The night they drove old Ireland down

It’s not true that there were no positives to be taken from Ireland’s depressing Euro 2012. In defeat, even more than in victory, the magnificent Irish support once again did the country proud.

Of course, the moment you voice such a sentiment, especially in the current climate of doom and gloom, you’re asking for a good kicking from the critics and the cynics, whose high priest, Roy Keane, set the tone with the charge that the fans should never have been singing for a team which had just been on the end of a 4-0 hiding.

But I was in Gdansk that night when, with a few minutes left on the clock, ‘The Fields of Athenry’ began rolling in a huge wave around the stadium, and not for one second did I think there was anything celebratory or carefree or inappropriate or drunken or even plain dimwitted about the Green Army’s performance. On the contrary, it seemed to be just what the occasion required: at once a lament for dreams which had been brutally dashed and a defiant declaration that, in the team’s greatest hour of need, the fans were not about to abandon, let alone turn on, the same players who, by dint of the hard job of gaining qualification for the Euros in the first place, had given 30,000 travelling supporters and hundreds of thousands more back home and around the world, the prospect of a summer to remember.

That it turned into a summer to forget, the fans seemed to be acknowledging, was down to a myriad of factors, not excluding significant faults on the Irish side, but those faults most certainly did not include indifference or laziness or lack of effort on the part of the players. That the men down on the pitch were hurting as much as and more than the devastated supporters in the stands was self-evident. But if those players had been made to look foolish by Spain, they weren’t about to be charged with treason by their own countrymen and women. Implicit in the singing too was the recognition that, poor as Ireland were on the night, even one of their best and more heroic performances would probably have been incapable of turning back the flowing red tide of a Spanish side in its pomp.

Lest we create a Pollyanna caricature of the Irish support, it’s worth pointing out that the same fans have never been slow to put the metaphorical boot in when they think an Irish team is not even providing the bare minimum of effort. Those who were in Serraville and Nicosia during Steve Staunton’s time in charge — or, indeed, who were in Croke Park for the grisly end game against Cyprus — will need no reminding that the Irish football supporter can boo and barrack with the worst of them.

Personally, I don’t mind admitting that I found the climax of that night in Gdansk a real lump in the throat experience, and that’s speaking as someone who has never been in thrall to ‘The Fields of Athenry’. But the poignant mood did put a different song into my head, that remarkable classic by The Band about the American Civil War which recalls “’the night they drove old Dixie down and all the bells were ringin’/The night they drove old Dixie down and all the people were singin’...” With their own hymn in defeat, the fans in Gdansk struck a chord whose reverberations were felt around the world. To pick just one striking example, here’s a flavour of a long, glowing piece written by one Pangeran Siahaan (nothing to the Kerry Siahaans, I don’t think) in the Jakarta Globe. “Seeing this kind of sight bears an element of surrealism,” he wrote. “Even the commentators halted the commentary for a while to give the spectators a moment to enjoy the Irish fans. The song is popular among Irish sports supporters, but that night ‘The Fields of Athenry’ almost sounded like a requiem, a majestic one, that tingled spines of those who saw it. The Irish team didn’t do much on the pitch but the fans made sure that they’re going out with their heads held high.

“The neutrals who saw the heartbreaking sight wished they were Irish and it’s not even a St Patrick’s Day. As the song blared all over the stadium and the image of thousands of Irish standing proud in the face of defeat were transmitted all over the world, suddenly everybody was reminded what football loyalty is about.”

For Pangeran Siahann to be moved to that degree — and he was not alone, to judge by comments all over the world — is confirmation enough that the Irish reaction in the ground to the Spanish inquisition was about something much more than cheap, knee-jerk sentimentality. The Irish have flown the ‘world’s best supporters’ flag for so long now that it can seem the most hackneyed of stereotypes. Until, that is, you stop for a moment and consider how much worse Ireland’s Euro 2012 experience would have been if Gdansk and Sopot and Poznan had spent the last couple of weeks struggling to contain marauding hooligans, with locals locked in doors for fear of their lives, instead of being bowled over by the mindboggling levels of almost universally good-humoured madness which the Green Army has long since claimed as its international calling card. True, the extreme levels of alcohol intake are unsettling but, in a way, that only makes the absence of anything other than isolated and relatively minor outbreaks of aggression among the foot-soldiers all the more remarkable.

For as long as it lasts, the international reputation of the Green Army, which has now soared to new heights, is not something we should ever take for granted, let alone belittle or decry. It is, to be sure, something of which this country can be proud.

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