With less than a week to go, we are still mired, rear wheels spinning, in nostalgia. Defy a visitor to walk among us and not conclude that Houghton, Whelan and McGrath are our key men this month and that Joxer is set to drive us all to Poland, where our hopes rest on this Trap-Jack link-up working a lot better than Gerard Houllier’s tandem with Roy Evans.
At times, dewy eyes are dabbed with a faint hint of desperation. We badly want this to be some sort, any sort, of celebration, but as Croatia looms, the champagne stays iced in cold evidence. We can’t help worry.
So we dwell a little longer on old heroes. That grammar lesson; present tense, past perfect.
As fretful as anyone, I sought refuge this week in Green is the Colour. RTÉ’s four-part dribble through the history of Irish football had been, so far, that rarest of Montrose beasts; a series broadcast to almost universal approval.
Part three gently laid Eoin Hand’s reign to rest– more gently than Johnny Sivebaek at Lansdowne anyway – then immediately grounded our reverie in the mundane business of human resources. Jack was on hand to recall the letter he had pinned in every dressing room in England inviting likely lads to write him with word of their grannies – and not in any kind of terms that would interest Rooney.
There was long-faced realism too from Lawro, whose prodigious world-weariness clearly took hold earlier than we’d realised. “I’m 18, I’m playing in the old third division with Preston; I thought I’m never going to be good enough to play for England.”
From there, Darragh Maloney’s neat touch narrated some enjoyable interplay through Diaspora United’s finest hours via MacKay, Houghton, Whelan, Sheedy, Quinn, O’Leary, McLoughlin and Houghton again. And you could nearly taste the collective euphoria we crave once more, that we hope will empty then fill the streets this month.
Gripes? The familiarity of the clips used gave you a sense that there are more gaps in the RTÉ archives than Toni Polster found in one of Jack’s latter defences. Has all but the bullet points been taped over like those Wanderly Wagons?
Most of us can trace the arc of Gary MacKay’s liberation strike in Sofia, but wouldn’t it have been nice to remember one of Jim Leighton’s saves afterwards or Maurice Malpas’ clearance off the Scottish line? Only old clippings convince me these moments of tartan defiance happened. Could money have arrived or Riverdance been danced without them?
Likewise, Houghton’s pinball wizardry in Stuttgart has been time-honoured but Packie’s duel with Lineker that day arguably deserved prominence over footage of Darragh riding the escalators of Dublin airport, particularly the late parry – naturally – of a stooping near-post header.
Then there were certain things left unsaid. It might, finally, have been instructive to elicit an Egyptian view of our unsporting pact with Holland in 1990. Would it have been any more forgiving than Algerian disgust at the way Germany and Austria carved them up in 1982?
And it grated that Liam Brady’s first-half substitution in a friendly against Germany was dressed up as Jack sending a message to the players that it was his way or no way. It might have been fairer to Chippy’s legacy – and not too unfair on Jack’s – to describe it as it was; a cynical decision to quench Brady’s dying light before his own people. As Charlton recalled in Paul Rowan’s book The Team That Jack Built “With Ireland, they don’t give up on their effing heroes easily, so you’ve really got to show ‘em.”
Biggest disappointment? We never saw Eamo’s biro fly or got to relive his shame and embarrassment for ‘this guy beside me’ and all the great players. Thankfully, in remembering the high dudgeon that split a nation, Dunphy was as box office now as he was then.
“Official Ireland hated soccer. And now the whole world was watching. And we give this performance, against Egypt, which was crude and unattractive. The whole country was watching that day and that kind of got to me.”
A tear flowed. Day-Lewis couldn’t fake it. And you knew – whatever they say about him now, about his twists and turns and cabaret outrage – that none of the histrionics, the indignation, the showbiz would work if it didn’t draw on a deep, genuine feeling for Irish football. Never sit on that fence, baby.
PS: Here goes the biro. Somehow, it doesn’t fly nearly as far as I remember.
This article was first published in the Irish Examiner