blood running quicker and the anger rising in me. I hope the Ireland fans realise what that night meant to us. When they read this book I hope it hits home to them. Sometimes, as a player, you get the impression that the fans think you don't care but one look inside the Ireland dressing room afterwards said it all.

It was carnage, as angry a dressing room as I've ever been in. Robbie was raging, Kev was livid, Duffer was the same. Everywhere you looked there were lads swearing, throwing and kicking boots and bags out of the way. Shin pads were hurled and drinks lashed against walls.

Other losing play-off dressing rooms were silent and gloomy. We were heartbroken but resigned to our fate. This night we had a real, genuine and justified anger at being totally stitched up. "Brian, get the fucking match on, now," someone shouted at Brian McCarthy, and when it was played back the anger just cranked up another notch or two. The bastards. Robbing us of a World Cup.

This was 18 months. This was our entire futures boiled down to 90 minutes (or 120 as it turned out) and we wanted it so much, yet we had nothing at all to show for it. If you get stitched up in the Premier League, that's difficult to take, it's not something you like, but you always have next week to make up for it. If you get a tough call, the luck will swing back in your favour sooner rather than later. But that night we had no chance of getting revenge, no opportunity to wait for luck to even itself out. That made it even more devastating. It had been do or die - and we'd been killed by the ref.

The Trap was going nuts along with the rest of us, half in Italian, half in broken English: "It has been a fucking murder."

Straight after the match, Henry had gone and sat next to Dunney on the pitch, like they were best mates. Henry admitted that he'd cheated but added, "I didn't mean it." OK Thierry, that's fine then mate, that makes it all ok - what you drinking?

I reckon the reason he went and sat down with one of our lads was because he was feeling guilty. It's a good job he picked Dunney to sit with - he is a lovely, calm individual. There's a fair few in that team who would've told Mr Henry where he could shove his apology.

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