OPINION: It’s not craic that make Irish fans the world’s best, it's resilience
"The team is s**t, you’re wasting your time and you’ve got no idea about football."
These were just some of the things that a 9-year-old me would hear on June 4th, 1995 after I decided to wear an Irish jersey to training with my local side, St Kevin’s Boys (home of Liam Brady, Stephen Carr and current Irish heroes Jeff Hendrick/Robbie Brady).
This memory is as vivid to me as Jon Walters' double against Bosnia because it's the exact moment that my allegiance to the Boys in Green would forever be set in stone and absolutely unwavering.
To be fair, this gentle slagging from my teammates seemed justified because it was the day after Jack Charlton’s Ireland could only manage a 0-0 draw with minnows Liechtenstein. It was in the aftermath of this horrendous game that I learned a defining lesson that’s applicable to all sports.
What separates 'the Boys in Green' from the boys on the green bandwagon is that true fans stick by their team during their lowest ebb. Some supporters can be flakier than Stephen Ireland's commitment to the green jersey but what really matters is sticking by your side, through thick and thin.
That's why I regard qualification for Euro 2016 as a reward for the dedication and resilience of Ireland's players and fans alike.
My dad brought me to my very first international match in '94, a 1-0 World Cup warm-up win against Bolivia, and the ticket is still floating around somewhere in my parents' house.
Printed on the back of it should read “by purchasing this ticket you hereby agree to experience an intoxicating/infuriating lifetime supply of footballing torture, agony and euphoria. The Thierry Henry soul-crushing lows of Paris will be cancelled out by the extreme happiness of Robbie Keane's equaliser in Ibaraki." This is simply the life of an Irish football supporter.
History hasn't always been kind but it has ensured that we're made of tough stuff.
Next summer in France will undoubtedly provide Irish fans with some more memorable moments but what makes the elation of reaching the promised land even better are those painful memories from campaigns of the past.
Irish supporters don't need reminding that summers of football have all too frequently turned into winters of discontent.
Case in point, the names of Toni Polster, Goran Stavrevski, Luc Nilis, Tayfur Havutçu, Thierry Henry and David Alaba will forever be burned into my brain; but in a perverse way, these lows manage to make the achievement of reaching Euro 2016 seem even more valuable and precious.
We're not the New Zealand rugby team, the Kilkenny hurlers, AP McCoy or any other successful Dunphy sporting cliché. Success isn't always guaranteed but the important thing for our fans has always been keeping the faith, no matter how gloomy things have looked.
Results, managers and performances on the pitch have tested the loyalty and commitment of every Irish supporter at some point but the hardcore will always come back.
I vividly remember Andorra taking the lead against us at home, throwing away a 2-0 lead against Israel under Kerr and the horrendous Cyprus debacles with Stan that were coupled by the embarrassment of San Marino away.
All this without even mentioning the caveman football that personified Trap's reign, being spanked in front of the whole world at Euro 2012 or the subsequent 6-1 demolition by Germany in Dublin and yet, we come back.
It’s goals like John O'Shea's dramatic equaliser in Gelsenkirchen or Shane Long's roof-raising rocket past Neuer that will always refuel our belief, keep us going during those dark moments and make Irish fans follow our boys into hell and back.
Our supporters are rightfully celebrated for their tradition of mixing with locals, having a few friendly drinks with rival fans and being great ambassadors for this wonderful country of ours. I've no doubt that this will happen again in France next year but we’re so much more than this mentality of “win or lose, we’re on the booze."
As a footballing nation, we've been continuously beaten by the one-two combination of the relative glories from our recent past and the incredibly unrealsitic expectations that are placed upon the current crop of players.
The reality of where we really stand in world football lies somewhere in the middle. We don't need the flawed FIFA rankings to know that we're not going to be challenging Spain, Germany or France for the title next summer - barring some miracle of Greece at Euro 2004 proportions - but we also shouldn't be going over to France next summer just to make up the numbers, one of the main reasons why Euro 2012 still hurts so deeply.
The rugby team have rightfully been getting acclaim over the last few years, consecutive Six Nations titles are the most recent trophies in a glittering decade, but right now our footballers deserve massive praise for reaching Euro 2016.
Finding a way past Germany, Poland, Scotland, Bosnia and the rest was not an easy thing to do, but once again this group of players have proven that they embody the attitude and spirit that our country values so much.
It's the Ireland effect.
Our lads somehow manage to find an extra 10% when they pull on that green jersey and Irish fans have always rallied around these principles of honesty, character and pride - coupled with skill of course.
It's the reason why we all dream of a team of Gary Breens, worship at the altar of Zinedine Kilbane and argue the merits of McShane over Messi. Players with commitment and integrity will always do right by our fans and the flag, the feeling is 100% reciprocal from the stands.
Take a look at the evidence of the character that's in this current squad.
Heartbroken and dejected in Paris, they regrouped and qualified for Poland. Directionless on the road to Brazil, they found the road to France. When a point seemed inevitable in hostile Georgia, we somehow conjured up a winner of absolute magic. Battered and one-nil behind in the lions den of Gelsenkirchen, we dug deep and scored a glorious equaliser. When catastrophe loomed at home to Poland, Shane Long found a way to rescue a point.
It's not a coincidence or 100% luck that a back-four comprised of players from Derby County, Sunderland and Burnley nullified the talents of Marco Reus, Mario Götze and Thomas Müller.
Make no mistake about it, we're going to be up against some of Europe's strongest punchers and most fearsome heavyweights next summer. It's very likely that Ireland will be battered, bruised and hit the canvas at some point but do you know what? - we also have the ability to get up and deliver a knock-out blow of our own.
Just ask the world champions when they left Dublin a few months ago. On any night, against any team, the impossible can happen and that's why sport is so bloody great.
There will come a time when tiki-taka, possession and pace absolutely torment us in France but when our backs are against the wall, this group of players and fans have frequently proven that they've the character to get up and find a way back.
The fans will be there in their droves to help the players, we always will. COYBIG!
While you're here, check out the latest episode of #SportsJOElive where we had former UFC Flyweight Paddy Holohan alongside Irish rugby stars Mike McCarthy and Chris Henry on the couch!
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