Bloody crutches! Match credentials flapping around my neck, laptop bag over my shoulder, I hauled myself into the press box at the Stade de France in Paris.
Wednesday, November 18, 2009. I took my seat, set up my laptop, charged my phone and waited for the 8pm kick off.
A few weeks before the World Cup play-off against France, I had torn my calf playing football in Ringsend. But as the big match approached, I ruled myself ‘match-fit’ and available to travel to Paris, which looking back was, well, bonkers. I could barely walk. The pain was excruciating.
After months of editing relentlessly grim news about Ireland’s economic crash as part of the Irish Independent newsdesk team, I was determined to, er, hobble onto that plane and the chance to witness a slice of Irish sporting history.
I was wheeled through Dublin airport and then Charles de Gaulle, before getting a taxi straight to the Eiffel Tower. I had heard from a journalistic colleague that the scene was unmissable and I wanted to see it for myself. He wasn’t wrong – there must have been 10,000 Irish fans dancing on, in, under and around – the iconic Parisian landmark. Beer and good vibes everywhere .“Come on you boys in green!”
Another taxi to Saint Denis and the stadium itself. I bumped into RTE commentator George Hamilton who was sipping a Coke. George was hopeful, but definitely not optimistic. “I could hear the Irish singing coming up from the metro. I hope they get what they came for,” he told me.
They say never meet your heroes – but George is an absolute gentlemen and deserves all of the praise he gets from other hacks.
Then the madness. First, on 33 minutes, Robbie Keane rolled the ball into the net. 1-0.
On the hour mark, Damien Duff almost sealed the win after being sent clear. But his shot was saved. As a reporter tasked with writing the big colour piece for the next day’s paper, I was beginning to smell the sea air in Cape Town.
A World Cup in South Africa? This shit was getting real.
Deadlines are nothing new to journalists but this one was ridiculously tight. As the clock ticked on, I began tapping out two alternative 700-word stories for the paper, toggling back and forth on different screens on my laptop.
In one version we had come close to going to the World Cup, but – agony – it wasn’t to be. In the other article, Ireland were gloriously heading to South Africa.
Version 2 was looking an unlikely winner. Then…..
Thierry Henry didn’t so much handle the ball as grab it…feel it… knead it…and then almost handpass it, GAA -style to William Gallas, who headed it home.
And it would prove enough for the French. Unlike the millions watching at home on TV, few people in the stadium actually saw the multiple handball – there was no big screen replay. Swedish referee Martin Hansson didn’t see it.
But we saw it as plain as day on the TV monitors attached to our desks. “The f**ker handled it!” I gasped.
I remember another reporter from an Irish Sunday newspaper running down the steps of the press box shaking his first, screaming “He f**king cheated, it’s a handball yiz bastards!” The French journalists shrugged.
But it was no good.
Just after 9.30pm in the evening, I pressed send on my first piece. The losing narrative. The headline over my article the next day read: “Heroic team had us all dreaming.”
Unfortunately, 10 years on, we also go on remembering!
C’est la vie.