Photo by: EMPICS Sport/PA Photos
The last time we landed in Italy with an Irish soccer team, a great man by the name of Bob Hennessy suggested we kiss the holy ground.
It was 1990 and we were about to embark on a World Cup finals journey for the first time ever, so we did as Bob suggested.
A gang of us alighted from the plane and, just like the Pope himself, we got down on bended knee -- in the days when I could still bend my soon to be replaced knee -- and placed a smacker on the tarmac.
Bob was so impressed that he took a photograph in honor of the occasion, a photo that still sits alongside a framed tribute to Big Jack’s Italia ’90 squad in the Meath barn than doubles as my domestic office.
Sadly, Bob is no longer with us. A freelance football writer based near Reading in the U.K., he spent years informing us via the Sunday Press of the comings and goings of the Irish players in Britain long before the Internet was an official language.
Bob’s column was an obsession for those of us born with an addiction to the beautiful game and a strong sense of national pride.
He was so well in with every Irish player in Britain - from the youngest apprentices to the biggest names - that he almost became a father figure for many of them.
Ronnie Whelan once stayed in his house while on trial with a London club. Various players routinely rang him looking for clubs when they were let go -- many of whom he set up for trials with managers he knew across the leagues.
He was a legend was our Bob, a legend whose column inevitably became less vital as time moved on, and the advent of the website meant everyone could trace any Irish player they wanted to across the water.
Bob died a couple of years back, one of the many victims of the cancer scourge that has bedeviled modern society. When his death was announced the London Times told us that Irish football had just lost one of its best friends. True words.
Thankfully Bob got to see his beloved national team beat England in Stuttgart and play in not one but three World Cups before the final whistle blew prematurely on his time among us.
I thought of Bob on Monday afternoon as I made my way through a taxi drivers’ protest at Dublin Airport in this collapsing land of ours.
Check-in for the flight to Wednesday night’s game in Bari beckoned as memories of Bob and a time long gone came flooding back.
And in his honor I made the decision to kiss the holy Italian ground once again, just as we had done when life was simpler all around in the summer of 1990.
The first time we did it, exotic places like Sicily, Sardinia, Genoa and Rome beckoned before we’d have to pack our bags for home. We were, to be fair, all a little giddy as we stepped off that plane.
Germany two summers previously had whetted our appetites for the big world out there at a time when Ryanair was still awaiting Michael O’Leary’s arrival, and foreign travel down our way consisted of a trip to Dublin on a CIE bus.
Today my kids treat Dublin Airport like we used to treat the Dublin central bus depot Busaras, a veritable gateway to the world. And the Irish soccer fans are a far more demanding lot these days as well.
They don’t have Bob Hennessy’s great column anymore to keep them informed of all things Irish, but they do have Sky Sports and Setanta beaming soccer into their lives 24/7.
They also have the Internet to keep them bang up to date with the to-ings and the fro-ings of those who inhabit our national team these days.
The best of the current Irish players were due to join us on the trip to Italy on Monday afternoon, or at least those deemed good enough by Giovanni Trapattoni to take on his native land in the defining moment of this current World Cup group.
The trip was always going to be a fractious one in light of Saturday’s game against Bulgaria when an Irish team again managed to snatch a draw from the jaws of victory.
Sure enough, relations between the front of the plane, where the squad and management sat, and the back, where the hacks were gathered, were a little testy to say the least.
We don’t fancy their chances of qualifying for the World Cup finals much anymore, and they don’t like our opinions. Touché.
There’s also an inherent problem in Irish football right now, an elephant in the corner though not, thankfully, on the plane.
The elephant has three names – Andy Reid, Stephen Ireland and Lee Carsley.
None of the three featured against the Bulgarians on Saturday night, when the caution of the manager ensured that Ireland sat back and defended for 89 minutes after taking the lead through Richard Dunne in the very first minute.
I have rarely seen an Irish team in recent times that can defend for 89 minutes, and sure enough, the current lot didn’t let me down when slack marking by the midfield allowed one time Celtic star Stiliyan Petrov to sneak in at the far post in the 74th minute and force the equalizer home off Kevin Kilbane’s shin.
In fairness the draw was no more than Bulgaria deserved. They dominated the midfield thanks in part to Petrov’s brilliance, and thanks mainly to Trapattoni’s persistence with Keith Andrews and Glenn Whelan as his central pairing.
Trap is a conservative man. He doesn’t want creative players in the middle of the field, which explains why Andy Reid was sitting at home in Sunderland on Saturday night.
It also explains why he hasn’t moved heaven and earth to get Stephen Ireland back on board.
Carsley, no friend of Trap’s assistant Liam Brady, and the injured Reid were also missing for the Bulgarian game, which explains why Petrov had a free run of it on Saturday night.
As a result of Trap’s cautious tactics, Ireland failed to kill Bulgaria off as Group Eight rivals when they surrendered the midfield battle at Croke Park.
As a result of the result -- if you follow me -- I doubt we’ll get anything in Italy this week even if Trap is, as he claimed on Sunday, still loved over there as one of their most successful managers ever.
And just for the record, I did kiss the ground in Bari when we landed on Monday night, but I do worry that by the time you read this column we may well have lost to Italy and kissed goodbye to our chances of automatic qualification for the World Cup finals.