I watched every minute but I still can’t quite believe what I saw. Ireland blew Italy away as if they were some makeweight minnows instead of one of the world’s top footballing nations.
What the hell happened!
It wasn’t so much the result that shocked me. Ireland always had a chance, however slight, and they’ve beaten top sides before. Only last year they humbled world champions Germany. They sent the stylish Dutch out of the World Cup in 2001 and, of course, they beat Italy in the world cup 20 years ago when Ray Houghton scored his famous looping goal to send Irish fans into a state of rapture.
All those were wonderful victories but we had to accept that we rode our luck far more than we’d like. Irish sides are usually short on skill but big on pride and passion. What they lack in technique they make up for in blood, sweat and tears and an indomitable will to win. That’s where most of our victories have come from in the past but this was different.
It didn’t follow the familiar script. You know, where Ireland are cast as the plucky underdogs, running their hearts out as they chase the shadows of superior technicians, riding their luck as shots rein in on their goal but are saved by an inspired goalkeeper, and when he fails, sigh in relief as the post and the crossbar come to the rescue…then deep into the game, score a breakaway goal to bring hope, and then withstand an onslaught to hang for a famous but unlikely victory.
That’s the way Ireland traditionally beat top sides…that is, until last night.
Last night Ireland didn’t just beat Italy; they outplayed them. They turned the tables on a country that has won the world cup four times. Right from the kick-off it was Italy chasing shadows as Ireland passed the ball around with a confident swagger as if they were the thoroughbreds and their opponents merely honest triers.
Ireland were the team keeping possession, piling on the pressure.. Before the match we all hoped we’d get one chance, one goal and then cling on to it for dear life until the 90 minutes were up. Well this time, we got plenty of chances although the goal was still elusive. Then the Italian defence makes an uncharacteristic error and Wes Hoolahan is clear through with only the keeper to beat. Surely this is it, our chance to secure a famous victory. No. He fluffs it with a scuffed shot that is easily saved.
The whole of Ireland groans in pain. We’ve blown it. You can’t miss chances like that against a team like Italy and expect to win. Everyone knows that. Well, it turned out that everyone was wrong because minutes later, Hoolahan makes up for his error with a glorious curving cross into the Italian box and there’s Robbie Brady racing past defenders as if they were statues and soars majestically to head the ball home.
Ireland explodes in rapture. We’ve won and we’ve done in style…we didn’t just beat Italy, we outplayed them.
Now Ireland fans who thought they’d be on their way home can look forward to another big game…this time against another giant of world football, the hosts France.
And this time there’s history. Ireland were dumped out of the 2010 World Cup qualifiers when the great Thierry Henry tarnished his gentleman image by blatantly cheating when he handled the ball to lay on France’s winning goal. Now Ireland have a chance for revenge. Is it much of a chance though?
France are the red hot favourites. They have a team full of world class players…surely they’ll run rings round Ireland. Maybe, but that’s what they said about Italy.