A friend, commenting on the remarkable feat by the Republic of Ireland in Cardiff tonight, said: “A great win…but they’re hard to watch.”
Normally I’d agree — but I thought this was an absorbing spectacle. Not pretty, but pretty impressive.
I had low expectations before the game. Got home from work in time to hear the usual tiresome ‘Wes, Wes, Wes’ themed analysis on the telly.
For God’s sake, and for Martin’s, will that RTE panel ever stop going on about Wes Hoolahan? Yes, he’s a really talented player – I love watching him — but he’s neither Messi not Messiah. The big clubs never came calling. He’s merely a Norwich stalwart, not a superstar. He does make us tick, but he’s probably not able for two games in quick succession and, let’s face it, the Irish management can claim to have been proven right in their policy on Wes.
With kick-off looming, Liam Brady was particularly morbid, having been decidedly uninspired by the Irish team selection. When the game began, it looked like his fears might prove to be justified. Wales controlled possession and Ireland offered nothing creatively. After half an hour or so, we began to settle, the Welsh storm weathered. We grew in confidence and finished the half strongly. Back in the studio at half-time, a surprisingly uncritical Eamonn Dunphy said he sensed a major shock was on the cards. I wasn’t as optimistic.
Into the second half and my admiration for the marvellous Randolph in the Irish goal reaches new levels. He’s turning into a national treasure. Twelve minutes in, a great Irish sporting moment is born before our eyes. Breathtaking determination from Hendrick on the wing, the ball teetering dangerously close to crossing the sideline. The challenge of the Welsh defender, in truth, reminds one of the half-hearted resistance of a drunk being ushered towards the pub exit by a kindly bouncer. So be it. Hendrick crosses, Harry Arter dummies, the ball zips towards lion-hearted and slightly crazy winger James McLean. He drills it into the net, the sweetest of finishes. Hell of a contact; McLean as a whistle. The Irish fans, and nation, go a bit crazy. Suddenly, it’s 1990 all over again. Or it might be. There’s 34 (no doubt tortuous) minutes to go. In the stand, the injured superstar Gareth Bale has the worried expression of a man who has entrusted his new car to an over-enthusiastic novice driver.
For most of the remainder of the game, I was quite relaxed. The Irish defence, with Duffy just brilliant, held firm. Wales ran out of ideas before our eyes. The biggest worry was the usual worrying confidence of the great George Hamilton. I met him once, in the press box at Croke Park. Actually in the canteen, at half-time. I’m not claiming any credit for his great career. I simply passed him the milk (for his coffee) and exchanged a few words. Anyways, to use the modern venacular, he’s a legend, but am I the only one who worries about the sometimes prematurely optimistic way he commentates when Ireland are hanging on in a game?
The 34 minutes after McLean’s goal were fine – it was the six minutes of time added on that were very, very nerve-wracking. We held on, heroically. What a win. Sure, we’re still only into the play-offs – not actually in the World Cup (yet) – but this was, to quote Dunphy, a famous victory built on great courage.
I recorded the RTE analysis and switched to Newstalk. I’m glad I did. The lads were absolutely er…over the moon. It was great craic. Infectious.
Fifteen minutes later, I checked in with the RTE panel reaction. Thought they were a bit muted. Yes, they were basically happy, but it’s as if they didn’t want to get too excited because they wanted to justify their pre-match negativity. You know, the Wes stuff. To be fair, they gave O’Neill credit, albeit with teeth maybe gritted. Dunphy, definitely a national treasure, held up a piece of paper and joked with presenter Darragh Maloney that he would be binning the obituary he had brought “for O’Neill.”
With that wisecrack, the credits rolled on a great night. Great night? I was Wes-static.