Tough job being a fan

 

The  behaviour of our fans in Japan and Korea is, of course, a source of pride and joy to us all. And yet there are times when you see them on television, with their natural warmth, their sense of fun, their irrepressible joie de vivre, and you find yourself asking: who are these people, and what have they done with the Irish?

Alternatively, some viewers may experience feelings of inadequacy at the scenes, accompanied as they are in the British media by assertions that the Irish "really know how to enjoy themselves". ITV has gone so far as to claim that "nobody parties like the Irish". And no matter how familiar you are with the bitter realities of partying in Ireland, such as the time you organised a mid-summer's barbecue and it snowed, it's hard in the face of this onslaught not to feel your personality is lacking something.

But, of course, it isn't just you. A glance around you on the bus or in the supermarket should be enough to confirm that joie de vivre remains in short supply, contrary to the fiction perpetrated by our fans abroad. In everyday life, we as a people are as grim as Mick McCarthy's jawline, and any natural talent we have for partying has been badly compromised by the climate and a basic lack of rhythm.

Yet, as soon as we step off the island, we are transformed into a Mediterranean people. It makes you wonder if there's some truth in the legend that we are descended from Milesius, a mythical king of Spain. Or the Spanish proverb that an Irishman need only sip a glass of red wine to feel the heat of the Iberian sun on his back and rediscover his inheritance (I hope that Raul feels the heat of Mark Kinsella on his back tomorrow, and rediscovers his reputation as an underachiever).

This would certainly explain why, confronted with a television camera, so many Irish fans experience the urge to sing "olé, olé, olé, olé", causing the sensitive viewer's heart to sink . But I don't blame the travelling fans for hamming it up a bit, because the pressure on supporters to perform is enormous.

As I may have mentioned before, I was one of the pioneers who travelled on board the Mayflower to the 1988 European Championships in Germany. So I was there on that famous occasion when the Irish supporters trounced the English; when we were given a walk-over by the Soviet Union; and finally when we won a hard-fought but deserved victory over the Dutch. We topped our group with maximum points.

Sadly, the team itself was less successful. And the other regret of the tournament is that we never got to take on the supporters of Denmark who, some Germans claimed, were the best at the tournament. It's hard to measure that claim because, just as we are sometimes patronised by our larger neighbours, Germany has exclusive condescension rights over the Danes. But my point is that, from early in that tournament, we were being described (often by ourselves, admittedly) as the "best fans in the world". And this role carried a lot of pressure.

At the risk of sounding like Roy Keane, the fans' set-up was very unprofessional back then. We weren't properly prepared. We'd never been at a major tournament before, so we had no idea until we got there how well we would do. Then we became victims of our own success. The Germans expected us to be the life and soul of the party everywhere, and it was hard work. There were days when you'd have preferred to sit in a café and read newspapers instead of drinking and dancing in the streets, but this wasn't an option.

Then the prospect arose of us getting out of the group. This was the 1980s and none of us could afford to be in Germany in the first place, never mind spending another week there. Yet as the world's greatest fans, we couldn't go just go home. So when Holland beat us with a late goal, we celebrated defeat as the avoidance of financial ruin. The Dutch and Germans assumed this was more evidence of our inner happiness, and the label stuck. Now we can't get rid of it.

Incidentally, having mentioned both England and Denmark, I should note in passing that today's meeting between those countries will renew the old argument about post-colonialism and about how immature it is to let an ancient grudge influence our attitudes to a football match. Personally, I think it's time we grew up as a people. That's why I say: let's forget the past - the sacking, the pillaging, what happened to Brian Boru, etc - and get behind the Danes today, for a change.