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'Disgruntled fans have a right to protest whatever way they want'

Tennis balls were thrown onto the pitch during last night’s game against Georgia in protest at FAI governance.

WHILE ADMITTING THAT the timing of the protest initially seemed questionable, Republic of Ireland midfielder Glenn Whelan insisted after last night’s game against Georgia that supporters were entitled to air their grievances.

In the 33rd minute of the 1-0 victory at the Aviva Stadium, Ireland were awarded a free-kick in a promising position for a foul on David McGoldrick by Guram Kashia.

As Whelan and Conor Hourihane addressed the opportunity that had presented itself, tennis balls were thrown onto the pitch by fans as a means of expressing dissatisfaction with governance of the Football Association of Ireland.

Fans throw tennis balls onto the pitch A section of Ireland supporters pictured during last night's protest. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

In spite of a brief delay, Hourihane was unfazed. The Aston Villa midfielder beat Giorgi Loria in the Georgia goal with a superb strike that secured the win for Ireland, as Mick McCarthy’s side made it six points from six in the Euro 2020 qualifiers. 

“There was something said in the press about some sort of protest,” said Whelan. “Listen, it was probably bad timing. In saying that now, Conor has gone on to score. The next time we get a free kick, hopefully [the fans] have all got their tennis balls!

“The fans are disgruntled, they have a right to protest whatever way they want. We can only worry about what happens on the pitch,” the veteran midfielder added.

“Obviously I play with Conor week-in-week-out [at Aston Villa], so to be honest with you, once he set the ball down I knew something was going to happen — either he’d make the goalkeeper work or it’d be a goal. It was a fantastic piece of play from Conor.”

The majority of the tennis balls appeared to be launched from the stand behind Darren Randolph. The Middlesbrough goalkeeper assisted stewards in gathering up the projectiles before Hourihane scored at the other end.

“We were given a heads-up yesterday so we were expecting it,” Randolph said of the protest. “We just didn’t know if it was going to be at the start of the game, the end of the game or what. I had totally forgotten until the tennis balls started coming onto the pitch.”

Conor Hourihane celebrate scoring a goal with Shane Duffy and Glenn Whelan Conor Hourihane, Shane Duffy and Glenn Whelan celebrate after Ireland's goal. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Randolph, who has now kept four consecutive clean sheets for Ireland, added: “It was a brilliant free-kick. Obviously the tennis ball saga worked in our favour!”

Shane Duffy explained that the players had been hoping the rumoured protest wouldn’t materialise, lest it have a detrimental impact on their efforts to pick up an important result in their bid to qualify for the European Championships.

However, the Brighton & Hove Albion defender was also keen to empathise with supporters, stating that the onus was on the team to ensure that their performance wasn’t disrupted.

“I think we all sort of expected it to happen,” he said. “We all read about it. We were hoping it wasn’t going to happen but we’re professionals, we dealt with it and the best response was to put the ball in the net, which is what we did. That got the crowd going again.

“Everyone reads social media and newspapers these days. It happened. The fans have their opinions and rightly so. All we have to do is take care of our business on the pitch and hopefully it can distract them from whatever is going on.” 

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Paul Dollery

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