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Sunday, June 26, 2016

Letter from Versailles: New self-belief for Ireland fans


They invited the media along to the Stade Pierre Mauroy in Lille on Thursday to see the new pitch being laid. They should probably have invited Robbie Brady along and given him the old one to take away and hang on his wall.

 Surely this is one green field of France – well, more brown field of France, if we’re being honest – that deserves a loving home where its significance can be properly cherished.
Those of us who were there the night Brady’s header hit the Italian net, well, we’ll never stop reminding people we were there the night Brady’s header hit the Italian net. 
And, when you think about it, with that evocative combination of first name and surname, how could we ever have doubted Robbie Brady — even more appropriately, a left pegger with a goal-den touch — would end up an Irish football hero for the ages.
Of course, he’d taken a first big step to that ultimate destination in Zenica back in November, although not too many of us there that night can actually claim to have seen the goal which permitted Ireland to dip one foot tentatively into the inviting waters of these European Championship Finals.

Those among the Green Army who did get a decent view down at their end of the fog-shrouded pitch were quick to immortalise the moment in song, already belting it out with gusto — they never go anywhere without their mate Gusto, you know — by the time we were all embarking on the long journey home from Bosnia the following day.
To the tune of ‘Twist And Shout’, it went: “Shake it up Brady now, shake it up Brady, twist and shoot, twist and shoot’. 

“Pretty darn good, I reckon, since it presented an almost photographically accurate image of how the Dubliner did indeed find the back of the net that night.
Whoever the songsmiths were, I now wish them luck in their efforts to do justice to Brady’s moment of moments on Wednesday night and all it meant to so many. 
“Something that draws its inspiration from, oh, I dunno, a combination of ‘Blonde On Blonde’, ‘Nessun Dorma’, ‘Good Vibrations’ and Beethoven’s ‘Ode To Joy’ might do for a start. Oh, and with a bit of Christy Moore thrown in as well, of course.

Go to it, lads and lassies, another big match this way comes. Speaking of which, Thierry Henry is once again — clever bi-lingual pun alert, readers — the main man out here. (Unless you’re Roy Keane, who made it clear yesterday he couldn’t be less interested in the possibility of history’s hand resting heavily on the shoulder of tomorrow’s ref).
Since Wednesday, the French papers have been littered with references to revenge, retribution and the settling of scores, and we can expect the madness to hit critical mass by Sunday at kick-off

The truth, I like to think, is we Irish have long since gotten over the Hand Of Gaul. (He says with an involuntary twitch). 
It only took about six years but I feel I can speak on behalf of the nation when I say once we learned all about Sepp handing over those five big ones, why, every man, woman and child in the country could practically feel the pain of it all evaporating, not even leaving a scar. ‘Cos it’s not like we didn’t get a result, right? Just not on the night, yeah?
And now here are the French, with their survivor’s guilt, reopening old wounds. They still feel bad about it all, it seems, what with them going to South Africa and being awful and us staying at home and being sad.

Frankly, I think the only thing for it is for the FAI to hand over the five mill to them, just to show there’s no hard feelings, and to allow them to experience the transcendent joy we felt when, belatedly, we brought home le bacon. 
Meanwhile, our people out here continue to do their bit to engender peace, love and understanding between our two great nations. Or make that peace, love and misunderstanding. 
In a queue at a supermarket in Bordeaux one morning I spotted a footsoldier in the Green Army taking his place among the locals who were lining up to buy their baguettes and cheese and olives. 

You could tell he was one of ours not just from the leprechaun hat, green jersey and radioactively florid complexion but because his two arms were practically elongated from the effort of trying to hold onto and keep upright a veritable skyscraper of six packs — on the very top of which lay a single packet of sliced ham.
And, in fairness, he wasn’t the only Irish visitor paying attention to his dietary requirements in the same shop.

Near the top of the queue, another boyo in green turned to the local behind him and showed him some item he’d just picked off the shelves. 
The ensuing conversation was easy to hear since the visitor insisted on giving it the full Dublin.

“PARDONNEZ MUSHER!” “Qui?” “WOULD YIZ KNOW IS THIS GLUTEN-FREE?” “Je ne sais pas.” “RIGH’.” (A thoughtful pause, then): “DO YIZ MIND ME ASKIN? WHAT IS THE FRENCH FOR GLUTEN-FREE?” (A shrug) “Sans gluten?” (A cheery smile) “MAKES SENSE!”
The Irish fans might have led the way in the popularity stakes at these Euros but the Irish team is catching up fast. After the game against Belgium in Lille, a Dutch reporter at a Martin O’Neill press conference began a question with the following observation:

“The Irish are very popular in my country – not the team or the way you play – but the fans…”
O’Neill diplomatically ignored the bit in the middle and paid due credit to the always fantastic Irish support but the rest of us didn’t really know whether to wince, laugh or cry.

But it’s all changed now. The boost in confidence of that first-half against Sweden and the joy engendered by Wes Hoolahan’s splendid goal in the Stade de France has, on the back of Lille and Robbie Brady, been transformed into the kind of momentum and pride and self-belief that suddenly has people going pleasantly mad and thinking anything might be possible.
Although they’ve almost always had a bit of a mutual appreciation thing going, Irish players and Irish fans are now firmly on the same page in the sense that the team are beginning to give the supporters a run for their money when it comes to drawing praise and creating positive headlines.

The back pages and the front pages at these Euros are growing that bit closer.
Of course up against the star-studded hosts, the Irish are still the underdogs, yes, but be assured that in Lyon today the French will be wary of coming up against more than just bark, bollock and bite.

Allez les verts!
LIAM MACKEY