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Ireland against England in Wembley - the soccer fixture to beat all soccer fixtures

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The great Ray Houghton during his playing days for Ireland.
The great Ray Houghton during his playing days for Ireland. 

We fly on Wednesday morning, off on a rite of passage that has previously landed us in Croke Park, Lansdowne Road, Dalymount Park and even Ballyshannon.

It’s a family thing, the sort of experience that can only be handed down from father to son, mother to daughter, father to daughter or even mother to son just to keep the politically correct happy.

Predominantly in our house it has been father to son, and it has been football that inspired such trips. First, we went to Dalymount, home of the Bohs and venue of many a childhood Sunday afternoon and a Friday night for the eldest member of the clan.

Then we took in Croke Park on the county days when the blood stirs like no other, when passion flies through the veins and the games of Gaelic football and hurling mean everything to everybody, like no other sport in the world.

Lansdowne Road has been a shared experience for soccer internationals and rugby internationals, FAI Cup finals and big Heineken Cup matches. A stage fit for kings and often inhabited by mere mortals in green and white and red and blue shirts, whatever shape the ball is in.

Ballyshannon has no sporting link, not in the Dervan household anyway.  That’s a blue of a different hue, the blues of Rory Gallagher to be precise and a trip that eldest son Cillian and youngest son Ciaran have undertaken with a dad old enough to have seen the great Gallagher in the flesh.

On Saturday, God willing, Ciaran and I will be back in Donegal, back to see the town where Gallagher was born pay tribute to a guitar player all but claimed by the city of Cork he grew up in.

Before we get there, before we get to listen to Crow Black Chicken and the Answer and Nine Below Zero, complete with the great harmonica player Mark Feltham, pay their own tributes to Rory in music and song, I have another rite of passage to complete.

Very early on Wednesday morning, when the night will still be young in Manhattan, we will leave Co. Meath for Dublin Airport and the odyssey that is a Ryanair flight to Gatwick.

Like another 5,000 or so Irish fans, we will head to Wembley for the soccer fixture to beat all soccer fixtures – Ireland against England at the home of the game in the capital of the nation that invented the sport, but hasn’t been able to get the ball back since somewhere around 1966.

It’s not my first trip to Wembley and hopefully it won’t be the last. It will, however, be Cillian’s first time to see the famous Twin Towers, his first chance to witness the wonder of Wembley Way on match day.

And that’s what makes is so special, that’s why this could be the father and mother -- or son -- of all trips, the trip of a lifetime.

I’ve been down this road personally before. In 1985, when Gary Lineker scored his first England goal in a 2-1 win against an Irish team managed by my good friend Eoin Hand, myself and my mate Anthony got the boat to Holyhead and the train to London in the name of Irish football.

We were young, 21 or so, and the torturous route to the city of footballing dreams was nothing more than a great adventure, full of hope and expectation and perspiration.

That it was as we joined the Green Army for the first time on tour and realized that there’s only one thing better than watching the Irish team at home – and that’s following them abroad.

Since then I have seen Ireland play England once more at Wembley, when Niall Quinn scored in a 1-1 draw we should have won in 1991, and watched in amazement when Ray Houghton put the ball in the English net in 1988, on German soil this time.

That game in Stuttgart will always be the best ever. To beat England on Ireland’s first ever appearance on a major international stage will always be the best of the best.

If I’d never seen another Ireland game after that afternoon at the Neckarstadion, I’d still die a happy man.

Blessed at that stage by a job that allowed me to earn money while watching the Irish team play, I was lucky to be in the team hotel that night as we celebrated the sweetest of all victories.

I wasn’t the only lucky one. The doors to the Ireland camp were always open in those days and everyone who could find it, hidden in a German woods, was invited to join the party, and hundreds did just that.
My abiding memory – aside from the four attempts to get the legendary Paul McGrath to go to bed – will be the scene at the piano in the resident’s bar, a venue struggling for size and fighting hard not to run out of beer after its own Irish invasion.

The late great Michael Carwood, a sports editor with the Sunday Press newspaper and a musician of some note, was in charge of the ivories.

Standing on top of the piano, literally, was Liam Brady, the greatest Irish player of his generation and a man denied his place on the Stuttgart stage by the cruelest of injuries after years of blood, sweat and tears in the green jersey.

Michael and Liam hadn’t spoken for years.

Communications had broken down over something one of them had written and the other one had read to be negative. I’ve been there myself and trust me, the arguments are never worth it.

That night they put their differences aside. Michael hit the keys and Liam hit the high notes. A room sang “who put the ball in the England net,” and every so often Ray Houghton would stick his head above the parapet of frenzy and sing “I did” to an instant hush.

Since then Kevin Sheedy and Niall Quinn and Tony Cascarino and David Kelly, on the night of shame that was the Lansdowne Road riots, have all put the ball in the England net, but nothing will ever beat our afternoon in a Stuttgart stadium and our morning after in a German hotel.

Some new Irish hero may have emerged at Wembley on Wednesday night. By the time you read this, we could be celebrating another great Irish win or lamenting another glorious defeat.

I’m not a fortune teller, sadly, so I can’t say what will happen either way.

But I can promise you one thing – the family trip to Wembley will be special either way.

And it will be a far cry from 1985 and the boat from Dun Laoghaire and the train to Euston Station and Sally O’Brien and the way she might look at you.

A far cry yes -- but just as enjoyable and certainly, just as important, in the story of life. Now come on you boys in Green.

PS: I hope Robbie Keane scored the winner on Wednesday night. He was abused by some this week for making the trip from America to lead his country at Wembley. The man can’t win!

(Cathal Dervan is sports editor of the Irish Sun newspaper in Dublin)

HERO OF THE WEEK
IT takes a truly great team and a truly great manager to take on the role of champions and live with it. Donegal did just that and so much more last Sunday when their coach Jimmy McGuinness masterminded a quite brilliant and fully deserved win over old rivals Tyrone in the opening round of the Ulster SFC. After relegation from the league, Jimmy will no doubt be relieved to be winning matches again, and he won’t be stupid enough to think the Sam Maguire is on the way back to Donegal just yet. But he will know, better than anyone, that Donegal stood up to the challenge of life as All-Ireland winners for the first time in Ballybofey and came through with flying colors.  That will augur well for the summer ahead.

IDIOT OF THE WEEK
SERGIO Garcia could well have more money than sense, certainly judging by his stupid row with Tiger Woods in recent weeks and his pathetic “fried chicken” remark last week. The Spaniard did himself and the game of golf no favors at all with his silly remark about Tiger at last week’s European PGA dinner. Those who rule the game did their sport no favors by not punishing him for his stupidity.
 

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