The mood in Sopot after being thrashed by Spain: Not devastated. Not ecstatic. This adventure gives and it takes away. There's nuanced points and blatant contradictions.
At times, it has felt visceral and real, at times it’s been hazy and dreamlike. What's undeniable is that our time is drawing to a close. We’re saying our goodbyes, poised to disperse and scatter again. It’s the inescapable fact hanging in the air here.
The majesty of Spain’s play in Gdansk remains vivid/ To see it at close quarters was a privilege. It was a glorious example of individual brilliance, harnessed and moulded into a frightening collective. We were punch-drunk, stunned into submission by a level of play which would embarrass even our loftiest hopes for this group of Irish players. For large swathes of the match, Spain employed a 2-6-2 formation. Pique and Ramos sat back, Torres had either Iniesta or Silva for company and in between the two lines was a swarm of red. Positions were irrelevant. The ball fizzed with pinpoint accuracy. The Irish midfielders struggled to digest everything going on in their vicinity.
What’s more, the effort required to merely stay close was unsustainable. It was present and admirable for long periods, but it inevitably wilted and died. On the brief occasions when we managed to secure possession, we were chased and harried and isolated, each pass made under the most severe of pressure. Unlike Spain, our technique and movement in those instances tends to flat line.
As we’ve seeped through the wreckage, points of professional consolation are non-existent. We were utterly outclassed. Keith Andrews aside, no Irish player lived up to his billing. Sean St Ledger spoke after the game about having ‘no options’ on the ball. Glenn Whelan suggested a third midfielder would have been beneficial. Trap pondered our psychology. We’ve underperformed at this tournament certainly, but even our very best may have come up short. The disappointment will lie in never knowing.
Sopot on Thursday night was quieter then usual. There were pockets of revelry and singing, but no focal point for some madness. We shrugged our shoulders; we now know our Euro 2012 won’t be elevated by the miraculous.
Maybe here’s where the contradictions and nuances come into play. Talk of the Irish fans tends to veer into the realm of clichés very quickly. With the exception of FAI press releases, most of us now use the ‘best fans in the world’ tag sparingly and with a dose of irony. It’s an irrelevancy really; corporate-speak from a by-gone era, now a cornerstone of the Ireland coverage on Sky Sports News.
But the final minutes of Thursday’s game were something very genuine and very special.
As full-time approached, it felt appropriate to mark the official end of whatever this has been. Reports and debates about the merits or reasons for the outpouring are faintly ridiculous. There were 30,000 of us there. We sang for different reasons.
Some people sang to reassure the team that we understand what’s happened here. To let them know that this bond has not been broken.
Some people sang because they love their country. They love what this trip has meant to them and their friends. They sang because so much of life is drudgery and sacrifice and they wanted to eek out a few more special minutes together.
Others sang because they were devastated; mourning our failure to grasp such a rare opportunity. The man in front of me, on the right of the picture above, was in tears.
But nobody sang in celebration. Nobody sang in support of a stunning Irish performance. Nobody was satisfied with a 4-0 demolition.
Perhaps we realised that it wasn’t the time or the place to vent frustrations. Plus we would have been targeting the wrong people. Most of these players are simply the products of a failed youth system with a failed ideology.
So on we limp. A little tired and a little hungover. A little confused too, about the ultimate value of our contribution to this tournament.
We’ll reconvene in Poznan. The team will fly down on Sunday after training for the last time in Gydnia today. The Italians will be waiting in the Municipal Stadium on Monday evening. It’s our last hurrah. Recent history would suggest this team is crumbling slightly. The very fundamentals of our game plan have failed to stand-up to the rigours of world class opposition. Our luck has run out. What happened in Moscow in the qualifying stages now seems even more ludicrous. We face an Italian team with everything to play for.
Realism clouds the thoughts of every Irish fan out here. Our sense of hope has been punctured by some pretty irrefutable evidence.