By Malachy Clerkin
PHOENIX PARK, Dublin — In the end, it was a 6-year-old kid who summed it all up best. Sitting high above his father’s shoulders in the Phoenix Park in Dublin last Tuesday night, watching local nobodies Picturehouse foisting their new single on the 100,000 or so people who’d turned up, he wondered aloud: “Daddy, how come U2 aren’t up there singing? Is it because Ireland didn’t win the World Cup?”
He had a point. A homecoming this size for a team that won only one match in the tournament must have looked a bit rich for anybody on the outside looking in. But there was a method of sorts to all the madness. Yes, some of the crowd turned up because they felt the team had done well in trying circumstances, but there were many more who just turned up out of a sense of duty, a sense of needing to fulfill the national stereotype. These are the acknowledged Greatest Fans in the World, after all.
For five hours they streamed in. Kids came straight from school, threw down their schoolbags and had kickabouts while they waited. As the time passed, the suits started arriving from the offices, looking silly in their rolled up sleeves and slightly loosened ties. Silly, but not necessarily out of place. The vendors were doing a brisk trade in tricolors and inflatable hammers and stupid hats. And all the while, the hordes streamed in.
On stage, the Apres Match team were the glue holding the show together. They rattled off the odd sketch between acts, keeping the thousands laughing, keeping the masses happy. None of the music was particularly brilliant, but then it really wasn’t that kind of day. The TV-manufactured group Six got up and bounced around gamely in their Irish jerseys for a half an hour before someone called Mundy treated us to 20 minutes of his own angst-ridden thoughts, as if tempting the clouds to burst. Picturehouse did something similar, although they were a bit more lively. Then Westlife materialized out of nowhere and were gone just as quickly. One song was all they felt they could treat us to and although the adults among us seemed quite content about that, it didn’t go down at all well with the bubble-gum chewers. And all the while, the hordes streamed in.
And then, at around 8:30 p.m., Joe Duffy and Peter Collins of RTE came on stage in their shiny suits. And when Joe Duffy’s walking around in a shiny suit, you can be sure a bit of schmaltz isn’t too far away. Sure enough, after about 10 minutes of doing his man-of-the-people schtick (“Hands up who’s proud to be Irish on this special night!”), he introduced the team and management.
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Cue wild cheering and roaring and clapping and singing. One by one, the players professed themselves amazed at the turnout, one by one they lauded The Greatest Fans in the World, one by one they said their thank-yous and bashfully waved to the crowd. Mick McCarthy said the players felt humbled by the reception, which was a close as anybody (apart from the 6-year-old on his dad’s shoulders) came to saying it was all a bit over the top. And then everybody sang Happy Birthday to Jason McAteer, 31, there were a few “Ole, Ole, Oles,” loads and loads of balloons, and everybody went home happy.
Now if only they could actually win something for once.