The agony and ecstasy of Ireland’s Alan Judge

The agony and ecstasy of Ireland’s Alan Judge
HOLDING ROLE: Alan Judge during an Ireland gym session at Abbotstown. Judge is confident he can make a difference if called upon tonight. ‘I’d like to think I’ve got the final pass in the final third to put someone through. Or a set-piece.’ Picture: Stephen McCarthy/SportsfileBMS

The agony and ecstasy riff is a familiar one in sport but rarely can it have had a more literal application than to the bittersweet situation in which Alan Judge found himself at the conclusion of Ireland’s 1-1 draw with Denmark in Copenhagen in June.

Having come off the bench, the midfielder had just found the sweet spot by winning and then delivering the free kick which allowed Shane Duffy head a late equaliser at the Parken Stadium to claim a valuable Euro 2020 qualifying point away from home.

But, even after the celebrations, there was still time for a bitter end to the game for Judge who had his left wrist shattered in a challenge right at the death.

“I think I was the last person to kick the ball,” he recalls. “I chased it down the side, and Jeff (Hendrick) played me in. I crossed it, the whistle went and the Denmark player charged into me. I wasn’t ready because the whistle had gone. He tipped me on the left shoulder and I fell. It just went. The minute it happened I knew (it was broken), as I broke my leg and had similar pain. Not to that extent — but I knew.”

As Judge was lying on the turf in agony, he had a close-up view of the travelling Green Army in ecstasy.

“I was right in front of the fans and they’re going 90. I’m lying there in front of them knowing it’s broken. The Doc (Alan Byrne) and the physio Ciarán (Murray) saw me on the floor and charged over towards me. I’d fall a million times like that in my career (without injury). As the gaffer says, if I didn’t have bad luck, I’d have no luck at all. But it happened, I’m over it and I didn’t miss much football.”

He did, however, miss what Mick McCarthy later confirmed would have been his first competitive international start in the subsequent home game against Gibraltar, with surgery to repair the damage sidelining him through the subsequent pre-season at Ipswich as well as leaving him with “seven screws and a plate in there” and the necessity to continue playing in a protective cast for the time being.

And yet the truth, of course, is that Judge has been through much worse, specifically the terrible leg-break which he sustained while playing for Brentford at Ipswich in April 2016, a devastating injury which immediately put paid, not only to his chances of travelling to France for the Euro finals, but also an opportunity to move up to English football’s top flight.

“I spoke to Martin (O’Neill) directly after it and he said, ‘Maybe you don’t want to hear this but I was going to be picking you’,” Judge reveals. “And that was…that was hard. It was hard to process. I’d agreed to sign for a Premier League team three days before it as well. Brentford knew about it at the time but I didn’t want to name them. I still wouldn’t. That was agreed. Everything happened at the wrong time.”

Still, despite it all, Judge feels he needs to challenge the perception that he is unusually susceptible to football’s bad breaks.

“This is the thing. People say I’m injury prone – but I’ve had that one injury and I’ve had this (the wrist). I had to have a second operation when I broke my leg because it didn’t fully heal. And then I ended up out for two years. But, generally, touch wood, my injury record – muscle-wise etc — has been alright.”

Understandably, however, he felt a grim sense of déjà vu when he broke his arm in Copenhagen.

“You do worry,” he admits. “You think, ‘I’m finally in again and I don’t want to miss out through injury again’.”

And, given that he’s now 30, maybe never get another chance to come back for his country?

“That comes into it, yeah, because there are a lot of good young players. I know Mick has always liked me and I get on well with him. So I was thinking I didn’t want to miss these three sets of internationals, in September, October, and November. You want to be involved and hopefully be given the chance. But it’s repaired now and I’m playing again. I’m happy.”

Judge was back in the headlines a few weeks after Copenhagen when, having been relegated to League One with Ipswich Town — for whom he had only signed permanently in April — he was linked with a move back up to the Championship with QPR. The news that the player was apparently open to leaving Portman Road saw him receive a lot of flak from supporters but — as he only finally felt comfortable about revealing in recent days — there was a deeply personal reason why he was attracted to the London club.

“QPR wanted me and I’d reasons to leave as I explained last week in Ipswich,” he says. “People didn’t know the full extent of it. My daughter (Emily, aged 6) needs two operations — two separate operations for two different things within the next six months. I lived five minutes down the road from the hospital (in London) that she’s having the operations at.”

With his family having now moved to Ipswich and Judge committed to staying with the club, he can afford to be somewhat philosophical about the criticism he received from some quarters back in July.

“People hide behind keyboards,” he observes, “but I would defend them and say they didn’t know the full facts. There was a short statement in the media over there saying I wanted to leave. No one actually knew the reason and there were only a few people in the club who knew. But I just felt the time was right last week to tell them. Your judgement comes into play. People might think you don’t care but footballers have other things going on in their lives. We’re not robots, we’ve normal lives and other things to deal with as well.

“I didn’t feel like I needed to (explain myself) but I just thought I might as well because I’m staying at Ipswich now, so I didn’t want this going on any longer, people questioning ‘Does he really want to be here?’ I didn’t go into the extent of what it is. I just told them the main reasons.”

For now, his football focus is firmly on tonight’s big game at the Aviva and how he might make a difference for Ireland if given the opportunity to do so.

“Yeah, I always back myself,” he says. “And I have the backing of the manager as well. I think he’s proven that. I think if you look at the Denmark game, he could have turned to anybody really but he turned to me and brought me on. I’d like to think I’ve got the final pass in the final third to put someone through. Or a set-piece.”

After all he’s been through and all he’s missed out on, Alan Judge has arguably more reason than most of the Irish squad to relish the prospect of a chance to play in the Euro 2020 finals in his native Dublin.

And, if you believe he’s definitely overdue a lucky break, there’s something in the air which suggests that the stars might just be aligning for him this time: next year will mark the 30th anniversary of his father Dermot captaining Bray Wanderers when they beat St Francis to lift the FAI Cup in a celebrated final at Lansdowne Road back in 1990.

“Yeah, my Dad won it,” Alan smiles.

“And I was the mascot. I have the picture and everything. I walked out with him. I was two years of age. Hopefully that bit of luck will come together.”

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