Keith Duggan: Magical night in Lille will live long in the memory

Current generation have left us a high akin to Stuttgart, Genoa and the Giants Stadium

The disappointments and triumphs on the way to the final 16

 

During the London Olympics of 2012, I took the tube to Kilburn to walk down to Cricklewood, where I’d spent a few summers two decades earlier with hundreds of Irish kids who somehow secured seasonal work on building sites. Few of us much had ever driven a nail with a hammer.

I hadn’t been up there since but wanted to watch one of the Irish fights in the Crown, which I remembered as an extraordinary Victorian-era red brick building with a never-ending mahogany bar, half-light even on sunny days and inside, particularly around 5.30, scenes straight out of a Pogues song.

Like McGoverns of Kilburn, the place was crowded with labourers and chippies straight in the door from work. There was a little hatch where you could get cheques cashed on Thursdays and the queue would be a mile long. They served up huge, traditional dinners and behind the counter, the barmen worked with furious economy. I don’t remember there being music.

Cricklewood in 1989/90 remains one of the most vivid streets I’ve ever walked because it was still caught up in the 1950s, with formerly respectable houses carved up into box-size flats and front streets crowded with small grocery stores and cafes advertising gargantuan cabbage-and-bacon dinners. Most of the customers were first or second -generation Irish men and many of the shops were run by first generation immigrants. The entire street had been colonised.

A walk down Cricklewood then probably held all the portents which led to Friday’s dramatic retreat from Europe and integration. It was teeming and vibrant and brilliant. And by the London Olympics it had all changed beyond recognition; the long walk between Kilburn and Cricklewood was characterised by elegant restaurants and estate agencies and a sense that you might be in any prosperous neighbourhood. The Crown’s impressive facade remained but inside it was a sleek, modern hotel.

First round

IrelandBethnal Green

We watched Bonner’s save, had a few tepid beers, ate fish and chips on Broadway and headed home. A few nights later, we watched Roger Milla put Cameroon into the lead against England in a pub called the Lions in Bethnal Green. One of our number instinctively cheered when England went behind. The place was full of East End kids and nobody paid any attention to us.

But when the match ended – England having won on penalties – we were only a few steps down the street when it seemed like most of the pub followed us out, smashing glasses on the ground and then crashing into us, swinging and kicking.

Even as the blows rained down, it was hard not to think we deserved this. You don’t walk into an East London pub and cheer against England in a World Cup match. It soon became clear that these weren’t proper football hooligans, the punches and kicks were too frequently inaccurate and messy and at least one of them was wearing Hush Puppies.

Once they drew some blood, a fair few of them backed off. They were just ordinary beered-up city kids trying to honour Queen and Country. The cops took us around in a Paddy Wagon for an hour looking for the culprits. Then a radio call came in to say that actual hooligans were going berserk near the tube station so they turfed us out. Within the week, we watched Ireland lose 1-0 to Toto Schillaci and, even though it was 26 degrees every day, it felt like summer was over.

So it was felt like full circle being in Lille for what the latest great instalment of Ireland’s periodic immortal moments against the Italians. Hardly an hour had passed after Robbie Brady’s goal when attempts were made to put the moment in context: was this actually the greatest Irish football moment? The dominant emotion of Italia ’90 was of fantasy being lived out. The idea of Ireland football teams at a major tournament was still new and fabulous. What was, in retrospect, a deeply talented team, was on a winner just by being there.

The 2016 team does not have that luxury. Most of them were youngsters during the fractious summer of Saipan, when Ireland had somehow been rebranded ‘Ireland Inc’ and tycoon aspirations was the only game in town. Even Ireland’s extra-time drama against Spain didn’t diminish the sense that something potentially wonderful had been ruined.

And the experience of Ireland in Poland at the European Championships of 2012 was one of dismal return; a startlingly clear lesson in the gulf between us and Italy, Spain and Croatia.

Martin O’Neill’s team came here to France under an implicit pressure not to fold and to maybe concoct a magic night out of something, somehow.

The players live in a faster, less forgiving time and their performances fall under sharper scrutiny. For most of the qualifying campaign, they seemed highly unlikely to qualify. They hung in there when most of the public believed they probably wouldn’t make it and then produced their perfect night against Germany.

That stubbornness was in evidence again against Italy. As O’Neill said before the game, what the Italians did with their team had nothing to do with him. Ireland went out needing a win. Anything else would have not only have meant their exit from the tournament, it would have also meant another major championships in which Irish teams had fallen flat.

It would have strengthened the sense that those hugely evocative occasions in Stuttgart, Genoa or in Giants Stadium might as well be encased behind museum glass; that they were locked in and representative of a certain time and place.

Work ethic

It is hard to imagine anything eclipsing the fusion of will and faith between the Irish supporters and team which intensified as the minutes ticked down in steamy Lille. It is hard to imagine any football team every giving more than the players did with time running out against France. For all the complaints about their collective limitations, the goal was achieved through composure and accuracy and it was crafted by technique.

Regardless of what happens against France, they have already left a monument and a lasting contribution. And they have made the country dare to hope for more.

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