All to play for Ireland vs. France in Croke Park

It was a classic Jimmy Magee line at the start of a week he described as momentous as Irish soccer folk gathered in Dublin’s oldest pub on Monday night.

The venue was the Brazen Head, the quaint and very old boozer on the side of the Liffey and in close proximity to St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

The occasion was the launch of a charity CD for the Christmas market featuring the singing talents of the former Irish soccer manager Eoin Hand.

And the emcee for the night was the one and only Mr. Magee, the most knowledgeable man in Irish sport and definitely one of the most charming.

As he prepared to officially cut the ribbon on the disc recorded live at the legendary John B. Keane bar in Listowel, Co. Kerry Jimmy remarked that it was a pleasure to see Eoin Hand launch his new CD on the same day Michael Jackson’s This Is It was unveiled this side of the world.

Quite what the late Michael would make of Eoin Hand singing the likes of “After the Ball,” “The Voyage” and “Danny Farrell” with help from the likes of Mickey McConnell is anyone’s guess.

But Eoin makes a good job of it on this album, released to raise funds for the Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind, and Jimmy made a great job of emcee for the night.

He knows his football does our Jimmy, so he was able to speak with authority on great Ireland-France clashes of the past.

And not surprisingly, he did remind us that Eoin Hand was the last Irish manager to beat France when Michel Platini, et al, were on the wrong end of a 3-2 scoreline at Lansdowne Road all of 28 years ago.

Eoin, as he admitted on Monday night, wasn’t to know it then, but that was the highlight of his managerial career as far as the boys in green were concerned.

Even with beating France on that memorable day -- I was there with many other starry eyed teenagers -- Ireland missed out on the 1982 World Cup finals on goal difference to the French in a group topped by Belgium.

It was a tragedy for a team of all the talents that included the likes of Liam Brady, David O’Leary, Davy Langan, Mark Lawrenson and Frank Stapleton.

O’Leary and Stapleton did get to travel to Italia with Jack Charlton some nine years later, but by then they were both bit players in the Jack scheme of things.

Sadly Brady and Lawrenson and Langan, injured in the French game, never got to taste life on the biggest stage of them all, and all three failed to make it even to Germany for Euro ’88.

They know, as Eoin Hand does, how fickle the game of football is. That’s why the forthcoming World Cup playoff clash with France is so important, not just for the very future of the game on this cash starved island of ours but also for the players themselves.

Some of the current stars of Irish soccer -- notably Messrs Given, Duff, Kilbane and Keane -- have already illuminated a World Cup finals.

Others, notably Richard Dunne, were around in 2002 but never got off the bench in Japan or South Korea as Mick McCarthy got his team to the last 16 even without his so called Captain Fantastic.

Some, like Kevin Doyle and Stephen Hunt and Aiden McGeady, are within touching distance of a World Cup finals for the first time in their careers.

It might, as Eoin Hand would probably tell them if they asked, be the only occasion that they get this close to the greatest tournament any footballer worth his salt can play in.

That’s why Ireland have to throw everything including the kitchen sink at the French in Croker this Saturday night and then again in the Stade de France the following Wednesday.

These players have to give it their all against Henry, Anelka and company for the 180 minutes that will decide who goes to South Africa next summer.

It is a tall order to expect this Irish team to win. On paper the French leave us for dead in terms of pure talent, raw pace and goal scoring potential, but no Irish team has ever played a game on paper to the best of my knowledge.

We do play on grass and we do play well on grass, some of the time at least.

We have a manager now who knows better than most how to succeed at the highest level.

We have a coach in Marco Tardelli who has famously turned the French boss Raymond Domenech every time they met as managers of the Italian and France under -21 teams.

We have an assistant in Liam Brady who can tell those players in the Irish dressingroom what it feels like to get so close and yet remain so far from the World Cup pinnacle.

And we have a set of fans who will turn Croke Park into a rocking fortress on Saturday night, a set of fans who know what it means for this country to taste success on the international football stage after so many months of negative equity and negative comment on the news pages.

We need an Ireland win against the French. We need the team to qualify for the World Cup finals.

We need these players to deliver. If they can repeat the heroics of Eoin Hand’s team of ’81 in Dublin on Saturday night then this particular Irish side can set us up for one hell of a battle in Paris the next Wednesday.

If they give it their all we will be proud of them and we will be grateful. There can be no regrets for these boys in green over the next 10 days. No regrets.

We’ll gladly leave them to Eoin Hand and the nearly men of ’81.

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