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Ken Early: Thierry Henry, a missed flight, and the invisible hand of history

How I ended up missing out on the collective outrage about France’s infamous handball

Everyone now knows that Thierry Henry's handball in Paris was one of the most blatant crimes ever committed against international soccer, but I have to admit that like the referee Martin Hansson, I missed it in real time.

I was at the Stade de France that night, covering the match for Newstalk, and my memory of the France goal is a blur. I saw the ball coming into the area at what seemed an unpromising angle for France, and then suddenly flashing into the Ireland net, exactly as I feared it would.

I remember Henry taking off on his celebratory run behind the goal. I remember Shay Given running after the referee, screaming and waving his hands, which looked comically oversized in their pale gloves. I could tell from the reaction of the Irish players that something was wrong, but I only figured out what it was on the second replay, when I saw for the first time the unforgettable image of Henry, his elegant fingers cupping the ball obscenely, before he crossed for Gallas to head it in.

At the end fireworks and confetti, Henry sitting down next to Richard Dunne, and the stadium speakers booming out the Black Eyed Peas: "I got a feeling . . . that tonight's gonna be a good night . . ." But the Black Eyed Peas were wrong.

About midnight, Thierry Henry stood in front of a crowd of journalists in the mixed zone, speaking with the forthright candour of one who is not afraid to face difficult truths.

“I am not the referee. The ball hit my hand, I will be honest. It was an ’andball. But I am not the referee.”

What did you say to Richard Dunne?

“I told him. He said to me the same: ‘You are not the ref.’ So that’s why they didn’t come to me, they went to see the ref. I think you can clearly see the opportunity. Squillaci went to jump with two Irish players, I’m behind them. Next thing I know, the ball hit my hand. My arm, even. The ball is right in front of me. I played it. The ref allowed it. That’s the question you should ask.”

I remember being surprised at how openly the Irish players alleged conspiracy. Keane imagined Blatter and Platini texting each other about it and laughing. Duff suggested that Fifa wanted Adidas teams (ie France) to qualify for the finals. I admit, it all sounded a bit "jet fuel can't melt steel beams" to me at the time.

Sound the alarm

It was nearly two in the morning when we got back to the centre of Paris and it seemed right to have a drink. The drinking continued until dawn. I got back to my hotel room about 6.30am. I calculated I could grab an hour of sleep before I needed to leave for the airport and my flight at 10.20am. So I booked an alarm call, set my phone alarm, and laid my head on the pillow.

I woke with the phone klaxon going off next to my head and the vague sense that this noise had been my constant companion on a journey lasting many centuries. The time on the phone was 10.20am. My flight was literally taking off. I had to find some new way to get back to Dublin in time for the start of our show at 7pm, on a day when thousands of Ireland fans would be making the same journey.

Obviously the flights were all gone – but there was still time to get on a Eurostar that would arrive into London just after 1pm. From there I could get an Aer Lingus flight from Heathrow to Dublin, arriving home about 5.30pm. It would cost me a little in excess of €500 to escape the mess I had made for myself.

Slumping into my seat at Gare du Nord, I was suffused with a profound sense of peace. It had been a bad morning but I was getting away with it. I was about two-thirds of the way through Madame Bovary and was looking forward to finishing it. Every so often I stared out the window as the train glided through the long, sloping fields of northern France: Bovary country. Everything was going to be okay.

Then my phone buzzed. A text from Aer Lingus, saying that my flight EI-521 was delayed “indefinitely”. I was advised to check the website for live updates.

This was a disaster. I would be stuck in London, unable to make it to the studio for one of our most important shows in a long time. Unable to access data on my phone, and reluctant to call my office to explain what was happening, I called my father, who would have internet access at work, and asked him to check the details.

“You’re on the Eurostar? You missed your flight from Paris?”

No, no, I said, I actually booked it this way because it was cheaper, they’d jacked up the prices ages ago on all the flights because of the match, you know the way, gouging bastards. “Can you just check what they’re saying about this flight . . . EI-521.”

“Okay.” I could hear him typing in the background.

“That’s the 10.20am flight from Charles de Gaulle to Dublin. It says there’s an indefinite delay.”

There was a pause while we digested the implications of this information.

“That’s . . . really weird,” I said.

“Why would they be texting you about that flight?”

“I don’t know, that’s weird! The flight I’m on is from London.”

He knew I was lying, I knew he knew I was lying, and he knew I knew he knew I was lying. He waited for me to own up – even Thierry Henry had owned up – but instead I thanked him for helping out and wished him well.

Take flight

Arriving in Dublin Airport about 5.30pm I met several journalists who had been booked on my original flight from Paris, which had eventually departed at about five in the evening. They’d been sitting in Paris waiting for it to go all day.

It was only when I got to work that I started to realise the country was in the grip of a major episode. The show's email inbox was a boiling nuclear inferno of rage and insanity. People were saying we had to cancel our sponsorship deal with Gillette because they also sponsored Henry. It felt like I had walked into a madhouse. You'd think nobody had ever seen a referee make a mistake before.

A lot of listeners complained about me not being angry enough with Thierry Henry that night. But they had all spent the day working themselves into a state about it. They had collectively reached the point where a torchlit march on the French embassy seemed the logical next step.

I had been cut off from all this. The whole way home I barely thought about the match. Walking into the station, my heart was still heavy with grief for Emma, and Charles, and their poor little Berthe ending up in the workhouse. After spending most of the day in that world, the Henry stuff seemed like light entertainment.

The combination of Twitter and EU data roaming means it couldn’t happen like that today. I’d have been marinating in internet outrage all the way from Paris to Dublin, absorbing the waves of outrage and counter-outrage. Thanks to this connectedness, I can never again be so blithely out of step with the national mood. And it’s a long time since I’ve read anything as good as Madame Bovary.