For Fionn O’Dea, Ireland’s World Cup play-off heartache will take a long time to heal just like his previous scars playing and following the not always beautiful game.
When I started playing football in the Dublin and District Schoolboys’ League at the age of eight, I had the embarrassing habit of crying when we lost a match. I remember my older brother coming to collect me on one of these occasions and him hoping that I wouldn’t burst into tears. “Hold on. Wait until we get to the car. Don’t cry.”
I couldn’t stand losing and so should have known better than to develop an affinity for the Irish football team. It was about that time I started going to games in Lansdowne Road. I read the programmes obsessively, I rewatched highlights at every opportunity and I committed to memory every Irish goalscorer. An unpopular party piece of mine is that I can tell people the result and goalscorers of every Ireland match between 2000 and 2010 (this power has waned with time but it was never a particularly effective method of making friends anyway).
I remember Ireland losing a World Cup warmup game against Nigeria in 2002 and being asked why I was upset. The game being a friendly, the result didn’t matter. But Ireland were losing and that mattered to me. Embed from Getty Images
Tuesday’s play-off second leg against Denmark mattered to everyone. I was more nervous and excited than I’d ever been but I also couldn’t stand the idea of the match taking place. As long as the match hadn’t yet happened, we were still in with a good chance of going to Russia. Then the game began. Taking the lead through Duffy’s header turned out to be a cruel turn. We started to think about flights and tickets and hotels. Is Russia too far away for a campervan?
It was a cruelty that, in hindsight, seems rooted in history. With the score at 4-1, my dad pointed across the pitch to the west stand and said that he was sat there at a World Cup qualifier in 1985 when Ireland played Denmark. Ireland took a headed lead in the sixth minute but ultimately lost 4-1. Eoin Hand resigned as manager after the final whistle.
Ireland’s next game was to be Jack Charlton’s first in charge. The greatest ever era in Irish football loomed. However, I fear that the symmetry with 1985 may end there. The Ireland team that lost to Denmark in 1985 featured three players at Manchester United, two at Liverpool and one each at Arsenal and Inter Milan. The team that lost this time around did not.
The fans will regroup but won’t forget the hurt. There were too many empty seats at 90 minutes but a large contingent waited until the bitter end to wave the team off. I may as well have been eight in a park in Rathfarnham. Hold on. Wait until we get to the car. Don’t cry.