As the final whistle blew in the Aviva Stadium on Tuesday night, it was as if someone flicked a switch and, in an instant, changed the national mood from gloom to joy. After the game, in the heaving Berkeley Court, there seemed to be a smile on every face, with one of the biggest grins belonging to the man who’d put the ball in the English met all those years ago.
“At long last,” said Ray Houghton, “because if you’d told me in 1988 that it would be another 24 years before we’d qualify for the Euro finals again, I’d have sent for the men in white coats. I mean, when you think of the players we had then...”
Which was true. And on the night that was in it, it didn’t seem fair to remind Ray that, had he kept his composure when put clean through late on at Wembley back in 1991, it would have been Ireland not England making a second successive appearance at the Euro finals the following year. Indeed, there’s a persuasive argument to be made that Ireland played their best and most consistent football under Jack Charlton when they went unbeaten through that 1992 qualifying campaign but, edged out at the death, they had to wait two more years to get another shot at the big time, at USA 94.
There’s also an argument to be made that 1994 was the last time Irish qualification was greeted with unqualified euphoria. Which is to take nothing away from Mick McCarthy’s achievement in guiding to the team to the World Cup in 2002, but merely to point out the painfully obvious — that by the time the finals came round, disharmony bordering on civil war was the order of the day.
To my mind, the earthquake that was Roy Keane’s sensational departure actually made Ireland’s excellent showing at the finals even more worthy of praise but, notwithstanding the glorious moments which followed — like Robbie’s equaliser against Germany in Ibaraki and Duff’s bow after scoring against Saudi Arabia — the dark shadow cast by Saipan was never fully erased. One unhappy result was that, unlike his predecessor, the unfairly maligned McCarthy was never properly accorded the status of national hero.
It could be that, even allowing for the language barrier, Giovanni Trapattoni has a better chance of achieving that: certainly, to see him besieged by well-wishers before flying out of Dublin on Wednesday morning was almost to see him turn into Big Jack before your very eyes. The last time I’d seen him subject to such adulation and affection was during his homecoming as Ireland manager when the team played Italy in Bari. Then it was his own people who were falling over themselves to pay homage. Now, it’s the turn of his adopted countrymen and women.
“Oh Trapattoni, he used to be Italian but he’s Irish now,” sang the hardcore support long after the final whistle in the Aviva on Tuesday, vocal proof that nothing succeeds like success.
Because, for all the personal charm which the football media and others closer to him know he possesses in abundance, Trapattoni had hardly been winning the battle for hearts and minds right up until the last couple of weeks. But, all along, he understood better than anyone — and, hell, he told us often enough — that results on the pitch would dictate everything.
If I had to pick a pivotal point from a long campaign, it would have to be the night of that game in Moscow when, as now immortalised in a wonderful banner, Richard Dunne led by example and the Irish erected an impenetrable iron curtain to keep rampaging Russia at bay.
Bear in mind the visitors went into that game having slipped up badly at home to Slovakia. And recall the consensus before those back-to-back crunch ties had been that Ireland would need a minimum of four points to ensure their qualification show was kept on the road. By the end of that protracted siege in Moscow they had accumulated a mere two.
But, remarkably, the night had a further twist in store when, as players and media waited at Moscow Airport for the flight back to Dublin, mobile phones began to chirp madly with the news that Armenia were one, two, three and finally, unbelievably, four goals too good for Slovakia.
That, I think, was the tipping point. Having emerged battered but unbowed from their own labours, the news from Zilina must have given everyone inside the Irish camp a sense that, if there was such a thing as a trophy for qualification then, as they like to say in football, their name was on it.
There was still plenty of work to do, of course, but with self-belief booming, Ireland successfully negotiated the final two games of qualifying and then, with the considerable help of Estonian indiscipline, turned the decisive tie into something which might have been scripted by a certain brewing company if they chose to do play-offs.
And so we ended up last Tuesday with a stroll in the park which morphed seamlessly into a lap of honour. Even Trap’s most trenchant critics could scare forbear to cheer at the sight of Duff and Keane and Dunne and Given celebrating like the kids they were when Houghton was doing the business all those years ago.