Three, of course, being the magic number for the most magical sports story of the week — the number of goals St Patrick’s Athletic scored on aggregate to eliminate Krylia Sovetov in the Europa League; the number of goals they had conceded inside an hour before turning the second leg on its head; and, famously, the number of Pats supporters who were there in the flesh to witness the miracle of Samara.
“The stuff of dreams,” is how manager Jeff Kenna summed up the whole experience and who could disagree? Certainly not Declan ‘Fabio’ O’Brien, the striker who endured a nightmare at Dundalk but whose goal-a-game record in Europe since arriving at Pats just a few weeks ago has already assured him of Roy Of The Rovers status in Inchicore.
Meanwhile, us so-called experts — like our GAA counterparts, caught colder than the Dubs in the eye of the Kingdom hurricane — must be content to dine on humble pie. And believe me, we are, we are.
Because what made the Pat’s success story all the more remarkable is that, in truth, few beyond the dressing room gave the team much chance as they headed off on their long journey east. The disgruntled background hum had been all about a side struggling for consistency in the league and a manager struggling to take them in the right direction.
Sure, they had done well not to melt in the heat of Valletta and even better to snatch a 1-0 home victory against the classy Russians but when news came back from Samara that Pats were one down, then two and then three, it seemed that the even the most pessimistic predictions were about to be exceeded.
But then came the most improbable of comebacks, an og and Fabio’s mandatory strike putting the visitors back in a winning position on the away goals rule. And that, remarkably, is how it ended, save for the delicious postscript that the Pat’s support — all three of them — were apparently making more noise after the final whistle than the 10,000 dumbfounded locals who could scarcely believe what they were seeing. Not to mention hearing. We’re all familiar with the 12th man phenomenon but here again Pats have rewritten the script — the talk around Richmond Park now will be all about the 12th man, the 13th man and the 14th woman.
We now know that Pats’ reward for their heroics is a draw with one-time Romanian and European kingpins Steaua Bucharest in what is the penultimate tie before the lucrative group stages of the Europa League. Of course, Irish football has been in this so-near-and-yet-so-far position before — Shels in the Champions League against Deportivo La Coruna being the stand-out example — but, after defying the odds in such spectacular fashion in Russia, no one will make the mistake of writing Pats off a second time, even if, once again, they will surely be obliged to travel more in hope than expectation.
But even if there is to be no happy ever after, the fairytale quality of the story to date is just what the domestic game needed after another week of soul-searching and hand-wringing prompted by Cork City’s disturbing brush with The Reaper.
And while none of the bigger issues related to club football here have suddenly gone away, it’s a pleasure and a relief to be able to park them for a moment and simply bask in the giddy reality of what Pat’s have already achieved and dream of what might be yet to come.
But then, that’s football for you, that’s the thing which keeps the faithful — however small in number and however long-suffering they might be — coming back for more.
That ability of the mad old game to put a smile on the face was also the quality which provided a dazzling silver lining to the darkest cloud of recent weeks — the death, after a long battle with illness, of Bobby Robson.
Football, in common with all professional sport, is hardly noted for its sentimentality but it was impossible not to be moved by the genuine outpouring of affection which Robson’s death provoked. For sure, we could have done without the shameless hypocrisy of some who, having branded him a traitor and worse when he was manager of England, now unleashed a Niagara of tears onto their grimy laptops.
For the most part, the tributes — especially those from within the game — were couched in the kind of language that you rarely hear in public life, let alone in the hard-bitten world of football. Beyond respect and admiration, there was a palpable sense of the loss of wonderful human being, as evidenced by the number of times the word “love” featured in emotional tributes from those who knew him best.
And then there was the added joy of the retelling of yarns about a forensic obsession with the game which doubled as an hilarious absent-mindedness about little things, like people’s names — even his own.
Like the time he met Bryan Robson coming out of a lift and greeted him with a cheery “Hello Bobby.” To which the England captain replied, “No, me Bryan, you Bobby”. Or the time the U-21 manager Howard Wilkinson asked Shola Ameobi what his nickname was. Don’t have one, said Ameobi. You must have one, insisted Wilkinson, what does Bobby Robson call you at Newcastle? “He calls me Carl Cort,” replied Shola Ameobi. Or the time a journalist rang him at home and, at one point finding himself simultaneously talking to the caller and to his wife Elsie, Bobby repeatedly managed to call the press man ‘love’ and his other half ‘son’.
And then there’s the classic tale of a fan spotting Robson standing at the touchline at a local game. Scarcely believing his luck, the fan approaches and asks politely if there’s any chance he could have an autograph. Not a problem, says Robson taking the proffered pen and paper. Delighted, the fan again apologises for the intrusion, observing that this must happen loads of times to the great man. “Oh, millions and millions,” laughs Robson as he scribbles his name.
The fan thanks him profusely and leaves him to his match. It’s only later he looks at the precious piece of paper to find that it’s inscribed with the words ‘Best wishes — Bobby Millions’.
And do you think the old romantic would have loved Pats’ great adventure? Ah, you better believe it.