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Ken Early: Optimism is football's sweetest illusion, so Ireland should enjoy while it lasts

Draw against world’s top-ranked side a cause for cheer, but tighter defensive play required

"It was anything but a friendly. The crowd made it a really meaningful game." Roberto Martinez was playing up the role of the Irish crowd in order to downplay what was, for Belgium, a disappointing result – but from an Irish point of view his words were truer than he knew.

Anthony Barry's decision to leave Ireland for Belgium had created an unpleasant narrative possibility. Barry's arrival had coincided with the team's improvement after the goalless hell of Stephen Kenny's first autumn. If his departure now coincided with a downturn, people would wonder if he had in fact been the key figure in that improvement.

So, friendly or not, defeat to an experimental Belgium side would have been damaging for Ireland and with 10 minutes to go that’s what they were looking at. The cliche says that a good team is one that can win while playing badly, so what do you call one that loses while playing well?

Instead another spectacular header by Alan Browne, after brilliant work by Matt Doherty and Chiedozie Ogbene to make the chance, ensured that Ireland's seven-match unbeaten run would extend into the post-Barry era.

"To win the game would not have flattered us," said Kenny, though Ireland's defending has to get better if they are to start turning draws into wins. Kenny admitted that he was disappointed with the two goals his team had conceded. Both came as sucker punches at moments when Ireland's game plan seemed to be going well. The first half started with Ireland giving Belgium a chasing in their own half, showing their intent to take the game to the world's number one-ranked team. "You could play them mid-block and end up in a low-block, they're that good," said Stephen Kenny said later. "It's a slow death. We're not having that, we don't want that."

Batshuayi was at the corner of the box – who scores from out there?

Then, on 12 minutes, we saw an example of what Pep Guardiola is talking about when he says “the faster the ball goes forward, the faster it comes back”. It’s always tempting to get the ball forward as quickly as you can, but sometimes this is how you expose yourself to the most dangerous counterattacks.

As Shane Duffy received the ball from Josh Cullen 15 yards inside Ireland's half, he could see that ahead of him in the left channel, five Irish players were grouped against two Belgians. The odds looked favourable for a clipped pass forward into that area – but Jason Denayer beat the odds and headed it back into midfield, and suddenly the numbers were against Ireland. With Jeff Hendrick and Jason Knight part of the bunch that had pushed up on the left, the Irish midfield was emptied out, and two quick passes sent Michi Batshuayi running into Ireland's box one-on-one against Seamus Coleman.

The attack still didn’t look too dangerous, as Batshuayi was at the corner of the box – who scores from out there? – and Ireland had three defenders in the middle covering two Belgian attackers. But Batshuayi wasn’t thinking about passing.

Kenny has talked about how appealing a goalkeeper Caoimhín Kelleher is “aesthetically” and one of the reasons he is good to watch is that he has the gift of looking relaxed. As Batshuayi cut inside Coleman the Irish goalkeeper looked a little bit too relaxed. The hard early shot seemed to take him by surprise and he dived too late to reach the ball. Coleman might have made it more difficult for Batshuayi to come inside on to his right foot, but even so Kelleher will be disappointed to have been beaten from that position by a shot that wasn’t quite in the corner.

The second Belgium goal was a horror. Ireland's man marking fell to pieces and Shane Duffy fell to the ground as what seemed like half the Belgian team queued up to head Hazard's delivery into the net. This was too simple to be more Anthony Barry set-piece witchcraft – it was just awful Irish defending. It must have been galling for Kenny to see his team fail to execute the most basic form of defending, having done the offensive defending so well.

The encouraging thing is that Ireland responded to these setbacks with patience and determination. They finished both halves the stronger team, playing as though they believed they would score.

Martinez said the crowd had given Ireland belief and it must be noted that his coaches, Thierry Henry and Anthony Barry, had helped to get the crowd going when they appeared on the big screen midway through the first half. The scene quickly turned comical as it became evident the camera was lingering on them just to give the crowd more time to boo.

Looking back, it was probably the most optimistic moment of Mick McCarthy's time as Ireland manager

It was the best booing of an opponent in a friendly at Lansdowne Road since the 3-0 win against Denmark before the 2002 World Cup. That night the Irish crowd rounded on the unsuspecting Danish winger Peter Madsen, because an error by the stadium announcer had led them to believe he was actually Peter Lovenkrands, who was a Rangers player at the time.

That game was 20 years ago yesterday. Looking back, it was probably the most optimistic moment of Mick McCarthy's time as Ireland manager. It was a time when Ireland seemed to be bursting with talent. Damien Duff played so brilliantly that Niall Quinn turned to McCarthy on the bench and said "this is the first time I've seen someone win man of the match after three minutes".

Besides Duff, we had Robbie Keane, Shay Given, and Richard Dunne coming into their prime, we had young talent like Steven Reid, Colin Healy and Richard Sadlier knocking on the door, we had two sets of youth European champions on the way. Our great captain Roy Keane would be returning from injury in time to lead us at the World Cup. The future was so bright, we had to wear shades.

We didn’t know then that we had already peaked. For so many reasons – Saipan, injuries, mismanagement, misfortune – that generation never fulfilled their early promise. They never made it to another World Cup. The one time they got most of the way there, they were thwarted by that man sitting on the Belgium bench.

Henry had been forgotten by the final whistle, as a happy crowd saluted the Irish comeback. Just a few short years after Martin O’Neill was explaining that Ireland could never achieve anything without “a prolific goalscorer”, Irish optimism is approaching the heights of 2002. We feel like we have a future again. It’s the sweetest illusion in football, so enjoy it while it lasts.