Before Ireland’s final Euro 2012 warm-up match in Hungary on Tuesday night it was raining….hard.
The Hungarian thunder storms were so severe the match was delayed 20 minutes and when the players finally emerged the recordings of the two national anthems seemed to be played on a wonky cassette player from the communist era that skipped more times than Jonathan Edwards.
Everything about the evening just seemed to be…off.
Ultimately the match proved to be scrappy, messy, disjointed, unconvincing and tough to watch if you're an Ireland fan. But, as has so often been the case under Giovanni Trapattoni, there was a result at the end of it.
All the zeros were just fine on the night – no goals scored but none conceded, and the most important zero of all - no injures.
It turned out to be decent preparation for the players but perhaps even more so for us fans who will travel to Poland in full expectation of having our nerves comprehensively shredded for eight days and hopefully longer.
Watching your team play one of these pre-tournament friendlies is akin to seeing your child in their first school play.
Sure you want them to shine, to dazzle, to impress everyone who sees them, but most of all you just don’t want anything to go wrong.
- ‘How was I Daddy?’
- ‘You did just fine son’
Ireland’s goalmouth in Budapest lived a charmed life at times during the match but the real ‘face behind the pillow’ moments came whenever a player in white fell to the ground.
After six just minutes the first Irish man collapsed in the box holding his face, and the pessimistic amongst us immediately started to fear the worse.
- ‘That’s not Dunner is it? Please don’t be Dunner! Oh it’s number six, Glenn Whelan, ahh we’ll miss him but at least it’s not Dunner. Darron Gibson could probably come in and do a similar job…..’
Doom-mongering heads were already trying to console themselves with alternative options by the time Whelan had got up, shook his head clear, and carried on.
Things looked grimmer for Stephen Ward when he got stamped on while making a goal saving challenge just before half-time.
Ward is far from Ireland’s most important player but a football fan’s mind can turn any molehill into a mountain, especially when it's just a few days before his team’s biggest game in 10 years.
- ‘It’s only Wardy, sure he’d be no big loss’
- ‘Yeah but if he’s out Paul McShane might get a game.’
One player who did prove in Budapest that he will again be one of Ireland’s key players at the Euros was Shay Given as he made a couple of outstanding saves to keep things level in the first half.
It was a relief just to see the Aston Villa stopper in the starting line-up. Struggling with a knee injury, there had been some suggestions in recent weeks that his whole tournament could be in danger.
So seeing him make flying saves was a welcome boost but he still managed to treat us to another scare. As the Irish trotted out for the second-half we watched reserve keeper Keiren Westwood, and not Given, making his way between the sticks and again the mind started racing.
- ‘Bloody hell I hope that’s planned and Shay’s knee isn’t at him again? What are they saying on Twitter?
- ‘Daniel McDonnell of the Irish Independent just tweeted that Given strolled back out in his tracksuit and is swigging from a bottle of water. Apparently he “looks relaxed”.’
The Hungary match was unique in a way because it was announced before the match that the same Irish starting XI would also line-up against Croatia when the proper business starts on Sunday.
As the obligatory friendly match second-half substitutes starting totting up it was finally time to relax a bit. Ireland actually played better once they had made a few changes, perhaps because the players introduced were more willing to throw themselves into things knowing that they have to fight for consideration off the bench for the Croatia game and perhaps in the starting line-up further down the line.
Following this Irish team really is quite a schizophrenic experience. While pretty much every 90 minutes spent watching Trapattoni’s team makes for excruciating viewing, the moments in between are actually filled with cautious optimism.
You often reflect on the matches and think that Ireland were ‘lucky,’ but in a results business like football, the more Ireland deliver positive scorelines, the harder it is to criticise Trapattoni’s pragmatic approach.
Was it a poor performance in Budapest? Sure, but Ireland now go into the tournament on the back of a 14-match unbeaten run and have not been defeated on their travels for 16 games. That’s the kind of big sample size that demands ‘luck’ be redefined as the norm.
Ireland will face better teams than Hungary in Poland, in fact they’ll face better teams than themselves, but that doesn’t mean they won’t get results.
You could give yourself palpitations if you compared Ireland player for player with, say, second opponents Spain, but the world champions may not fancy playing awkward Ireland either.
As Mark Twain once wrote: “The best swordsman in the world doesn't need to fear the second best swordsman in the world; no, the person for him to be afraid of is some antagonist who doesn't do the thing he ought to do, and so the expert isn't prepared for him.”
Ireland will happily play the role of Euro 2012’s unfamiliar swordsman in Poland, and rest assured the team will arrive in Poznan on Sunday ready for a fight.
With the final friendly now out of the way, and the players fit and ready, I guess the only thing left to say is: En garde!