Deceived, deflated, disappointed but magnificently defiant, Ireland depart

 

REACTION:A COOL NIGHT in Paris that warmed the travelling support to its core, as big and brave a performance by an Irish side as most of them would even have dreamt of witnessing. But it is the French who will go to the World Cup, their progress sealed by their extra-time equaliser, courtesy of some ball-juggling from Thierry Henry – not, it should be stressed, with his foot, but with his hand.

It was a deception that both the referee and his assistants failed to spot.

Cruelty of the most extreme sporting kind, the Irish players incredulous that the “goal” had been allowed to stand, their supporters greeting Henry with a chorus of “CHEAT, CHEAT, CHEAT” once the text messages began pouring in from those in front of television replays back home.

A goal down from the first leg in Dublin, those supporters – at least 8,000 of them inside Stade de France – came to Paris for Le Crunch with some hope in their hearts, but surely not a lot. Beat France, away? Dream on.

And on and on they dreamt as the first-half minutes edged away without France sealing the deal with a second goal, the nervier the home support – already miffed by the indignity of having to take the play-off route to the finals, an experience akin to watching their thoroughbreds compete in a donkey derby – the more hopeful the visitors, on the pitch and in the stands.

Thirty-three minutes and, mon Dieu, Robbie Keane levelled the tie, Kevin Kilbane and Damien Duff the creators on the left. This was swiftly developing in to one of the more memorable of Irish sporting nights, the team’s resolve a sight to behold.

An animated Trapattoni Riverdanced on the touchline, as he is wont to do. He might have thought he’d seen it all, but this 70 year-old can’t have experienced many – any? – nights like this.

More often than not in his managerial past it’s been the pesky minnows trying to down his giants, but last night his team came close to doing what Ireland hadn’t achieved in close to 80 years – win in Paris.

Half-time, the Irish cheers drowned out by a cacophony of French boos aimed at their own team. Second half. More Irish chances than French, Duff, Robbie Keane and John O’Shea all having openings to put Ireland 2-0 up.

“You’re supposed to be at home” sang the visitors in the direction of Henry and Co, as if they needed reminding.

Extra-time. Henry’s “moment”. We waited for him to be booked for deliberate handball, instead he peeled away to celebrate the “goal”, the Irish bench pleading with the fourth official, the players beyond despair.

The final whistle and, well, ecstasy unconfined from the hosts, most of the stadium looking for all the world like a giant red, white and blue trampoline, euphoric supporters bouncing with bliss. And, above all, relief. Out on the pitch the Irish fell to their knees, comforted by Trapattoni who could have asked no more of them, and then by their supporters who lustily saluted their stirring night’s work.

They call Trapattoni the lucky manager, so much for that.

Lest we forget, Ireland reached these play-offs by finishing second to reigning world champions Italy in their qualifying group, unbeaten in their 10 games, before having to get the better of the 1998 World Cup winners over two legs. A daunting route, it was, to South Africa, the journey ending short of its destination last night.

It is the French, then, who take their place among the 32 qualifiers, a stay of execution, perhaps, for French manager Raymond Domenech, who would have faced nothing less than the guillotine if France had failed last night.

And so, another World Cup must make do without an Irish presence, no need to trace those long lost cousins in Johannesburg, Durban, Cape Town or Pretoria, no need to tell them how much you’ve been pining to meet them for years and how you’d love to drop down for a visit around, say, June. In these tighten-your-belt-until-you-burst days, maybe it’s as well.

They can put up their French cousins instead. And for now we must wish France a bon voyage to South Africa. But not too bon – not after last night. Meantime, there’s always Brazil. In 2014. Maybe by then the pain of last night will have eased.