THE LAST TIME Ireland qualified for the European Championships I was busy trying to get my foot into my mouth. Twenty-four years later, that’s not really a socially acceptable excuse for procrastination but I still left it until the last minute before organising a trip to Poland for Euro 2012.
It was only a couple of weeks beforehand, while soaking up the pre-tournament buzz during a weekend break in Bydgoszcz, that it dawned on me how much I would regret it if I didn’t get to at least one group match. Within a few hours of coming home to Dublin, a few quick calls were made and tickets, flights, trains and accommodation for the opening game against Croatia in Poznan were sorted.
As a country, we’d waited 10 years to get back to one of football’s big dances and that giddy anticipation took an unrelenting hold from the moment fans stepped into Dublin Airport until 8.48pm on the Sunday evening when Milan Mandzukic shattered all of the illusions and fanciful permutations.
Looking back on it now, that was the saving grace of going to the first game. For the 48 hours before kick-off, everybody shared the same optimism, though most right-minded people never dared to put those dreams into words. Before the first ball was kicked, even Roy Keane at his most critical couldn’t find a reason to pour scorn on the party atmosphere. It all started that weekend in Poznan and, rightly or wrongly, it was never going to be dialled down no matter how disappointing the performances on the pitch.
Happy days. ©INPHO/Donall Farmer
It should have reached its apogee in that brief moment when Sean St Ledger judged the flight of Aiden McGeady’s free-kick perfectly and got enough of a touch to carry it past Stipe Pletikosa and into the Croatian goal. But for some, that precious spark of pandemonium was robbed by an idiot who blew a whistle as St Ledger made his crucial move. It wasn’t a free-out and the goal hadn’t been disallowed — but how could you be sure? Mandzukic may have scored twice that evening but the whistle thief was the real villain of the piece.
As Ireland went 2-1, and then 3-1 down, the grim reality of what lay ahead came into jarring focus. In pockets around the stadium, the Croatians had sneaked handfuls of enemy envoys in among the noisy green battalions. If the Irish fans were heartbroken, they weren’t going to show it and risk losing face.
It was all over before we knew it — the game, the weekend, and the tournament. In the weeks and months that followed, there was plenty of time for recriminations and lessons to be learned. But even after they have long been forgotten, the good memories will live on.