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The 10 Biggest Heartbreaks In The History Of Irish Sport

The 10 Biggest Heartbreaks In The History Of Irish Sport
By Conor Neville

Here to clarify that despair can kill you, as well as hope...

Macedonia 1- 1 Ireland, 1999

Picture credit; Damien Eagers / SPORTSFILE

Probably the worst of all time. Ireland had played particularly well in an extremely tough group populated by the 3rd place team in France '98, Croatia and a strong Yugoslavia side. And Macedonia of course. Yugoslavia led Ireland by a point heading into the final game but they had to travel to Croatia who were only a further point behind Ireland, while we travelled to Macedonia who, unsurprisingly had nothing to play for.

The long-haired midfielder Goran Stavrevski darted into the box entirely unhindered by the polite men in green jerseys and launched a bullet of a header goalwards. One of the most enduring images of that game was Denis Irwin, in possibly the only moment of his career when he looked anything other than businesslike, furiously pounding his fist towards the ground in disgust.

How we got over it

Blamed TV3 for the whole thing. The station was only going a year or so, and was naturally transmitting Ireland games for the first time. The team had played noticeably badly whenever Trevor Welch and Conor McNamara were involved. Less superstitious heads were inclined to point out that this was because they only had the rights to show Ireland away games, but people weren't disposed to give the TV3 lads a break at the time. We suddenly realised what an asset George Hamilton was to the national team.

France 46 - 19 Scotland, 2007 

Somehow, Ireland failed to win the 2007 Six Nations championship. Having lost in the last minute against France in Croke Park, and then hammered England they came into the last game four points behind the French on points difference, the gallant English having done Ireland a favour the week before. Both teams were expected to romp through their final games, Ireland away to Italy, and France at home to Scotland.


An hour into the game Ireland had racked up seven tries and looked like setting an almost impossible target for the French. In the final minute, when leading by 31 points, they spurned a penalty opportunity, attempting run in another try,

Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

France had to defeat Scotland at home by a margin of 24 points or more.Early in the second half, they passed the magic point barrier and it looked like curtains.


We had almost given up hope when, with less than four minutes left on the clock, the unlikely figure of Euan Murray looked set to join James Connolly, Ray Houghton, and Gary Mackay among the ranks of Scots beloved of the Irish people. The bulky prop somehow appeared on the wing and went over in the corner to leave the Scots only 20 points behind France. As things stood Ireland were Six Nations champions.

However, as they had in the dying minutes in Croke Park earlier in the championship, the French won their own restart and ground their way ominously towards the try-line. With the clock past 80 minutes, Elvis Vermuelen was in possession over the end line when the ref blew his whistle, asking the man above, "Oh Lord, is there any reason why I cannot award this try?"

There was still hope. The video referee was one Simon McDowell from Belfast, an Irish rugby man. He'd realise the significance of this try and put an end to this madness. After staring at the surely inconclusive footage for roughly an hour and a half, the word came through. In his soft, and frankly insufferable, Belfast he told the ref "You may award the trrryyyy." The big, bald, bespectacled coach Bernard Laporte was already striding onto the pitch with his arms raised in triumph.


How we got over it

Cursing the Belfast video referee for treachery. Turned on the All-Ireland club finals. Told the hordes of innocents coming home from St. Patrick's Day parades that we didn't want to talk about how the game went. Finally, we consoled ourselves with the thought of the World Cup in France later in the year which was going to be brilliant...

Belgium 2-1 Ireland (Agg. 3-2), 1997



How we got over it

Hindsight is a wonderful thing in sport. Nilis and Belgium went on to be drawn against Netherlands, Mexico and South Korea in Group E in France 98. Our experiences with both the Dutch and the Mexicans were not kind reading following the results in the US four years previous.

Realisation may have set in with all the Irish fans perched at the bar watching the game knowing that we would’ve struggled against the eventual group winners and runner ups.


France 1-1 Ireland (AET) , 2009

Picture credit: David Winter / SPORTSFILE

Forgotten one this one. Ireland led 1-0 in Paris. Everyone had written them off after losing 1-0 in Croke Park, and then suddenly realised that we were back in the ball game. Halfway through extra-time, William Gallas bundled the ball home. Replays showed Henry's blatant handball. Crowds in pubs all across Ireland were gobsmacked. This was going to be big.

How we got over by it


By basking in global sympathy for at least a week, by marching on the French embassy, and setting up at least a million Facebook groups all expressing a highly unfavourable opinion of Thierry Henry. Inevitably after a couple of days, the contrarian voices emerged with the line that it was all Paul McShane's fault.

Ireland 18 - 19 Australia, 1991

The Wallabies were roaring favourites for the World Cup having won the Bledisloe Cup that year, and having the likes of David Campese and Tim Horan in the form of their lives. In their final pool game they had trounced Wales by 38-3 (which would have been more had tries not been only worth 4 points). Ireland, meanwhile, had lost twice to Namibia during their summer tour their that year.

Despite the spectacular Campese running in a brilliant solo try early on, and finishing a flowing move early in the second half, Ireland doggedly stayed in touch thanks to the right boot of Ralph Keyes. With four minutes left, they only trailed  15 - 12. They went wide after a scrum, Jim Staples knocked a little grubber kick through, Jack Clarke won the battle, and handed off to the surging Gordon Hamilton who powered home for a memorable score generating one of the loudest roars ever heard at Lansdowne Road. Two minutes later, it was all quiet. While replays of Hamilton's try were still being shown, Australia won a lineout in the Irish 22 and won a scrum. From there they went wide and Lynagh went over in the corner and a strange hush fell across Lansdowne Road.


How we got over it

By only showing Gordon Hamilton's try over and over again for years afterwards and occasionally mentioning at the end of the clip, like one of those toy ads were they race through the terms and conditions, that Australia, in fact, went down the other end to score and win the match. Otherwise, the rugby team then didn't provide a model for how to bounce back from disappointment. They proceeded to have their worst Five Nations ever in 1992, a series which was bad even by the standards of that decade. A narrow loss to a truly appalling Welsh side in Lansdowne Road was followed by hammerings in Twickenham and Paris and a bad loss at home to Scotland where the team was booed by the then undemanding Irish supporters.

Poland 1 - 1 England, 1991

Despite being way better than Graham Taylor's misfiring England team in 1991 (the proof being that we destroyed them 1-1 in Wembley and beat Turkey 5-0 in Dublin and 3-1 away, while the English, embarrassingly, could still only beat the Turks 1-0 both home and away) Ireland managed to fail to qualify for Euro 92 by virtue of throwing away a two-goal lead in Poznan and somehow failing to beat the Poles in Lansdowne when we were all over them. In a four team group, England's opening day victory over Poland in Wembley was enough to separate them from Jack Charlton's men.

It all came to the final game. If Ireland won in Istanbul (a more routine exercise back then) and the Poles did the business at home to England then we were through. Ireland did their stuff in Turkey with goals from the largely forgotten John Byrne of Sunderland and Tony Cascarino helping Ireland to a fairly comfortable 3-1 win. While this was going on, terrific news flooded in from Poznan. The Poles led 1-0, thanks to a goal which deflected off Gary Mabbut's left foot on the half hour. It stayed that way until 10 minutes left when a David Rocastle corner was headed in by Mabbutt, and Mr. Nice himself Gary Linekar volleyed home from two yards.


How we got over it

In later years we have tortured ourselves with the knowledge that Denmark eventually won the tournament, often remarking that this was one we could have won.

Also, while this may annoy some of the more enlightened and politcally "mature" members of our tribe, we did the usual thing of enjoying seeing England getting knocked out. And a famous exit it was too, with Sweden and Thomas Brolin seeing them out the door, home to scathing "Swedes 2 Turnips 1" headlines.

Belgium 1 - 0 Ireland, 1981

Ireland were a whisker away from qualifying for the 1982 World Cup in Spain. They were drawn in an astonishingly tough group with France, Holland, Belgium, and, the only whipping boys, Cyprus. However, Ireland, with Brady and Stapleton and Lawrenson all at their peak, beat both France and Holland in Dublin, and pushed the Dutch (finalists in the previous two World Cups) into 4th place in the group.

Then, in the final moments, Eric Gerets, threw himself to the ground just outside the box in what has to rank as one of the most ludicrously obvious dives ever seen on a football pitch. As a crossfield ball was launched towards the penalty area, Gerets sprinted toward the box and as he ran past the more or less stationery Steve Heighway, comically launched himself into the air like someone who had been fired out of a canon and flopped onto the ground with his arms stretched out in front of him on the edge of the box. In a decision so inexplicable as to be sinister, the referee Nazare adjudged that Heighway had fouled him and awarded the free.

The ball hit the crossbar and looped agonisingly into the air and Ceulemans headed home in the ensuing scramble.


How we got over it

Eoin Hand accused the referee of receiving a bribe. Liam Brady, who was in tears after the match, asked Mickey Walsh, who had played for Porto, what the Portugeuse for "thief", was and then went off to the ref to confront him with his

At the time, Irish football supporters, accustomed to being on the wrong end of some truly awful decisions away from home, took it in their stride.

By getting Paul Howard to track down the Portugeuse referee Raul Nazare for a feature in the Sunday Tribune about a decade ago. In an extraordinary and really very odd interview, the now elderly ex-official was confronted with a recording of the game.

Ireland 1 - 1 England, 1957


Eamon Dunphy was an eleven year old who was only listening to the game on the radio because he couldn't get a lift over the turnstile and started choking up when recalling the game on Second Captains two years ago.

It is most famous now for Philip Greene's monumentally downbeat commentary as well as the sickening gasp and the strange lull that greeted John Atyeo's equalising goal.

The mathematical significance of the goal is not in doubt though it has occasionally been exaggerated in the years since. The qualifying group consisted of three teams, Ireland, England and Denmark.

Ireland had beaten Denmark 2-1 in their opening match, with goals from Shelbourne's Dermot Curtis and Johnny Gavin. Then they got slaughtered 5-1 in Wembley with Busby babe and Munich fatality Tommy Taylor banging in a hat-trick.

Then came the game in Dalymount. A win for Ireland followed by a win in Denmark would have left Ireland level on points with England. In those carefree, corinthian days, officials hadn't stooped so low as to consult goal difference in the event of a tie on points. A playoff in a neutral venue (as was the case with Spain in '66) would likely have followed.

Alf Ringstead scored early on and Ireland lead for another 87 minutes. A first home victory over England looked to be on the way but then came Atyeo's late header.

How we got over it:

By making John Atyeo more famous among football fans in this country than he ever was in his native country. Consoled ourselves with years of watching England lose penalty shootouts.

Ireland 22 - 24 New Zealand, 2013

Two successive Six Nations titles have dulled the anguish for but 'Crotty in the corner!!!' is rugby's version of the John Atyeo moment.

Dion Fanning remarked on Newstalk recently that he was taken with how easily the Irish crowd got over the late Australian try in 1991. He suggested that the even-tempered response of the alickadoos showed that rugby was just less serious than soccer.

However, the dismay which greeted Ryan Crotty's late try surely challenges that notion. Ireland were a missed pass away from securing their first ever win over the All-Blacks in one hundred and whatever years of trying.

How we got over it:

Did I mention two successive Six Nations. Some folk did remind people that it was only a friendly November test but they were shouted down.


Sonia O'Sulliavan's disaster, 1996

Sonia was an imperious figure in the 5,000 metres in the mid 1990s. She had won gold in the world championship the year before beating Fernando Ribero into a distant second place. She had won gold in the Europeans in 1994.

She had won her heat on the Friday without much fuss. All she needed to do was make sure to be on the leader's shoulder with 200 metres to go. Once she was able to do that the race was as good as over.

However,  before the final she looked a bit sweatier and shakier than usual. She went off a bit slower than usual but folk weren't unduly worried. By the race's end, there was still the sense she'd be in position to kick for home. All would be well.

Sean Boylan knew something was wrong.

However, she drifted and drifted off the pace. Soon she was last. Over the next few laps, she solidified her position in last place. She had more or less guaranteed last place with 1600 metres left. Her face was dripping with sweat. Soon her race was over.

How we got over it:

Listened to her father John reminding the world that no one had died. Reports emerged that she fell ill the night before the race.



It's the hope that kills ye you know...


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