Keith Duggan: Nothing vintage about this Bordeaux for Ireland
Belgium finally find their strut on chastening day for Ireland players and supporters
Republic of Ireland midfielder Jeff Hendrick at the final whistle of the Group E game against Belgium at Stade Matmut Atlantique in Bordeaux. Photograph: Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images
When the final whistle came it was a blessed relief and as the Irish supporters began the slow trip back into Bordeaux, the city’s charms and vineyards and suddenly-constant sunshine seemed like poor consolation for what had been a chastening afternoon.
All the best laid plans and hopes: the months of preparation, the bookings, the flights, the taxis, the beer, the flags, the face painting and most of all the hope – the blind faith – that Ireland had a team capable of bothering Belgian’s fragile ego; it all amounted to very little on an afternoon that Ireland football fans will quickly consign to the dustbin of memory.
Belgium in Bordeaux: the idea held a million promises but the day delivered one of those lengthy and sombre lectures on the extent to which the national football team can continue to punch above its weight. Everyone knew Belgium were better on paper. The problems began as soon as they showed an intention to demonstrate that on the pitch.
Sometimes, these days are just punishing.
The deluge of clean summer rain which had fallen over the city on Friday night returned intermittently on Saturday morning as fans from both countries took the half hour tram ride to the stadium. A suspicious package left on one of the carriages brought the trains to a halt, a disruption which happened within an hour of kick-off and with 10 minutes to go, thousands of supporters from both countries were still racing towards the turnstiles. By then, news of the arrests in Brussels had filtered down to party-level and the minutes before the game felt anxious and rushed. Many didn’t make it inside in time for the anthems or for the kick-off.
The stadium in Bordeaux looks like a weird futuristic art concept piece, with a steep terrace of open steps on the exterior of the building. As the late-comers sprinted up the stairs, those already inside the ground were in extraordinary voice. The place was thrumming. And the Belgians – with their hokey ‘Red Devils’ moniker were friendly and good humoured and as they belted out their deeply unmusical football anthems on the trams on the way out, you could detect within the bullish certainty of their bass notes a deep-lying expectation; a collective assumption that Ireland were, a crap football team.
The Belgians were proud of their stable of superstar players and beneath the friendliness you could detect a kind of conceit. It was visible too, at times, in the way the Belgian players stroked the ball around with a Brazilian languor and ease as if this was just too easy. It was irritating for the Irish to watch because it was still 0-0 and Belgium, like Ireland, have won nothing.
In the 26th minute the Irish players had a rare opportunity to indulge in a bit of tiqui-taca: Hendrick to McCarthy, back to Hendrick and over to Whelan. The Belgians were content to let them have it: the suspicion was that they were taking a 30 second breather before they began their next considered assault on Darren Randolph’s goal.
Plus, even as the Irish played football, they were regressing steadily into their own half of the pitch until John O’Shea delivered the inevitable long ball forward. And then, for a split second, Wes Hoolahan had the ball and was running straight at Jan Vertonghen. Hoolahan dallied on the ball a second too long and was swallowed up. But it was a possible sign of that the Belgians were masking an essential frailty of mind.
In the 22nd minute, Hendrick rushed Toby Alderweireld into making a hurried clearance and James McCarthy toe-poked the ball on to Hoolahan, who tried to commit Alderweireld to the tackle even as he freed Hendrick, who was completely unmarked on his left. It was almost, almost the moment when the Belgian back four would have been left for dead but Alderweireld managed to put in a crunching brilliantly timed challenge on Wes, one of those old-fashioned challenges straight out of the Charlton black book.
As the Belgians tried to open their account with an array of fancy dan shots – outside of the right boot by Thomas Meunier, a bicycle kick, a bullet of a shot fired too high by Eden Hazard, a thumping header from Romelu Lukaku, the Ireland fans learned how to cope with this barrage of style and menace and scanned the field for evidence that the Republic players were winning some of the small, unfashionable struggles of spirit and character which have been the vital signs for Martin O’Neill’s team throughout this campaign.
But scoring looked like a remote possibility. Every so often O’Shea or Hoolahan would find the ball at his feet and look up trying to spot Shane Long, who was like a man marooned on a tiny island half a mile off shore: visible but just about.
We held the hope that maybe the willingness of Seamus Coleman, harassing the ankles of Vertonghen, snapping at the Belgian like a furious terrier, was the stuff which this team of artists would become weary of. In the meantime, the Belgians continued to try and break down Ireland’s resistance, led by O’Shea and Ciaran Clark, who were running around like first medics at the scene of a major incident. The Ireland fans behind Randolph’s goal didn’t even register a sound when Hoolahan someone got enough jump to head Alex Witsel’s glancing flick off the Ireland goal-line: it was just another incident in a blizzard of red attacks.
By half-time, any hope that the Belgians were so caught up in sulking and in-fighting that they would be rolled over by the irrepressible wave of Irish spirit and commitment and bloody-minded optimism had vanished. It wasn’t going to be like that at all.
Maybe, at 0-0, the Belgians must have been slightly worried that maybe their dazzling generation of thoroughbred footballers just wouldn’t get it together. Three minutes into the second half, those fears vanished. Even as Irish claims for a foul on Shane Long in the Belgian penalty area, alarm bells were sounding throughout Ireland’s rear-guard as Lukaku strode onto De Bruyne’s squared ball and placed a powerful left-footed strike sweetly past Randolph. Just like that, the clouds cleared for Belgium and Ireland looked set for a long afternoon.
The game demanded a bit of disrespect from the Irish players. And for a few minutes after that goal, they got to express themselves a little bit. When Hoolahan declined to kick the ball into touch after Mousa Dembélé went down clutching his ankle and drew an enraged chorus of boos from the Belgians, he was showing the right way forward.
The problem with playing the game in Belgium’s half of the field is that it left plenty of green space for De Bruyne and Hazard and company to exploit on the break. Witsel’s goal, beautifully conceived and executed, felt like an inevitable occurrence. At 2-0, Marc Wilmots, the Belgian coach, suddenly began to look like a man who was enjoying the game again.
The Belgians had found their mojo and there was something appalling about the ease with which they created their third; three passes starting from their own corner flag and the third of those a contemptuous passing shot by Lukaku. The big Antwerp forward disdained an elaborate celebration, instead walking slowly towards the red section behind the Irish goal, chest puffed. It was the moment when Belgian conceit, ambition and actual brilliance merged; the moment they looked like a team who believed they might do something special.
What did the Irish believe at that moment? Battling bigger odds has been the default moment for Ireland football teams since the country’s debut appearance in 1988. It is probably miraculous that there haven’t been more days like this: 3-0 down with 20 minutes still remaining.
In the 81st minute, Robbie Brady let fly with a snap shot outside the box which caught Jeff Hendrick squarely in the face as he ran through hoping Brady would flick the ball onto him. It was the kind of misunderstanding that happens in team sports when one team is under constant pressure and is losing heavily.
In contrast, the Belgians were playing as if being controlled by some distant Playstation wizard. Christian Benteke’s – the Belgians introduced the Liverpool powerhouse; Ireland brought on Robbie Keane – first act was to bump Glenn Whelan off the ball and then deliver a back-heel to a team-mate.
All of a sudden, Belgium looked like they were playing a different game. There was nothing for the Irish fans to do but sit back and admire the smooth conviction and imagination of their play and consider the unlikely passage which Ireland had taken just to make it here, surprising nobody in world football by losing 1-0 to Scotland in Glasgow on a bitter Friday night and later stunning football enthusiasts by somehow ending a brilliant night in Dublin 1-0 ahead against world champions Germany. The thrill of that suddenly felt like a long time ago.
At the whistle, Wilmots stood for a long time to wait until his parade of young stars trooped off the field and made a point of congratulating every one of them. Suddenly, all the talk about a fight within the Belgian family didn’t seem to matter very much.
“Well after four years of success, when we get criticism it is like the four years have disappeared,” said Wilmots. “I think it is manipulating the people. We have a team who have given all for the national team. I live with criticism but apart from death I don’t know what else could affect me. I am 47. I want to be healthy and I enjoy my job and hope to put kids on the right path and I hope the country is proud of us. People who criticise will never have a good life.”
Irish thoughts, meanwhile turned northward to Lille and to Italy. The Ireland squad were already airborne when the last of the supporters made it back into Bordeaux.
“My disappointment was that a few days ago against Sweden we played exceptionally well with the ball,” admitted O’Neill. “Today we looked a bit nervous and gave it away readily and it came back rather quickly . . . Individually Belgium are as talented a team as in this competition. But the goals we have given away were not great for our viewpoint.”
At least the Republic team have everything to play for going into their final group game: four years ago, their encounter against Italy was all but ceremonial.
Somehow, O’Neill and his players are going to have to concoct a plan to score against one of the most defensively astute and rigorous teams in the competition. It will come down to the familiar demands placed on all Irish teams down the years: a nervy, anxious night against a monolithic football nation steeped in accomplishment and tradition.
“We will throw everything into that game,” vowed O’Neill.
Nobody will doubt the honesty of effort behind the throw. But whether ‘everything’ will be like enough is a different matter. It is going to take something special if Ireland are to extend their stay in France.