Wednesday 21 August 2019

Aidan O'Hara: Friday night didn't matter - tonight will

Robbie Brady’s goal in Zenica was part of a surreal night given events elsewhere in Europe
Robbie Brady’s goal in Zenica was part of a surreal night given events elsewhere in Europe
Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

Sports departments are peculiar places at the best of times, but on the night of an important match, they can feel like a control centre to a flight where nobody is quite sure of the destination.

At some point in their career, every sports journalist has been asked, "Do you get to go to watch all of the matches?", then, when the response is perhaps less than enthusiastic, "That sounds like a great job" is the inevitable follow up.

On the night of Thierry Henry's handball, every sports department had some variation of "End of the World" or "World at their feet" ready to go for the result depending on whether Ireland qualified or not - when it comes to making a 10.15 deadline on a match that finishes at 9.50, originality is great, but not high on the list of priorities. It can wait for the second edition.

Extra-time that night tightened deadlines even further. Reporters had even less time to have 1,000 words or so ready to send as soon as the final whistle was blown, those back at base had to process the thousands of words, make them fit to space drawn on the page, read the copy to check for errors which, given the quality of reporters are usually rare, put headlines on the stories, choose pictures, write captions, print, read and send the pages. And, at best, do all that in less than 15 minutes.

When Henry handled the ball, everything changed and a night that was going to be high on adrenaline anyway, became one where getting home in the early hours of the morning still meant you were several hours away from being calm enough to sleep.

Last Friday had the same preparations as every match night, with reporters given their instructions and other pages being processed so that, yes, we could get to watch the match.

When the fog descended on Zenica, discussions started about headlines for each eventuality: Foggy Drew for a draw, Mist Opportunity for a defeat etc. Puns on Gorillas in the Mist were attempted, replacing the words "bog", "dog", "jog" with "fog" in any expression to create a headline were contemplated and, as the TV screens clouded over, somebody said, "There's been a few people shot in Paris".


For those who were in Zenica, the match, or what they could see of it, was all consuming, but as the rest of us tried to make out a white ball on an ever-whitening screen, a strange night was turning into a surreal one and it became very difficult to care about a 1-1 draw against Bosnia.

Most newspapers which had plans to go with either smiling or sad supporters as their picture on page one instead had pictures of sheets covering dead bodies outside a restaurant in Paris; RTE, commendably, mentioned the unfolding horror when returning to studio with Darragh Moloney and Twitter timelines that started the evening lamenting Wes Hoolahan having his back to goal so often or the lack of service to Daryl Murphy, ended with some expression of disbelief that 100 people could be killed at a concert in a city most people having visited.

On these nights, everyone knows that sport doesn't really matter, but human nature and human spirit being what it is, means that in the days after such a tragedy, people re-engage with the things they love and are passionate about.

The decision by the French Football Federation not to postpone tomorrow night's friendly at Wembley will, for a brief time at least, allow a certain focus to switch to the present rather than the past and although sport, and football in particular, can often overstate its importance, the alternative of being fearful to congregate in large groups for fear of what might happen is far worse.

That the Stade de France was one of the targets means that security throughout the world is likely to be stepped up at stadia, but once the game starts, those inside will be consumed by what is in front of them and tonight in Dublin will feel no different.

"Football is the most important thing of the less important things in the world," said Carlo Ancelotti, a perfect description of what the game, and sport generally, means to those who love and feel strongly about it.

If it felt peculiar on Friday to be too happy because Ireland had scored an away goal, there will be no justification needed tonight for creating a rocking atmosphere at the Aviva Stadium after a minute's silence is observed to commemorate the victims of Paris.

Nothing that happened on Friday night on any sports field felt like it mattered, but, for thousands of people, what happens tonight and in the coming days will. There will probably be complaints about the referee's decisions, arguments about formations and irritation that, again, Ireland are unable to keep possession, all of which will be forgotten if no goals are scored or somebody makes themselves a hero by scoring the winner.

None of it really matters when put in the context of death, misery and destruction anywhere in the world, but as something that brings passion, emotion and people together on a large scale for a common goal, it matters a great deal and there should never be any need to apologise for it.

It's the way it is and, hopefully, the way it always will be.

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