It was what I once erroneously called “the swings and roundabouts of outrageous fortune.” The Republic of Ireland’s international football team were ‘done’ by a clear handball from France’s Thierry Henry in the 2010 World Cup play-offs two years ago. And in the last group game of Euro 2012 qualifying, Ireland’s opponents Armenia were ‘done’ by a clear ‘not handball’ from their goalkeeper Roman Berezovsky. The inevitable knee-jerk reaction is to suggest that the “things” which we are constantly told “even themselves up over time,” have done precisely that in this instance. And the fear is that this debate masks a more long-term debate about the quality of Ireland’s football… no, let’s be brutal about this, the almost total lack of quality of Ireland’s football.
Comparisons between the 2010 injustice meted out to the Irish team and the injustice(s) from which they benefited against Armenia are subject to conjecture, of course. But a quick reminder of just what Ireland were ‘denied’ by Henry was required. The anti-Henry outrage has played tricks with some memories and enhanced the view that Ireland were denied a place in South Africa. This was not the case. Had Henry’s handball been penalised, the likeliest outcome of the match would have been a 1-0 win to Ireland, after extra-time. This, in turn, would have led to a penalty shoot-out, as France had won the first leg of the play-off 1-0. And the gods alone know how that would have panned out.
They’d have been more confused at the effect of referee Eduardo Iturralde Gonzalez’s belief that Berezovsky had handled Ireland striker Simon Cox’s goalbound shot on thirty minutes. For let’s be quite clear; Berezovsky did not handle the shot. The custodian may have an unfortunate amalgam of two infamous Russian oligarchs for a name (Boris Berezovsky and Roman Thingummy). But that doesn’t mean he has biceps in his chest, which is where Cox’s shot clearly struck him. Clearly, that is, from the more conclusive TV replays.
A replay from behind the South Stand which Ireland were defending showed the ball rebound from Berezovsky at an angle which ‘clearly’ suggested it had struck him on the inside of his right arm. It was this replay which was closest to Gonzalez’s actual view and was what Gonzalez allegedly saw at half-time, to which he allegedly responded with a version of “see, it was handball.” Then there was Cox’s handball, to which he has confessed (“it brushed my arm and, to be fair, I didn’t think it hit the keeper’s arm”) – a more obvious version of the method used by Tottenham’s Rafael Van der Vaart to control the ball before firing his side 1-0 up against Arsenal in the most recent North London derby.
So, Ireland had a man advantage to take into the final hour of the game and Armenia had their third-choice goalkeeper waiting in the wings, whose eventual display made you shudder at the thought of Armenia’s fourth-best keeper. This disadvantaged Armenia hugely. But the pattern of the game, such as it was, makes it difficult to gauge whether they would have clinched the victory they required for play-off qualification with eleven players throughout and a keeper steadier than former Carry On film star Jack Douglas (if you’re too young, ask your Dad).
Until Berezovsky’s dismissal, Armenia had looked the better side. But ‘looked’ was the operative word. When it came to the basics of winning a game – shots on target and attacking threat in general – they had offered little in the opening half-hour. Had that pattern continued, the game would have been even ghastlier than what eventually transpired. And it would have been, in the context of the evening, 0-0 to Ireland. Indeed, Armenia only threatened to score after an indeterminate part of Richard Dunne’s nether regions had put Ireland two-up with 31 minutes remaining, inhibitions and nerves cast to the wind because they had to be.
They had Barcelona-level possession in the immediate aftermath of Berezovsky’s dismissal, but did foxtrot alpha with it. And even after they scored, the next goal looked likeliest to arrive from a green shirt – though not the number seven one worn by international football’s most over-rated player, Aiden McGeady.
But if we’re evaluating good luck in Dublin this week and poor luck in Paris two years ago, then Ireland are in credit, especially as their victory has given them an unexpected seeding for the play-offs. I am reliant on patience and mathematical genius elsewhere to inform me whether Ireland would have been seeded in the play-off draw had they drawn 0-0 with Armenia. But, despite ‘official’ rankings suggesting otherwise, Ireland are among the favoured. Potential opponents are now Estonia, Montenegro, Bosnia/Hercegovina and Turkey, as opposed to Portugal, Czech Republic or Croatia. And the second leg is at home, for the first time in Ireland’s dismal play-off history.
Whether this will matter is a whole different and wholly more complex debate. This Ireland team seem just as capable of eking out a result against ‘superior’ opposition as they are grinding one out against ‘inferior’ teams. The only consensus is that they are not good to watch. Without context, it is unfair to gauge Ireland/Armenia as a spectacle alongside Spain’s win over Scotland an hour later. Spain are the best international team in Europe at the moment, and they showed it against Scotland. So, inevitably, other teams fall short in direct comparison, especially when the tensions which gripped Dublin were absent from Alicante. But it really was “different sport” territory. Different pace, different methods of moving the ball, different attitudes entirely, as well as the obvious gap in basic quality. Even Scotland seemed livelier and more positive than Ireland are under the tutelage of Italian duo Giovanni Trappatoni as manager and Marco Tardelli as his assistant.
Their results in this European Championship qualifying group have been good. But they’ve been hard won to the point of unwatchability more often than not. I know I would not have bothered if I wasn’t a fan. In fact, after half-time in Andorra, I didn’t. Still, another debate, that, with a complex web of complex issues, above and beyond Trappatoni’s failure to substitute Kevin Doyle before the Wexford-born striker got booked a second time.
These issues include Ireland’s rightful place in international football and how far above their ‘weight’ they are currently ‘punching.’ The expectancy this has created among Irish fans who tend to have airbrushed Steve Staunton’s reign as manager from their collective memory banks (Cyprus 5 Ireland 2, anybody?). Then there’s the rigidity of the team’s formation, regardless of the playing resource available; the continuing selection of Keith Andrews, regardless of the playing resource available; the continuing selection of McGeady, regardless of absolutely bloody everything…
After a night and a half weighing up the pros and cons, I’d say Ireland are fractionally in credit in the luck stakes, while recognising the validity of many cogent arguments against that viewpoint. But whatever the luck of the Irish, I won’t be lectured on the subject by any English supporters; because, that ball landed ON the line in 1966… and you all know it too. And when it comes to ‘outrageous fortune,’ that will always be the winner.
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