Why our Second Coming was just another irrational exuberance

 

IT’S A WONDER it wasn’t raining on Monday morning. Heavily. Across the whole country. Soaking the flags that hung from windows, the bunting sodden and heavy where previously it had bounced in the breezy sunshine.

But it felt that way. Gloomy. Washed-out. After the Euro 2012 defeat to Croatia every Tricolour wing-mirror sock represented a couple of euro you’d never get back. Every small Tricolour detached from its car window and discarded on the road was a clumsy metaphor. A nation so desperate to find an escape route from its predicament had mistaken a booby trap for a gift.

In the concussive daze that was the second half of the match, one thing became all too clear: for the long months of the build-up, we hadn’t been looking forward to Euro 2012 at all. We had instead been looking forward to Euro ’88. To Italia ’90. To Stuttgart. To Genoa. The nation had so replaced anticipation with nostalgia that they had appeared one and the same.

The Polish adventure was exciting, but more as a re-creation of the German and Italian campaigns. Bear in mind that tens of thousands of Irish were heading to the country from which our second most common ethnic group – after the Irish – comes, yet the pretournament coverage had little to say about that and showed little curiosity about Poland. It was interested almost entirely in what everyone else thought about us.

In Wednesday’s Irish Times Emmet Malone wrote about the sudden plunging of the Irish mood, from ridiculous optimism to deep despair. How supporters had convinced themselves that the team’s lowly international ranking and individual limitations would be amply compensated by that thing the Irish feel a perverse ownership of: pride. And this would be enough to counter the might of the world and European champions.

It led to an overwhelming belief that we would qualify for the quarter-finals (at least, as represented by one repeatedly quoted poll). However, that was too quickly replaced with a certainty that Ireland was heading into the next match as a bare-legged sacrifice to the Spanish footballing gods.

Obviously that belief was as keen among Irish fans in Poland as it was here, although there were some added factors back home, not least the number of parents who had inculcated their kids with the legend of ’88, assured them this was going to be great, and then watched their children’s excitement and trust deflate more quickly than a punctured inflatable hammer.

For the adults, though, it has been a mass midlife crisis of sorts. The nation was a fortysomething who, down on his luck, begins to blank out his disappointments with daydreams of past glories on a football pitch. So much so that he reckons he still has it, forgets he’s not in his 20s any more. He pulls on the shorts and jersey, takes the boots out of the garage, ignores that nagging pain here and strange spasm there, and sprints optimistically on to the pitch. Three minutes into the match he pulls his back.

It was striking how quickly nostalgia had pushed aside the nagging truth about the public’s relationship with this football team. Only 15 months ago Ireland played Macedonia at an Aviva Stadium patchy with empty seats. The ticket prices weren’t the only cause of complaint. That was laid at the style of play, the results, the manager, the players. They were a tedious team to watch, low on quality and personality. Considered unloveable. Almost unwatchable at times.

Things changed, thanks to Richard Dunne’s bloody jersey and bloody-mindedness in Russia, and a qualification that came with a host of sporting, economic and societal parallels too tempting to resist.

The tournaments of 1988 and 1990 led to some of the greatest outpourings of mass joy in Irish history, but as time has passed their status grows as much because the pre-Saipan versions anyhow are the only untainted thing we’ve got left.

Just when we needed it, qualification for a major tournament was a Second Coming (well, fifth, to be accurate). It was immediately expected that extraordinary moments in Irish cultural and sporting history could simply be resuscitated and relived, transplanted entirely on to a new venue. Even the cliche was refreshed: Joxer Goes to Poznan.

Over the months it took hold. It took only three minutes to be reminded, brutally, that other countries have their dreams too and that the Irish people’s need for solace doesn’t feature in any of them.

Yet perhaps the extraordinary singing that began in the final three minutes of the Spain match was when this adventure was accepted on its own terms. It finally created a moment to remember from a Euro 2012 to forget.

@shanehegarty

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