“I keep going for them and they let me down on Saturday,” he declares morosely. Still he’s going for them again. If Coppola ever takes the
notion to remake the Godfather movies, Liam will have a cameo. Every time he thinks he’s out, Ireland keep dragging him back in.
Eamon Dunphy, on the other hand, is not a man for foolish optimism. Serbia are “a very good team”. They have Matic. “They could do serious damage to us and end our chances of going to Russia.” The ghosts of Tbilisi on Saturday have not been banished.
Michael D Higgins marches out to greet the teams. George Hamilton detects a lucky omen. “He was in Croke Park on Sunday and his team won there.” There is a groan from Jim Beglin, a Waterford man who loves his county, alongside him. “Thanks for that reminder, George.”
Off we go and Jim immediately spots that Ireland have adopted a diamond formation, with Hoolahan at the point and Meyler at the base. Yet some things do not change. To nobody’s surprise James McClean puts in the first heavy tackle of the night after six minutes. To everybody’s surprise — okay, that’s a leap, but hardly a big leap — he does not receive the first booking of the night. Certainly to Jim’s surprise: “That’s
Shane Duffy nearly repeats his early goal of three days previously but his ninth-minute header is ruled out, correctly, for offside. Ireland are undeterred and keep pressing with vigour and purpose. Jim is enchanted. “With football like this, Tbilisi is becoming a distant memory.” (According to Google, 2,454 miles distant.)
Randolph saves well from Mitrovic, the Newcastle nutter. Meyler wins a ball near the corner flag with a swish of his matador’s cape, to the delight of the crowd. George, getting caught up in the giddiness of it all, is moved to quote the Bard – and not Hamlet or ‘The Scottish Play’ but, impressively, The Winter’s Tale. Autolycus, “that snapper up of unconsidered trifles”. Well played, sir.
Scoreless at half-time. Tbilisi it ain’t. Thank God. “Night and day,” says Liam, presumably a closet Cole Porter fan. “Night and day.” All that’s been missing is “a little more guile” in the final quarter of the field. Ah yes, the eternal Irish problem. Damien Duff, though, is fearful. “Serbia haven’t started to play yet and they’ll come.” Damien is correct. Nine minutes into the second half they arrive, Kolarov steaming in on the far post to smash the ball in off the crossbar. This is painful. Ireland have deserved better. George, searching for
Mr Brightside, observes that 35 minutes remain. Thirty five minutes and they are predictably agonising. Ireland do what they usually do. They huff. They puff. They shoot, badly. They cross, often poorly. The spirit, as ever, is willing, but the speed of thought and sleight of foot is weak. They have a good penalty shout turned down. Murphy batters one straight at the Serbian goalie. Oh for George’s pal Autolycus to snap up an unconsidered trifle in the six-yard area.
Final whistle, 0-1. “Ireland have played a lot poorer and got results,” Jim sighs. It’s not so much tonight the problem was, he elaborates, as in the matches after Vienna “when we didn’t really do enough”.
Serbia are on their way to Russia. Ireland are not. Instead they’re on their way to Wales for a must-win game. Not impossible, argues Eamon, as Wales aren’t great. “We proved for an hour tonight that we have a team, a good team.”
There has to be a sting in Eamon’s tail, of course. He’s not blaming the players. He’s blaming the inconsistency in selection, the changes in shape. “It’s not the players who’ll cost us our place at the World Cup. It’s Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane.”
Bury my heart in Tbilisi. Not such a distant memory after all.