After an uncharacteristically warm period, Murphy’s law ensured that the day Ireland played their first game of the 2016 European Championships, it rained. The murky grey skies painted a disconcertingly comfortable backdrop to a day that was mildly unfamiliar to the Irish public, despite the fact that we took part in the 2012 edition of the competition as well.
Wandering around Galway city on my own in anticipation of the 5 o’clock kick off, the city had an eerie buzz as the Boys in Green geared up to take on Sweden. Waiting for my lethargic friends to make their way into town so we could decide on a place to watch the match, I made my way down to An Tobar, where they were showing the game outside on a TV.
In a country where beards are a fashion statement and not a mark of masculinity like they were back in the days of the Dubliners and where men now consider white jeans a suitable pair of pants, it is mildly fair to say that the Irish culture has changed somewhat since it developed many of the traits that put the country of the map many years ago.
One of those traits that hasn’t changed, however, is the country’s singularity in its support or hatred of the Boys in Green. The Irish national soccer team’s participation in a major competition is something that sparks a unanimous interest among the public that has only been achieved by Glenroe, Love/Hate and to some extent Conor McGregor. Not even the Irish Rugby team captivate the Irish like the footballers, despite their success.
My fondness towards soccer has had its highs and lows and while I could sit down and watch a football match whenever, it has been a long time since I’ve had that burning passion within me ignited by whatever is going on in front of my eyes. Growing up playing soccer on the tarmac of Scoil Sailearna’s yard, I dreamed of wearing the Green jersey (Along with a number of club ones), like many of my classmates, and by the looks of it, those gathered around the TV on the temperate and damp afternoon. The sloppily mazy runs at lunch that ended up with accusations of being a ‘glory’, scraped knees and the odd goal along with all the other heroics of lunchtime football may have contributed to the moving feeling within me as Ireland faced off with Sweden but I was still puzzled as to why I was so affected by people kicking a ball on a pitch in France.
The crowd that had assembled was predominantly male with two seasoned dogs in attendance as well as a few tourists, who had been mystified by the culmination of pint holding people hypnotised by men in green and yellow running around on a screen. My phone vibrated and I was called upon to join the rest of the lads in a bar in Eyre Square. The crowd inside was much older yet the childish glimmer in their eyes was shared with the prior group. Jeff Hendrick rattled the Swedish woodwork with a thunderous effort and the onlooking patrons groaned in unison. James McCarthy miscontrolled the ball in the centre circle and was immediately slated by everyone all at once. There was a hidden understanding between us all that allowed us to scream and cheer like we’d scored ‘next goal wins’ when Wes Hoolahan emphatically slotted home the opener, yet openly show our disgust when Ciaran Clarke headed the ball into his own net.
The walk home along the canal allowed me to go over what had happened amongst all of us watching and reacting in the pub and on the street. It dawned on me that my own fascination that prompted me to jump off my seat when we seemed like scoring and almost drop my glass when we were in danger of conceding, was that the team was like a window to my childhood. Even more complexly, was that the window in question was one looking into my perceived future as a child, as a professional footballer representing my country. On a grand scale then, even just for me personally the Irish soccer team is a collection of players representing what I spent hours in my garden mimicking. Maybe it was this feeling that we had all shared some sort of similar footballing dream, however short, big, realistic or far-fetched, all of us there had some experience of the beautiful game during our youth that allowed us to latch on as a collective and get behind the team.
The Ireland that I grew up in not too many years ago is a lot different to what it is now, and the Ireland my Dad grew up in is definitely not a shadow on what we have in front of us at the moment. Seeing the national team going up against the big dogs in football is something that links with our heart strings and pulls them even more intricately than Messi dribbling by Jerome Boateng. When Shane Long buried the goal that sunk Germany in qualifying it drew all of us together as a nation because any cultural divides or differences we had were eliminated due to the fact that there was a bit of Shane Long in all of us at some point, be it running around our garden celebrating to the blades of grass or in an under 18 cup final. The same goes for the low moments, our drubbings at the hands of the aforementioned Germans or Spaniards or Italians, they all hurt us just as bad as that gut-wrenching PE game we lost in the dying moments.
It was this unanimous support that allowed me to sit wearing a colourful snapback and an Adidas tracksuit in the same vicinity as a furiously simply-dressed old man that would usually malign me for what I was wearing, given that in his day I would’ve looked completely out of place. In some ways, pubs represent the generational divides in Ireland, some of which have been greatly accelerated by the growth of technology which makes one culture virtually alien to another. It is then refreshing that Ireland’s participation in the Euros has allowed us to come together as a nation and celebrate or criticise our country’s performances in ways that haven’t existed in a rather long time.
The sense of Irishness that flowed through all in attendance was something even more powerful than a John O’Shea clearance and something that was melancholically unfamiliar to me and some of the other people witnessing not only a sporting but cultural milestone.
The game ended 1-1. There was still a static sense of magic in the air as we strolled back home. I texted my Dad to let him know what I thought and Evan was soon on the phone to his explaining the team’s shortcomings and his worries ahead of the unsettling ties with Belgium and Italy. I know my older brother had also dissected the game with my Dad soon after that. Even though we may all have physically grown up, the only thing that allowed us to speak unfiltered and naturally to each other with no hesitation, was the game we cherished since our most infant stages.
I’m proud to be Irish.