A whole new ball game as fans vent anger

The FAI’s newly-minted executive vice-president is no stranger to terrace taunts but John Delaney must have been braced for a particularly long and uncomplimentary spot of serenading from the South Stand last night after the spill of events in and around the group opener against Gibraltar. Reports before kick-off had it that the association’s blazers discussed recent off-the-field matters at a board meeting earlier in the day but, in one way at least, it was business as usual for the man now perched somewhat more awkwardly at the apex of Irish football’s pyramid.

Delaney loyalists have not gone entirely to ground in recent days. He was snapped accommodating a line of well-wishers in the Aviva Stadium’s corporate section early in the evening but an air of uncertainty and giddiness lingered beyond those polished glass doors. How would the terraces make plain their feelings?

Mick McCarthy had speculated on the possible adverse effect any large-scale protest might have on his team’s chances of putting Georgia away on Monday and it seemed as if the singing section had taken heed of such concerns through the opening half-hour.

Songs were sung that were critical of Delaney and the FA — some printable here, others probably not so much — but they sat in a playlist alongside familiar ditties exhorting support for the Boys in Green. The worst seemed to be over for Delaney until it happened. White hankies tend to be the symbol of displeasure among supporters in the continent. Not here. Not last night.

No-one seems to know for sure where the idea of lobbing tennis balls onto the pitch germinated. It may have been a random suggestion from a Joe Public on Twitter that was picked up by one paper and then escalated into a question for Mick McCarthy at the pre-match press event. Whatever the source, the minute appeared to be significant given Delaney’s suggestion a decade ago that Ireland be afforded a 33rd spot at the 2010 World Cup on the back of Thierry Henry’s sleight of hand in the play-off second leg against the French in Paris.

There was widespread embarrassment at the idea among many in Irish football’s fraternity in the wake of that. It was an emotion the man himself evidently didn’t share but he may well be more red-faced by the few dozen fluffy spherical objects that reined down on the turf last night. Uefa tend to be painfully weak in punishing the sort of racism we saw in Podgorica when Montenegro hosted England on Monday night. They tend to crack down much harder on the sort of shenagigans, no matter how minor, that disrupt the sanctity of the playing surface. There will be a fine winging its way to Abbotstown.

As a message, then, it may have been especially effective. Not just because of the minor ripple it will occasion in the European corridors of power through which its target walks, but for the fact it was followed so swiftly by Conor Hourihane’s superb strike. And on the back of such an encouraging half-hour.

The thought had occurred prior to kick-off — and in the wake of that dreadful opening in Gibraltar last Saturday — that we had been looking at the curious case of the Republic of Ireland senior men’s team through the wrong kind of prism. That the side’s struggles weren’t so much a symptom of some wider malfunction — whether Irish football’s structural issues, the absence of love for the League of Ireland, or a nationwide inability to pass the ball five metres along the floor to a team-mate — and more of a standalone oddity.

How else could we explain the fact that the national league champions, Dundalk, could win friends and influence people with their tactical approach while a side representing the entire jurisdiction had lost thousands of fans on the basis of their prehistoric and potholed play? Because, jittery as Ireland were on the Rock under new management, the U21s were much better in dispatching Luxembourg and various other underage sides have managed to dispel the notion lately that we have to be the beautiful game’s ugly duckling.

Northern Ireland have exceeded all expectations despite their imprisonment on the same windswept island and England have found the key to unlocking their undoubted potential with a side bearing four men who could have declared for the Boys in Green. So, the torpor of recent times was never genetic or definitive. Ireland proved as much last night with a performance that, while well short of electric or elegant, had enough about it for long enough periods of play and, yes, even possession, to suggest that the last 18 months was an outlier and that an equilibrium of sorts has been rediscovered. On the pitch anyhow.