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Saturday 21 September 2019

Probably the best fans in

IRISH BELT OUT TUNES IN STADIUM

THURSDAY - THE SPANISH DEBACLE

Thursday had been a long time coming around. After the disappointing result against Croatia to begin Ireland's Euro 2012 campaign, we were left with a monumental task - take points from the current World and European champions.

On Thursday it rained. In fact it poured. Maybe that was a sign of things to come. I set off earlier for this one, catching the end of the Italy v Croatia game in Whites Hotel. A 1-1 draw. Perfect. The stage was now set for Ireland to pop up with a trademark upset as we have done in the past and make it all to play for going into the final game with Italy.

The size of the task ahead was not wasted on me, but I dared to believe. A lot of Irish people did. Ireland is not a country that is known for it's optimism. If you asked the Irish people will we ever escape this recession, 95 per cent would say no... and yet if you were to ask the Irish people could a group of average Irish players get a result against some of the best footballers in the world, most of them would've said an emphatic yes.

There was a wave of positivity surging around Wexford. People were heading to the pub to watch the match convinced that they were going to see another performance that would be remembered forever alongside England in '88 and Italy in '94. In the build up rumours began to circulate that Spain would start with no strikers up front and use their talented midfielders to grab them goals. One joker quipped ' They're starting with no strikers. Now all we need is for them to start with no midfielders and no defenders and we might have half a chance!'

In the countdown to kick off, as pre match nerves began to surface, I was in the company of Paul McGrath. He believed Ireland could put it up to Spain and grind out some kind of result, and he had made 83 appearances for Ireland, becoming arguably our greatest ever player in the process...who was I to argue?

However soon enough the pessimists were proved right. The game had only started and already we had conceded.

Sometimes us Irish people feel the world is against us. When, 34 minutes in, the ref pushed Keith Andrews to the floor to allow Spain another pop at an attack, I had to question if they were!

We managed to get to half time without conceding another goal, and all of a sudden this wasn't too bad. We were half way through a game with arguably the best team in the world and it was still all to play for in the second half. I was happy enough with that. I decided to go for a change of scenery for the second half and strolled down to Metro 17.

The atmosphere there for the first game was still fresh in my mind and I needed to surround myself with people who would assure me that Ireland would pick up their game in the second half.

I walked in and got myself nestled among the usual crowd of lunatics, decked out head to toe in green complete with green white and orange face paint and I was ready to go for the second half.

Just as I turned to someone and stressed to them the importance that Ireland not concede another early goal, Silva put it in the back of the net after a couple of minutes and our tournament was over.

The rest of the game is just a terrible blur. It was hard to take. However coming towards the final whistle, something magical happened. Something which will stay with me until the next time Ireland qualify for a major tournament.

In the silent, dejected atmosphere of the pub, we heard the Irish fans that were in the stadium in Gdansk belting out The Fields of Athenry. We were 4-0 down but it didn't matter. We were proud to be there playing against the best in Europe and it had given the nation a much needed lift.

It started as a ripple from the back of the pub and all of a sudden everybody was on their feet, wrapped in tri-colours, arms around each other, belting out the song in defiance and in unison with all those who were fortunate enough to have travelled over.

Monday - The Italian Job

The Italy game was meaningless, but I threw on my Ireland gear for one last time and headed for town for the last hurrah.

It had the atmosphere of one of the many going away parties I've attended recently for friends heading off to Australia. While we were all sad that the team would be heading for the airport, we were determined to go out with a bang and enjoy the night.

There weren't as many people around, but that was to be expected. The game kicked off and there were cheers when we made it past the dreaded four minute mark without conceding a goal.

After a short while we began to look at each other, waiting to see who would say it first...Ireland were actually playing alright! We had a couple of chances early on and our own Kevin Doyle played well, making everyone question why he wasn't included for the Spain game.

Then it happened. A calamity of errors and Italy took the lead.

RTE suddenly switched to show a goal in the Spain game and when they came back Keith Andrews was being hauled off the pitch kicking and screaming having been shown red by the ref. I still have no idea why he was sent off, but for me, he's been the stand out player for Ireland in this tournament and regardless of what it was for, he's one of the few players who can return home with his head held high.

A freak goal by Ballotelli in the final minutes of the game and it was all over. The few who turned out for the game belted out 'Olé Olé Olé' for the last few times before heading for bed and dreams of Brazil 2014.

Could we get there under Trapattoni? That was a matter for another day. Now it was time to lick the wounds and come to terms with the fact that the dream was over.

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