You are witness to an unprecedented experiment in sports journalism here this morning — if not quite a match report written before the match then something not too far off it.
As I type, there are still more than seven hours to go to kick-off in the Gibraltar-Ireland game at the Estadio Algarve. All this and I have dared to choose as the theme for my column: the eternal allure of David v Goliath.
Of course, by the time you read these words, you will know if, against all known odds, the Rockies have somehow managed to write their names into that exclusive strand of football history and, if they have completed that mission impossible, well, all I can say is that not only will this column self-destruct in five seconds but so, in all probability, will Martin O’Neill, Roy Keane, and anyone and everything in their immediate vicinity.
Actually, as adventures in hubristic journalism go, my modest effort here is still only trotting after the Rio de Janeiro newspaper O Mundo, whose confidence in a Brazil victory over Uruguay in the 1950 World Cup final at the Maracana was unquestioning that its early edition famously went to press with a picture of the team beneath the headline ‘These Are The World Champions’. Unfortunately, by the time the paper actually hit the streets, an entire nation was reeling in despair and disbelief from the shock of having just seen their beloved ‘Selecao’ beaten 2-1, a result which marked an all-time low for the guardians of the beautiful game.
In any event, the inspiration for today’s column is the recently screened Setanta Ireland documentary Once In A Lifetime, an enthralling account of Dundalk’s famous European Cup odyssey of 1979.
It was a story bookended by two different kinds of agony for the Lilywhites — victory over Linfield against the backdrop of ferocious sectarian rioting at Oriel Park and glorious defeat by the narrowest of margins to Glasgow Celtic, on the very brink of qualification for the European Cup quarter-finals.
I say ‘backdrop’ but, in truth, the Linfield fans who ran amok in the stands, on the pitch, and outside the ground in the first leg at Oriel Park were effectively front and centre-stage. The great Mick Lawlor, now Ireland’s kitman, recalled turning his marker before looking up to unleash a strike at goal — only to find himself confronted by three gardaí en route to clearing yet another invader from the pitch.
Somehow, amid the mayhem, the game was played to a 1-1 conclusion, but the following day’s headlines over what were ostensibly routine match reports — ‘One Could Almost Feel Sheer Hatred’ was par for the course — told the true tale of a night when football was forced to play a cowed second-fiddle to the Troubles.
As punishment, Uefa decreed the second leg could not be played at Windsor Park and both teams found themselves on the neutral territory of Haarlem’s ground outside Amsterdam, where the bemused locals who turned up saw Dundalk win 2-0 to progress to the next round.
Once In A Lifetime features a great archive clip of a youthful George Hamilton, in what he admits on camera is one of the most unusual sports interviews he’d ever done, talking to the Dundalk and Linfield managers, Jim McLaughlin and Roy Coyle, in the departures lounge at Schipol Airport after the match. In their trademark late ’70s wide-lapel jackets and big ties, both men look exhausted after the shared torrid experience their clubs had been through, but their mutual respect is obvious — as it always was between the players — with Coyle closing his remarks by wishing Dundalk all the best in their upcoming encounter with Hibernians of Malta.
The Lilywhites duly prevailed in that one, 2-1 on aggregate, to set up what would become two of the most famous games in League of Ireland history — first away and then home to Glasgow Celtic. At Parkhead, it looked for a while like the dream would be rudely shattered but, with the visitors 3-1 down at the break, Mick Lawlor came off the bench in the second half to score a magnificent goal and leave the final score a scarcely believable 3-2. Sportingly, the Celtic faithful stayed behind to salute the Irish team’s effort while, the following morning, the local papers were no less effusive in their praise, if not entirely free from stereotype. Or as the Daily Record put it: “This was not a case of the luck of the Irish. No leprechauns guarded their goal. No blarney was used to con the Celts. The Parkhead crowd watched in eloquent silence as Dundalk celebrated a moral victory.”
And it almost turned into victory of a real and historic kind in the second-leg at Oriel Park, where over 17,000 crammed in to create what Lawlor called “a white-hot atmosphere” and see their local heroes come within a whisker of knocking out the Glasgow giants and qualifying for the quarter-finals of European Cup. “Nothing can describe that feeling of elation you have playing against a really, really top side,” observed Dundalk captain Dermot Keely, one of the stars of the show then and now while, in the death or glory performance of the home side, his Celtic counterpart, the legendary Danny McGrain, recognised something of his own club’s attitude when up against Europe’s elite.
“With the crowd behind you and the players wound up, it’s like a screw tightening even tighter,” he says in the documentary. “We’ve done it against Inter Milan, Real Madrid — we jump higher, we tackle harder, you somehow get some pace from somewhere. And Dundalk that night worked their socks off.”
And right at the death, McLoughlin’s boys almost sneaked the goal that would have taken them through, Tommy McConville missing what is often described as a sitter but which the grainy footage from the night shows was a little bit harder than that, as he stretched at the far post to make killer contact.
But the chance got away, the game ended scoreless and Celtic, denying Dundalk the chance to mix it with the most blue blooded of European aristocracy, went on to lose 3-2 to Real Madrid in the quarter-finals of a competition which would eventually be won that year by Nottingham Forest, whose team contained a midfielder by the name of Martin O’Neill.
Which, barring an extension of the palm to Once In A Lifetime’s writer, director, and producer Shane Tobin for a terrific documentary, more or less brings us bang up to date again. And if you’re still reading this, it probably means that Gibraltar didn’t quite manage to do a Dundalk last night. But if they did, then, to use a trademark Keely-ism as he tried to put the Town’s unforgettable 1979 into perspective: “Mental!”.
Another highlight of my viewing week was Andy Townsend’s yarn on Sky Sports’ ‘ Fantasy FC’, from the time he and Paul Gascoigne were playing with Middlesbrough.
As the pair returned by taxi to the latter’s house after a night on the town, Gazza asked the cab driver to stay over and bring them to training in the morning – the wake-up call now being only five hours’ away.
One hundred quid sealed the deal and the driver retired to a back bedroom where, unfortunately, no-one thought to tell him, because of faulty plumbing, he should not use the en-suite toilet since, once flushed, as Townsend recalled, “the water just kept on coming.”
First up the following day Townsend heard an ominous gushing sound from the games room and threw open the double doors to be greeted by the sight of a huge hole in the ceiling from which water and chunks of plaster were pouring down on the snooker table Gazza, with his penchant for house-keeping, would carefully brush every night.
Emergency arrangements having been made to call a plumber and admit him to the house, and with the training deadline now looming large, Townsend tried to hurry his housemate out the door to the waiting taxi.
But, just as they were about to leave, he turned around to see poor Gazza squelching back across the games room and, with his OCD impulses firmly to the fore, trying to carefully replace the snooker balls inside the triangle on the sodden baize, while water continued to splash down on his head.
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