McCarthy's Lisbon lions refuse to roar

 

Nobody danced. Nobody sang. Even the good times are sombre in Irish football these days.

Saturday night and the Twilight Zone met the Stadium of Light. The Irish, having absorbed the thrilling, slash-and-burn football of their hosts, emerged with a point but played it down. No happy clappy triumphalism here. The Portuguese had their party spoiled, but they spoke kind words about the intruders.

Strange world. Luis Figo, the courtly genius whose job moves can affect the international money markets, had been eclipsed in some Man of the Match polls by Richard Dunne. The big lad, unloved by Everton, left at the alter by Wimbledon, is fast becoming the biggest cult in Irish football.

Nevertheless, Figo and his colleagues linger to speak with the media and their fans while most of the Irish barrel towards the bus grumbling. On a bad night for Luis Figo he'll make time for Irish journalists, while on a great night for Ian Harte he'll muster a passing grunt. Are the good times all gone?

Perhaps it will all lead to the next World Cup. Perhaps. On Saturday night it was impossible still to find anybody who thinks we'll be cavorting through the Orient in the summer of 2002. There is such a journey ahead that we don't even know the value of the currency we picked up in Amsterdam and Lisbon. "You know," said Mick McCarthy yesterday at the airport, "that was the sort of game I would have fancied. I would have loved that. I'd give it all away for another year of playing in games like that."

At last some of that spirit and relish is seeping into his team. McCarthy the player always loved these big nights when he came up against players with world-size reputations and played them frank and hard. His team are learning how to white-knuckle it too, and somewhere between McCarthy's hard defiance and Roy Keane's glum professionalism this group is establishing a personality for itself.

They needed that fractious, fighting spirit on Saturday. Figo and Rui Costa were a league ahead of anything we could contrive. Worse, the referee, Atanas Ouzounov, was a small scandal too, his homing instincts defined by the moment at the end of the first half when he went to blow up for the break only to see Portugal develop a promising movement downfield. He quickly slipped the whistle back into his pocket.

This team are sour and tough, but they have a flashing smile. Three goals in the two toughest away fixtures you could imagine and each time the ball has been delivered to the net via an act of genius. On Saturday night it was the turn of Matt Holland to finally introduce his talents to us. He was set up by Roy Keane and accepted the nomination with some aplomb, hitting a viciously swerving shot to the net from 25 yards.

Holland's equaliser may yet be the most important strike of the campaign. Or it might be rendered worthless by one fluffed evening of football. Wednesday evening brings the Estonians to Lansdowne Road for our last competitive game of the year. A win will bring us to five points from three tricky games, more than most of us dared imagine.

There will be no fireworks to mark the occasion though. Overall the impression is of a team which is going to work the coal face until it breaks through to something worthwhile. And then they'll turn and give us the finger. This is one team against the world. And they fancy their chances.