Promised land after decade in desert


AT THE end, after the lap of honour had been gleefully danced and the last strains of Depeche Mode’s Just Can’t Get Enoughwere fading away, Stephen Hunt and Damien Duff reached into the huge canvas bag the Irish squad carries their stock of footballs around in and started kicking balls into the crowd.

They were like kids throwing sweets around at a birthday party just because they could. In this age of austerity, it seemed positively decadent, a bacchanalian nod to a time when not everything was so po-faced and serious and downright stripped of fun.

It felt right and proper too. Ireland had finished the job with a 1-1 draw with Estonia and we were back, back, back. Back to a major tournament for the first time in a decade.

Back to a level of respectability in the world of international football where a squad of mostly Premier League players really should belong. And back, at long last, to a lowering of the drawbridge to link the team and its people. That moat had gone uncrossed for far too long.

“I am proud for the Irish people,” said Giovanni Trapattoni afterwards. “I understand what this means for the people because it is just like me with my country. I am proud because this is good for me, for the players and for all the supporters.

“I am very proud for many reasons. First, we come here with an important objective because we started last season with a difficult group. But we knew we could achieve qualification.

“We wanted to develop more options, that was important. We have improved our quality since we lost to Russia. We have a new attitude, a new mentality. Our players believe in our system.

“I gave them my congratulations because I told them yesterday not to underestimate their opponent. I told them it was not Estonia on Friday night. That was not them. I asked for 100 per cent commitment because anything can happen. I am very happy for the players now.

“This is the most important moment for us. We have only conceded one goal and I am a little disappointed for our supporters that we did not win the game. We had this one 90 minutes, I told the players that. In the first 30 minutes, we had some good chances for Robbie but he was unlucky. I am happy we did not lose.”

That wasn’t really ever likely to happen. This was a night for kicking back. It was feet on the desk, hands behind the head, cigar in the mouth. A chance to luxuriate in the prospect of a summer getting down at the big garden party rather than peering at it through a gap in the wall.

Richard Dunne had a beautiful line over the weekend that got to the core of it: “We’ve all lived through World Cups and European Championships – they’re the best times of your young life.”

The whole stadium spent the evening giddy with thoughts of reliving them.

The football itself was a secondary concern. Tertiary at times even, given that most of the first half was taken up with watching paper planes dive-bomb the pitch from high in the stands.

Predictably enough, the natives were in schoolboy form, entertaining themselves as best they could seeing as all ambiguity had been wiped from the tie in Tallinn. The only surprise was that we were more than half an hour in before the inevitable Mexican wave swept the place.

By then Ireland had taken the lead, Stephen Ward turning onto a ball batted clear by the Estonian goalkeeper after Kevin Doyle flicked a corner goalwards. Robbie Keane had skimmed a carbon copy chance just wide at the very beginning but Ward wasn’t going to let another one slide by. Pavel Londak flapped at the ball in the Estonian goal and Ward charged him full price for his troubles.

You couldn’t say his goal settled the mood any because that just wasn’t the sort of evening we were having. There were no nerves to quell, no restless minds to set at ease. This was a novel where everybody had already read the last page, a movie where the whole plot had been revealed in the trailer. You couldn’t have pumped drama into it with a stadium-sized bellows.

Not that this is something to complain about, you understand. The past decade has come laced with enough drama and incident to last us all several lifetimes. A nice drab few hours of nothingness was just what we wanted and it was just what we got. Trap’s cat was in the sack and nobody was of a mind to start wrestling with it.

Even when Konstantin Vassiljev beat Shay Given with an equaliser in the second half, nobody found cause to even raise an eyebrow. The game was over, the campaign was done.

After a decade in the desert, it was time for the promised land.