By Malachy Clerkin
DUBLIN — Strange how things turn out, ain’t it? It’s been six months and 12 days since the balls came out of the bowl in Busan and all the while, every two-pint pundit in the land said Ireland had a good chance, but not a great chance, of coming out of their group.
Germany? Sure they’re old and tired and not to be scared of. Cameroon? Sure they’re big and strong and to be watched but not to be feared. Saudi Arabia? Well, we don’t know much about them, but if we can’t beat them, sure we may as well go home. Three teams we knew we could get past, three hurdles we knew we could jump.
And whaddya know? That’s the way it all broke down. After all the talk, after all the weeping and gnashing of teeth over our best player, after all the doubts about the manager and the players and the spirit, after all that, it came down to nothing more than three games where we got exactly the results we hoped for back on Dec. 1. We drew with the two dangerous teams and swatted the other one like it was no more than a fat old blueblottle hovering around a picnic hamper.
And you’ve got to hand it to them, these Irish kids who’ve achieved more and done so in better style than any Irish team who’s ever been to a World Cup. To go the world’s biggest kick-about, to go there without Roy Keane, the one man whose shoulders are worthy of the burden, to fight your way to the next level with guts and guile in equal parts, these are things we didn’t see them doing. They didn’t deserve our doubts, but they got them anyway.
How did they thrill us? Let us count the ways. It was in the way they scored more goals in one tournament than their footballing ancestors had scored in two previous World Cups combined. It was in the way they respectfully came out and said they weren’t what they could be without Keane and then went out and played the games and showed, in fact, that they were. It was in the way Shay Given stood cussed as a country-lane wall and the way Gary Breen seemed never more than a bar of “The Fields of Athenry” away from tears. It was in Steve Staunton’s refusal to be the liability we thought he was; it was in Robbie Keane’s insistence on being the asset we always hoped he would be.
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And it was in the moments, good and bad. For two years, we’ve looked at Staunton and thought that surely there was someone better somewhere that we could lay our hands on. And when Samuel Eto’o breezed past him like a sad old dad playing with his 9-year-old in the park that first day, we feared the worst for what would follow. But no, he came back and he came strong. He marshaled the troops and defended for his life. His defense conceded only one more goal in the next two games and for that he can take the credit.
Other moments, too. Matt Holland’s controlled shot, never wavering so much as a millimeter from its course. Steve Finnan’s surging runs when he came on against Cameroon, the signal for Ireland’s World Cup to begin. Keane’s goal when all hope had faded against Germany, an ocean of pints spilled the country wide.
And then came Tuesday. For once, Ireland went out and did nothing more than should have been expected of them but had the country in ribbons nonetheless. Yeah, everyone was worried. Yeah, everyone was anxious. The whole thing had gone way too well up until then for all heaven to suddenly break loose. Sure don’t we all know that if it rained soup, Irish people would be the only ones outside with forks?
Shame on us for thinking ill of these men. Of Keane (again), of Breen, of Damian Duff. Shame on us for thinking they’d at best muddle their way through, maybe scrape into the next round. They went to Yokohama with professionalism and purpose and did what they had to do to get to the next round.
Be assured, whatever happens now, this has been a successful World Cup.