Croke Park and Paris revisited

by Brian Strahan

Croke Park

A crisp November evening in 2009 and realistically Ireland’s last football match at Croke Park. That is until the next economic boom of sorts in a very distant future, when planning permission is given to make the old South Terrace of Landsdowne Road look part of an actual sports stadium as opposed to the out of place back drop it is. Only then will debate rage over a plea by the FAI to the GAA for temporary use. Rule 42 revisited. But there were good times in Croke Park for Irish soccer followers. Not overtly good times but a few memorable nights. And what a send off, France at home in a World Cup Play Off.

Confidence was not particularly high, indeed not a huge amount of it abounded. Steve Claridge, ex-journeyman turned pundit said of the Irish team in an online betting channel preview “You look at their team and you know they simply shouldn’t be competitive at this level.” This coming off the back of home and away draws with lowly Italy, World Cup Holders. And no defeats in the group either. Yet the perception as hard working but limited was sticking.

France 24’s Herve Amoric gave Irish hope a lift when he said “On paper that French team is unbeatable, but we don’t play on paper.” Not quite the endorsement required, but a semblance of hope nonetheless. Even if it was dependant on the potential non-performance of a talented side as opposed to any possibility the Irish side would be expected to out-play a team apparently misguided by a superstitious off-beat astrologist for a manager, Raymond Domenech. A much derided figure in France. As opposed to Giovanni Trapattoni, in whom many Irish laid their trust. Not quite water into wine, but not far off.

Trapattoni, in the build up to the match, talked down artistic superiority and talked up the artisan Irish way. “”France achieved second place in the group like us and we were one of only five unbeaten teams. We have a few creative players – maybe France have more and other teams have more still. But football is concrete. We are not a theatre, La Scala or Madison Square Garden; it’s football. Football is ball, pitch, opponent and mentality, that’s football. Results are results, a show is a show and results are different to the show. That is our belief.” And the belief in how this Irish team did and would continue to play was apparently set down in stone. We would be hard to beat.

France and Manchester United full back Patrice Evra said it would be a “scandal” if France didn’t qualify. Whilst not many necessarily agreed with the dramatic tone, it was reflected in the media and throughout the country that qualification was a height that a perceived limited team were unlikely to scale. A draw at home and we would take our chances in Paris, was the perception of some. But realistically Ireland were not expected to qualify. The only chance was a solid result at home.
Franck Ribery was injured for both legs of the World Cup play off for South Africa. An element of hope. But a lucid attacking line consisting of Thierry Henry, Andre-Pierre Gignac and Nicolas Anelka would start with expectation. A defence including Evra, William Gallas and Bacary Sagna was apparently their weak link. Lassana Diarra of Real Madrid was their solid base in midfield. Yoann Gourcuff would balance Diarra’s work rate with fluidity.

For Ireland Liam, Lawrence had now clearly cemented his place in the team. Lawrence had played his way into the side, a hard thing to do under Trapattoni who waivers little from consistent selections, showing loyalty to those who perform their tasks as required. But in a late summer friendly at the start of September in Munster’s Rugby stronghold of Thomond Park Lawrence put in a solid performance. Shortly before halftime he struck a free kick at an over enthused Steven Pienaar who received a yellow card for his impatience and encroachment. Lawrence lined up the ball for a second time and struck it with deft precision as it floated into the top right hand corner. Enough to convince his manager that he was worthy of forcing the more inventive Aiden McGeady onto the substitutes bench.

Damien Duff added superior flair on the left wing and Keith Andrews and Glenn Whelan were to be the industrious and often discredited workmanlike midfield again. Robbie Keane and Kevin Doyle were hoping to lead the attack , if allowed. A defence of John O’Shea, Richard Dunne, Sean St Ledger and Kevin Kilbane were to protect Shay Given’s goal, all though over the years he had often had to carry out that job as a sole trader. St Ledger was starting to look like a shrewd choice for centre back. For all Kilbane’s determination it was feared quick French feet would exploit the inherent decency of a performance.

For some reason Les Marseillaise is always sung with gusto by Irish crowds. Not understanding or even knowing the words is an irrelevance. We can hum and sing gibberish with Gallic-esque tones. The national anthem fills the crisp night with lungs of cold air. For the last time Ireland face to play into the Hill 16 end of Croke park. A terrace synonymous with light and deep blue of another code. This night a sharp blue hoped to overtake Croke Park and within ten minutes Gignac has scored. However relieving the crowd was a linesman’s flag. Ireland slowly begin to claw their way into the game with Keith Andrews busily putting himself about in midfield and the French growing in frustration. Unfortunately the common trend of effort but no end product began taking shape. The best opportunity fell to Liam Lawrence who showed none of the calm he displayed in Limerick when he rushed in to smack a loose ball that arrived at pace, wide. A 20-yard strike from Keith Andrews was the only other attempt of note. As the whistle shrilled for half time the feeling was that Ireland were playing in a limited but enthusiastic manner. Their opponents seemed a little put out but were content enough to be scoreless and know that they had only performed in and around par.

Just over five minutes into the second half and a flurry of activity comes from an Irish attack. Three quick attempts on goal ensue from a Damien Duff won and delivered corner. O’Shea slices a downward header from Dunne which lands for Keane to attempt meekly an overhead kick which fell to Kilbane who fired wide off a French shin. France realised that they were in a match at this time and decided to increase their participation in the game. Gignac looped a header which Given touched over, Evra went down from a Given save but to no penalty related avail. Anelka started to create more space for himself and it was just after 70 minutes when he and Ireland combined to give him a terrific amount of room to manoeuvre into position to receive a pass under no duress and to strike a shot that clipped St Ledger and in turn the inside of the right post. With that the air whistles loosely from any balloon of hope that was being clung onto and the majority of the 74,000 crowd go silent.

To their credit and not unusually, the Irish crowd take little time in trying to create a boldly positive back drop for the team and get behind the players. But less then ten minutes after the opening goal an under hit back pass from Kevin Kilbane nearly puts the tie beyond any doubt only for Gignac to lack similar composure. The introduction of Leon Best, Aiden McGeady and Stephen Hunt in the last twenty minutes isn’t enough to get an essential goal to balance the match if not the tie. Glen Whelan comes close twice but as the match ends it feels so does any chance of World Cup qualification.

As handshakes are exchanged and disappointed faces amass a sudden and brief moment of drama creates itself. Irish assistant Marco Tardelli, Irish head of security Tony Hickey and a cluster of players react suddenly to a short lived skirmish in the centre of the pitch. The usually passive Keith Andrews is clearly incensed with Lassana Diarra who has apparently dismissed Andrews. Andrews later reflected “I don’t want to say exactly what he said. He knows what he said. It was a disrespectful comment which probably typifies them, to be honest.” Andrews added, “All our lads are aware of it so we’ll see what happens on Wednesday.”
Realistically what is hoped is that the following Wednesday doesn’t end with a comfortable victory with France putting two or three past Ireland. This though is seen as a realistic prospect. The fact that Ireland have been apparently slighted by French arrogance is a further motivation. But the biggest motivation is qualification. And as the players politely clapped the crowd as they left the pitch, this seemed hugely unlikely.

Paris

Brian Kerr was a popular appointment when he took over as Republic of Ireland manager in 2003. The likeable Dub’ from Drimnagh was seen as a refreshing choice by Irish fans and media, even if doubts about his experience at the highest level lingered. Kerr would be given little time to prove his worth and would be disastrously replaced by Steve Staunton. Little loyalty shown to a manager who had huge success at international under age level with Ireland. But his stand out result in that brief period of management was a hard fought 0-0 draw with France in Paris. A French team with a new manager, Raymond Domenech, and apparent unrest were held scoreless by a team lynch pinned by an ageing Roy Keane and an ageless Kevin Kilbane in midfield.

Irish support of what some estimates had as high as 30,000 that night was fantastic. Again Les Marseillais was sung with gusto and no comprehension. A time when Irish supporters travelling en masse to a foreign game was not unusual such was the strength of a thriving economy. Robbie Keane and John O’Shea came close for Ireland and inevitably heroics were performed by Shay Given in goal. Ireland rattled the world champions of five years prior and proved that a night in Paris didn’t have to be met with dread.

Five years on and with economic stability seriously faltering its still admirable that close to an estimated 15,000 fans make the trip. The French FA {FFF} will have been none to pleased. In a move to prevent an influx of Irish fans creating an atmosphere similar to that of 2003 none of the seats available for the match were available by internet or phone, unusual as throughout the French qualifying campaign the opposite was the case. With an approximate allocation of 10 percent this meant that 8,500 fans were guaranteed tickets. It seemed that on the day of the match Irish fans would have to take their chances with touts. FAI chief executive John Delaney advised “The Irish fans are very innovative at getting tickets, though, we all know that. They’ll buy them off the French directly and do all the wonderful things they have done in the past. We want to get as many Irish fans as we can into the ground.” Not much comfort really. Having a friend or relative in France pick up a ticket on ones behalf was a possibility, bit logistically having an uncle of a friend working 14 miles from Bordeaux collect a ticket and get it to you was unlikely. Touts and their greed would be the most likely route.

In the pre match build up RTÉ pundit Johnny Giles alludes to the fact that having to chase this game will suit Ireland. But he does admit that without a huge amount of flair players this might be a tough task. Across the Irish Media and amongst supporters there is little real hope of Ireland qualifying from the nights match. In fact it seems highly unlikely that Ireland will not lose and with a draw of any type not being sufficient the prospects for the evening are bleak. This Irish team is seen as limited, non-expansive, unable to retain possession for any substantial period of time. The likelihood of unlocking a French defence with only one genuinely creative and classy midfielder in Damien Duff is slim. For all their endeavour the balance of the midfield is seen as Ireland’s weak point. But what is certain and is reiterated by everyone is that Ireland are organised and well drilled.

World cup winning French Captain Didier Deschamps talked about what Trapattoni gives Ireland “in terms of tactical discipline”. His World Cup winning team mate Emmanuel Petit colludes, “they will maintain their absolute desire to win without fear.” In reaction to France drawing Ireland in the play offs overall, former Liverpool manager Gérard Houllier paid tribute to the “Irish spirit and supporters”. All very nice, polite and cautious. But what everyone was saying between the lines was that this Ireland team were not good enough and undoubtedly not skilful and creative enough. They would be stubborn and resist an overhaul but they would concede eventually.

Between the two teams only one change was made. Replacing Barcelona centre back Éric Abidal was Sevilla centre back Julien Escudé. He lasts less then ten minutes to be replaced by his club colleague Sébastien Squillaci after Patrice Evra breaks his nose. Evra still wearing blue. Keith Andrews puts himself about and the sight of him snapping at the heels of Lassana Diarra get hearts pumping with revenge in mind. But it is Diarra who is given the the chance from long range to kill any dream off but he shoots comfortably into the Parisian night air.

Ireland then begun to settle down and start to play some stylsih, patient football and with it chances start to creep in. Doyle, Keane and Lawrence play good linking football and begin to exert some pressure. In the 24th minute Keane is denied by goal keeper Hugo Lloris and a less atheltic and sharp thinking keeper might have been too slow off the mark to prevent an Irish opener. In the 32nd minute the game and the tie is turned on its head.

Robbie Keane has unfairly had his goal scoring record derided at times over the years. Not enough goals against top quality opposition in competitive fixtures. Since his first goals against Malta in 1998, Keane has scored memorable and more pertinently vital goals competitively, against Yugoslavia, The Netherlands, Iran, Germany, Spain and Italy. But for whatever reason he has at times been given a rough ride over the years. The next in a long line was to come at Stade de France and in the increasing vain with which the Irish were stylishly playing Damien Duff and Kevin Kilbane played a clever one-two, and initially it looked like Duff had done well to simply retrieve the ball from the by-line and supply it back into the box, but such was the balance of the pass was that it rolled right to the feet of Robbie Keane who with great balance and precision tidily placed the ball into the far right hand corner. And with that everything changed.

Suddenly Ireland with an away goal to equal France’s were back in the tie. Just as impressively, Ireland don’t retreat as has been their wont in similar situations in the past. A confidence breathes through the side and they look comfortable when on the ball. When without Keith Andrews is working hard to pressurise an increasingly frustrated French midfield and the Irish fans who have drowned out their French counterparts with Que Sera Sera are beginning to think that the possibility of witnessing something very special is possible. The French team, booed off the pitch at half team, suddenly, look beatable.

Sharply after the second half starts Diarra fouls Keane and from the ensuing Lawrence free kick the ball drops on to the chest of John O’Shea who is free on the 6 yard box. But a crowded goal mouth and a rushed shot leave O’Shea ruing the miss. The Irish continue to play tidy and entertainig football and limit the French chances thanks to the typical harrying nature of their game. But what seems to have hit the French was that Ireland were playing their usual physical game, but were coupling it with surprisingly stylish play. In the 61st minute Damien Duff finds himself released through a chasm in the French defence and running at pace has his shot saved by the impressive and decisive Lloris. But a better wighted shot was needed and with the miss one of Ireland’s best chances to capitalise was lost. Shortly afterwards Keane has an equally good chance but when he pushes the ball past Lloris he does so with slightly too much weight and runs out of space.

France then began to claw their way back into the game but Paul McShane, on for the injured O’Sheas and again Andrews disrupt the French attacks. Sean St Ledger also throwing himself into tackles. Diarra plays a weak pass back and Keane picks up on it but blasts it over from distance. The match then goes into extra time.

In the third minute of injury time Nicolas Anelka shoots low and not too far wide and French pressure increases and includes an appeal by Anelka for a penalty.

It is in the thirteenth minute of added time when the break through for France and the heartbreak for Ireland comes. A long free kick pumped in to the Irish box seems just too long for Thierry Henry. But with a deft flick of his arm and a second hand ball in the space of a second, the ball is literally palmed back onto his right foot. A quick flick of the boot and the ball lands in the path of the head of the onrushing French defender, William Gallas. In delight Henry peels away to join his compatriots in celebration, apparently oblivious to the trail of destruction of spirits left in his wake. If any initial doubt lingers the reaction of the Irish players, in particular Shay Given leaves no doubt as to the injustice done. Crucially, Swedish referee Martin Hansson doesn’t see the incident and that, in football, is that.

Only one half chance in the second half of extra time was manufactured by Darron Gibson but his long range effort flew high and into the Saint Denis night. In the dying moments French substitute Sidney Govou had a chance to put France into the lead on the night but he lacked composure and scuffed his shot high.

Henry closed his eyes in relief as a teammate held him. Domenech was engulfed by his back room staff. Ireland closed its eyes and the night remained dark.

*****

Ireland, undoubtedly, had been shafted. Only one thing was worse then what a Thierry limb had inflicted on the team and the nation. As the mist of fury subsided we realised that Ireland had had an historic victory in their midst. But we had let the opportunity slip. We had played well enough to create the chances but we only took one of them. Were we more clinical an insurmountable gap between the sides would have surely opened and a possible French implosion would have incurred.

In dark moments, such as those after the match, Irish fans who were not lucky enough to be in Saint Denis turned to the RTÉ panel for guidance. Bill O’Herlihy and the trinity of John Giles, Graeme Souness and Eamon Dunphy were to provide insight and reason. The draw of the punditry on Ireland is a rarity in its current composite. Its draw is in its honesty, humour and disregard for towing any sort of directorial dictation a lá the commercially driven punditry prevalent in England.

A positive Bill O Herlihy asked the panel if we had hope for the European Championship qualifiers. He proposed the possibility of a team who were going to play like they had in Paris. Souness was quick to point out that Trapattoni hadn’t changed. Giles said that something had changed, a shift in attitude had occurred but he was unsure if it had come from Trapattoni or not.

Dunphy was quick to point to further failings by Trapattoni in squad selection. “When McShane came on, we all said, there’s an accident waiting to happen; when Gibson came on. That bench should have had Steve Finnan… Steven Reid, Andy Reid , Lee Carsley. A lot of players have been exiled from this squad. And tonight was a night when they should have been called on and they were needed. Gibson contributed nothing, he hasn’t played since September, he isn’t up to this level at all. Now, that was a factor too. But a lot of lessons could have been learned to night and I hope that Trapattoni has absorbed those lessons. But I hope we never hear again, said of this team, that they’re limited and that they’re not good enough to play international football and to be in contention to qualify for a major tournament.”

Asking Graeme to stick to his pre match guns and of course stirring the pot of heated debate, Bill picked up the ex Liverpool manager on his belief that Ireland are limited. Souness retorted that Ireland were playing against a team who had ten players playing regularly in the Champions League as opposed to one for Ireland in John O’Shea. A heated Dunphy pointed out the likes of Duff and Given who were good enough to play in the Champions League.

It was Johnny Giles who stepped in sagely and encapsulated the point of the night’s performance with clarity. “I think we’re losing the point in this, I think the point is not who is good enough to play in the Champions league or not. The point that we have been trying to make all the time that if these players like, not Gibson, Whelan and Andrews in the middle of the field are encouraged to play better, they can play better, that’s the point. Now they’ll never be world class players but they will do better then they have been doing in a constructive way; and they showed that to-night that they can do it.”

Souness pointed out that Andrews, one of the apparent weak links in the Irish team, was Ireland’s best player. Andrews’s performance in Paris was hugely competent and effective and it’s his reaction at the final whistle that stays in the mind, disconsolate and inconsolable. Andrews was playing in the most crucial match of his international career and his performance showed his capability. The emotion of the evening etched in the pain of his tears.

Rubbing insult into such salty tears was the reaction of French manager Ramond Domenech. Clearly not understanding or caring what the fuss was about he told waiting media, “I don’t understand why we have been judged guilty. On the pitch, I didn’t see the handball. Since then I have seen the video and it’s a mistake by the referee.” Domenech in unrepentant mood went on to say, “I don’t understand why we are expected to say sorry. We are not going to commit hara-kiri because the referee made a mistake and this time in our favour.” Nobody was asking the French to force a sharp blade into their collective abdomen. But Domenech was happy to plunge one into already crushed Irish spirits. Irish fans at the time were looking for some kind of justice even if it was the manager of the opposition holding his hands up and apologizing for the robbery. But this was not to happen.

The pain was felt amongst everyone. Well almost everyone. Ex-captain Roy Keane was quick to point out Ireland’s failings in defence that he believed should have been more closely examined in the aftermath of the result, rather then the huge focus on Henry’s hand ball. In a press conference as Ipswich Town manager he put the blame at the feet, or hands, of the Irish goalkeeper as well as the defence. Keane pointed out that Ireland had the chances over the campaign but didn’t take them. When a reporter pointed out that the FAI and John Delaney were going to look for a replay Keane reverted to the discourtesy of Delaney in Saipan in 2002. Before dwelling too much on revisiting Saipan, Keane reverted to the basics of the situation, that the Irish defence should have cleared the ball coming in from the French free kick, which led to the goal.

“Where was the defenders? The ball bounced in the 6 yard box.” Keane advised that the fans, manager and most of the players probably deserved better but advised in relation to the FAI “What goes around comes around.” In order to make the press conference more intense then it was a journalist let his mobile ring out to an appalled looking Keane who gave a famous school principal style dressing down. In the context of the play off we hoped maybe Roy was hurting too much to say he was hurting and constructively found people to blame. But the annoyance could well have been hurt in disguise.

Not that everyone was so quick to hide their sense of hurt. In a Radio interview with the BBC, Irish Captain Robbie Keane said in reference to soccer’s two main governing bodies UEFA and FIFA, “They’re all probably clapping hands, Platini sitting up there on the phone to Sepp Blatter, probably texting each other, delighted with the result.” Keane. Often criticized for a lack clarity and substance in his opinions Keane hit home with purpose the palpable frustration being felt.

The reaction after major incidents in sport always dies down, eventually. Like in life everything eventually runs out of steam. But the head of steam amassed after the injustice in Paris was so immense that it took several weeks for it to die down. Offender number one Thierry Henry held up his hands in a useful manner for once and agreed that a replay would be the fairest outcome. That it was lip service was unquestionable but some credibility to what had seemed a hugely unlikely outcome. The FAI then officially requested a replay from FIFA. Liam Brady and surprisingly Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern also called for a replay. The involvement of a minister for justice though was taken with a pinch of political salt. Ahern commented, “They probably won’t grant it as we are minnows in world football but let’s put them on the spot.” No Irish fan or player would consider this Irish team in an elite group of international teams but minnows are the likes of Liechtenstein, Andorra and San Marino. Ahern lost credecne in his statement that was reflective of the Fianna Fail / Green Party government with which he served.

On November 19th the appeal was rejected. In a statement that morning it was advised “Football Association of Ireland today (November 20) confirmed that it has received correspondence from FIFA, rejecting the Association’s request for a replay of the World Cup play-off match between France and the Republic of Ireland.” The following day Roy Keane friend John Delaney commented “We regret that despite our best efforts for a replay, which would have restored the integrity of the game in front of a world-wide audience, our calls appear to have fallen on deaf ears at the French Football Federation. Without doubt, the credibility of fair-play has been damaged by this incident in front of a world-wide audience. Despite our deep disappointment, we thank our players, the wonderful Irish fans and the Irish public at large for their support as well as the solidarity of the French people. We will continue to call on FIFA to take action to ensure that such damaging examples of cheating are not allowed to recur.” Ant that, effectively, was that.

Realistically a replay and its requests smacked more of desperation and embitterment. From the FAI’s point of view it was a disastrous loss of cash to help cover the cost of the Aviva Stadium which was being completed on the last legs of the property propelled Celtic Tiger. Qualification to the FAI would have meant a basic €6.5 million Euro at the very least for preparation and participation in the World Cup.

The tidal wave of discontent took a long time to subside. But as it did realization began to take place and an opportunity lost was what was beginning to hit home. The lack of sympathy Roy Keane apparently had was beginning to look like a shrewd analysis. John O’Shea, Robbie Keane, Damien Duff, all had clear chances to put the game beyond the French but ultimately this didn’t happen and in turn when the game was swiped from under our feet we fell to earth with such a heavy bang that we overlooked the real reason we lost balance in the first place. French political reaction in favour of Ireland and a replay, Irish political disgust, unlikely and extensive coverage in conventionally serious programming such as Jeremy Paxmans BBC programme, Newsnight, all flamed the uproarious fire of media, sporting and political discontent.

Ultimately, despite an injustice, the game was lost. At 1-0 the only guarantee was a penalty shoot out and this should have been sufficient motivation to try and close the game out and finish off an opposition who for huge chunks of the game were on the back foot. Effort and endeavour are rarely called in to question in the performance of an Irish team and this was no different. But what could and rightly should have been called into question was our psyche.

Wim Kiefts goal for Holland in Euro ’88 when a header bobbled and spun around Packie Bonner. The defeat in Rome to Italy in Italia ’90 with one of our strongest ever sides. Losing a two nil lead away to Holland in a World Cup 2002 qualifier in one of the most fluid performances of any Irish team in modern times. Going out on penalties to an inferior Spanish team in the 2002 World Cup. France in Paris. All good examples of Irish teams on the cusp of great results but falling short. Is it an inherent lack of belief or just bad luck. Are we simply too small a nation to compete against the top teams and come out on top or are our expectations too small in scale. Was Roy Keane right in thinking Ireland should have thought about trying to win the 2002 World Cup. Should any Irish side ever dare to dream to win any major competition? Why not?

These were and are questions that Irish teams need to ask of themselves. Perfection might be an impossible height to scale but shouldn’t the motivation be its pursuit.

Ireland realised one thing in the aftermath of the nearly qualification for South Africa. Nearly beating Italy twice, nearly overcoming France, nearly qualifying. They realised that they were good enough. Being within touching distance of success means that it’s attainable.

And with that qualification for Poland and Ukraine in 2012 was a realistic pursuit…

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