Mark Twain once beautifully defined an expert as “some guy from outta town”. That being so, the guys and gals whose heads are entirely off the planet must be the greatest experts of them all.
I’m thinking of those cosmologists, particle physicists, and quantum theorists who propose the mind-boggling multiverse theory of life which, if I understand it correctly — and, obviously, being a lowly football hack, I don’t — holds that there is an infinite number of parallel universes in which everything which possibly could happen to each and every one of us, does.
So, according to this theory, Robbie Brady didn’t head the ball into the Italian net in Lille and send the entire nation joyfully doolally. Instead, in another world far, far away — or, alternatively, very, very close but we just can’t see it — Robbie makes his run, yes, and Wes floats in his beautiful cross, yes, but then, sensing the danger, Italian keeper Salvatore Sirigu comes and collects the ball cleanly, cradling it to his chest as he drops to his knees and runs down the clock down for a minute or two more before hoofing the ball up the pitch. Five minutes later, the referee stretches his arms in front of him and blows his whistle.
Final score: 0-0.
Irish players slump to the ground all over the pitch while Wes Hoolahan buries his face in his shirt. The next morning’s front and back pages all feature a pic of the same Wes, from a little earlier in the game, holding his head in his hands after fluffing his lines and missing the chance to put Ireland into the next round with a tame shot when through one-on-one with the keeper. The sombre headlines are all variations on a theme — ‘The One That Got Away’ — while a dejected Martin O’Neill is at pains to explain that his is a group of players that wins together and loses together.
“Noone’s blaming Wes,” he says. “He’s been absolutely magnificent for us. These things happen. The boys gave everything out there. We’re desperately disappointed but it just wasn’t to be on the night.” The more forensic analysts are less forgiving: Ireland had blown their big Euros chance in the second half against Sweden and, after the horror show of being well beaten by Belgium, they may have salvaged some pride in their final game at Euro 2016 but, ultimately, they lacked the quality at crucial moments to see off what was, lest we forget, a second-string Italian team with nothing to play for.
And so, having failed in their mission to get out of the group, Ireland exit the Euros with only two points, one goal for and four against, to show for their efforts. Better than four years ago, certainly, but hardly the feelgood bounce the nation craves.
All of which fantasy football/nightmare scenario stuff is by way of underlining, once again, the fine, fine margins in sport and, especially, just how important a goal is in football. We know a goal can change a game and change a result but — as in the case of Robbie Brady’s moment of moments in Lille — it can even rewrite the whole damn script, transforming a sorrowful saga of what might have been into nothing less than One Of The Greatest Stories In Irish Sport.
And, here’s the thing, justice was done and seen to be done in our neck of the multiverse that night: this Irish team deserved that ending, not the other one. They deserved it for the terrific first half in Paris against the Swedes and Wes Hoolahan’s thumping goal; for the boldness with which Martin O’Neill rang the changes after everything went off the rails against the Belgians; for the fire and finesse with which they went about taking on an Italian side which, even if not their A team bringing their A game, still had plenty of quality to offer; for the outstanding performances of Jeff Hendrick and Brady, amongst others, throughout the tournament; and, further back, for the moments from qualifying which deserved to matter in the long run: McGeady’s magic in Tbilisi; O’Shea’s last gasp intervention in Gelsenkirchen; Long’s belter against Germany in Dublin; Brady’s twist and shoot in Zenica and Walters’ double-whammy at home to Bosnia.
For all that, and more — not least, the wonderfully composed build-up to the goal itself at a time in the match when Ireland, desperate for the late winner, might have been forgiven for reverting to Route One — the management, the players and the supporters deserved nothing less than one of those moments in time to merit inclusion in the Irish football Hall of Fame alongside Houghton in Stuttgart and again in Giants Stadium, Bonner and O’ Leary in Genoa and Robbie Keane in Ibaraki.
It also meant, of course, that Euro 2016 would be able to give us another sensational moment to cherish as Brady converted his spot-kick barely two minutes into the round of 16 game against France in Lyon. And even if eight minutes of second half self-destruction undid all the good things of a hugely impressive first-half performance, ultimately sending hosts France through and 10-man Ireland out of the tournament, there was something genuinely noble and even heroic about the way the exhausted players fought right to the end against manifestly superior opposition.
A more personal consequence of Robbie Brady’s goal is that the Twittersphere now plays host to —and here are some words I never imagined I’d write — a photograph of yours truly answering the call of nature while French football legend Bixente Lizarazu looks on laughing.
Perhaps an explanation is in order.
At half-time in Lyon, I joined the queue for the media loo which consisted of just the one cubicle. Directly behind me was Lizarazu, former World Cup winner with France and, once again, a familiar face from his nightly appearances on French TV during the Euros. An affable chap with excellent English, we were having an interesting chat about the first half, when he pointed out that the toilet was now vacant.
In I went, only to discover the light wasn’t working, which meant leaving the door open. To the merriment of the lengthening queue, Lizarazu shouted something about ‘no pressure’ while, over my shoulder, I called back something about ‘stage fright’. Oh, how we all laughed. Business done, I then made good my escape, pausing only to exchange a ‘bon chance’ with my new best mate Bix before resuming my place in the press box.
Conceive then, if you will, of the riot of emotions into which I was plunged some time later when I discovered that another colleague in the same queue had surreptitiously photographed the toilet incident and posted the resultant evidence on Twitter with the helpful caption: “A very nervous moment for Liam Mackey as Bixente Lizarazu offers encouragement during a very public visit to toilet.”
— Craig Hope (@CraigHope_DM) June 26, 2016
The leak leaked, as it were.
What can I say? One to proudly show the grandkids — “And this here is one of your old grandpappy taking a whizz, with a French World Cup-winner looking on and having a great laugh” — or grounds for a right to privacy case?
One definite consolation, though: in another universe, I would be sitting down.
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