Monday, 11 June 2012

Euro 2012

Some people may have noticed there is a small football tournament underway at the moment, most probably haven't. Well, Ireland has qualified. The first time since 1988, so this is a pretty big deal for us over here. Okay we're probably the weakest team in the whole tournament, we're in one of the toughest groups along with Croatia (no8 in the world) Italy and Spain (World and European champions) Our first game was last night, it didn't go too well, so we'll move swiftly on. Back in '88 we weren't fancied either, but we managed to beat England in the opening game, drew with Russian and lost to a single freak goal to the mighty Holland. In the opening game against England we scored in the 8th minute and what followed for the next eighty odd minutes was like the siege of the Alamo. A personal duel between Gary Lineker and Packie Bonner ensued, with the big Donegal goalkeeper coming out on top.

Anyway, win, lose or draw we'll have a party. Here's a story I wrote for the last World Cup, I think it's apt for now too.


     World Cup Dreams

Billy Heffernan sat in the dressing room surrounded by the noise of his teammates, his coach, the muffled sound of the crowd whipping themselves into a frenzy of anticipation and excitement. He heard none of it, his legs shook, his hands would have too only he was sitting on them. He sat with his head bowed, his eyes closed, a muscle in his face twitched. Behind him, hanging on a peg was his jersey, it was green with a large ‘10’ printed in white on the back, above the number, his name, ‘Heffernan’.

Billy could not help living in the past, a different time, a different place, a different Billy Heffernan. Eight years previously he was the next big thing, his club, Liverpool, had just won the Premier League title for the third year on the trot, thanks mainly to his goals. His international team Republic of Ireland had qualified for the World Cup Finals, again thanks to eight goals he scored in the qualifying rounds. He had the world at his feet, fame, money, anything he wanted.

He brought trembling hands up to wipe the sweat from his brow. He glanced up, looking at his teammates, a collection of journey-men professionals and promising youngsters. They were a unit, goading and encouraging each other in equal measure. Except him.

At the age of twenty four, Billy had felt himself invulnerable. The immortality of youth heightened so much more by legions of adoring fans and a multimillion Euro bank balance. Followed around by a collection of glamour models and would-be pop starlets, and a posse of hanger-ons feeding his ego.

He could feel a knot tightening in his stomach, he was sure he would either cry or vomit. He needed a drink and a smoke, neither of which he had touched since arriving at Camp Ireland for the summer festival of football.

Ordinary rules and laws do not apply to the young, rich and famous, blind-eyes are turned, discretions ignored, excuses made. That is, until the world unravels. Until suddenly you are a liability, an outcast.

The voice of his coach penetrated his thoughts. “Keep it tight, hit ‘em hard and hit ‘em often… You okay Billy?”

Billy looked up and nodded, wondering not for the first time, what the hell he was doing there.

He had always loved cars, even as a small boy he had had posters of Ferraris and Porches on his wall. High-powered sports cars were a must, an accessory to his lifestyle just as important as champagne and beautiful girls.

The team lined up in the tunnel, the opposition dressed in yellow and blue beside them. A team mate clapped him on the back. The referee, flanked by his assistants pushed his way to the front. The roar of the crowd echoed around the ground as the official led the teams onto the pitch, sending a shiver down his spine.
He still could not remember what happened that day. He had picked up an award the previous night, voted player of the year by his peers. The celebration went long into the night and through the following morning, there was booze, cocaine, girls. Of course he should never have driven. Every day for eight years he wished he hadn’t. Cried himself to sleep every night trying to replay what happened, in his mind. All he knew was, his Aston Martin had mounted the footpath, a mother and child were waiting for a bus. The mother had at least survived.

He missed the World Cup that year. Couldn’t even bring himself to watch it on the small television in his cell. After his release from prison his club tried to release him, but he was under contract, so binding even the death of a child could not break it. In his first game back he broke his leg. He still was not sure had he gone into the challenge recklessly, on purpose. A self inflicted punishment.

A year later he was out of contract and on the move. Eight years, eight different clubs in five different countries. He was currently starring in the Belgian second division. His career, his life washed up…An unfulfilled potential.

“We’re going with five across the middle, I need you to hold the ball up, keep it for the on-running midfielders. I need that famous Heffernan touch.” The words of his coach echoed in his mind as he stood with the ball at his feet in the centre circle. The guy must be completely off his rocker, he thought.

So what had happened?

An old teammate and international colleague had secured the job as coach of the Republic of Ireland. Billy had followed their progress, from his flat in Bruges on satellite television as a team made up of Premier League reserves and lower division players played beyond themselves. A team far superior to the collection of individual parts had somehow clawed there way to the World Cup Final. They were drawn in the group of death, Brazil, England and Nigeria. They of course were the bottom seeds.

The last thing he expected was a phone call.

“Ronan Morgan is out, cruciate ligament. Peter Murphy can’t play – hamstring. Joey Butler’s got a virus. There’s no one else. I need you, your country needs you.”

Billy had put down the phone with tears glistening in his eyes. He was not the Billy Heffernan they wanted, he was not a twenty four year old arrogant superstar. He was a thirty two year old has-been. It was his latest girlfriend, a twenty year old Belgian air stewardess who had convinced him to go.

“Do it for you, not for them.”

The ref brought the whistle to his mouth, with an eruption of noise from the eighty thousand spectators the game was under way. Billy was more used to playing in front of crowds of a couple of hundred, these days. The roar was deafening.

He tapped the ball to his teammate and sprinted towards the Brazilian half.

The game went pretty much as expected as wave after wave of Brazilian attacks assaulted the Irish goal, a thin green lined battered by a yellow sea. Only luck and some brilliance from the goalkeeper kept the scores tied 0-0 at half-time.

“We’re doing well,” the coach paced the dressing room while the hard breathing players took a much needed break. “Let’s try and get Billy on the ball a bit more. Let’s give him the ammunition he needs.” That’s a laugh, Billy thought, he’d hardly had a kick the whole game. It still hurt when he heard a snort of sarcasm from an unknown teammate.

The second half began as the first finished with more dazzling skills from the Brazilians and dogged defending from the Irish. But, with ten minutes to go… Disaster.

The Brazilian striker, Romario sprung the offside trap, he sprinted clear, rounded the goalkeeper and calmly placed the ball into the net. 1-0 to Brazil. Ten minutes of Brazilian keep-ball followed with the Irish unable to even get a look at the ball. The referee signaled three minutes of injury time.

Billy drew up alongside Mick O’Dea, the Irish captain and central midfield player, the play-maker, the man that made the team tick.

“One chance, just give me one chance,” Billy panted, his chest wheezing. O’Dea regarded him skeptically, but nodded.

Ireland had a kick-out, thirty seconds left on the clock, surely this would be their last chance. The ball was played out from the back through midfield, Mick O’Dea took possession of the ball, he looked up. The full-back had sprinted down the wing to his right, Billy made a diagonal run to the left. O’Dea hesitated, changed direction and launched the ball towards Billy. It came at him fast.

In his day, when the name Billy Heffernan was splashed all over the back pages of Europe’s newspapers Billy played on instinct, there was no thought necessary, he was like a predator, he knew when and how to hit the ball or to let it hit him, which angle how much power.

Give the man a ball and a yard of grass.

He let the ball glance off the outside of his left boot, it looped up in the air. He spun on his heel rounding the Brazilian defender who tried to stop him by grabbing a handful of his shirt.

Time slowed down, suddenly he was alone, no teammates, no opposition, no screaming fans…No guilt. The ball dropped in front of him and he hit it on the volley. It flew straight as a bullet, the onion sack bulged.

Time stood still, now. Billy stared open-eyed at the Brazilian goal, the crowd were stunned. Nobody moved, nobody breathed. Then the ref blew his whistle and the place exploded. Fifty thousand green clad Irish fans leapt in the air, yelling at the top of their voices. Billy realized what he had done and he ran.

He had scored against Brazil in the World Cup, he ran towards the screeching fans, he could hear his name being chanted, Heffo-Heffo-Heffo. Out of the corner of his eye he spied his teammates running towards him, like wolves chasing a stag, but this pack just wanted to kiss and hug their quarry.


He ran the length of the pitch, his arms outstretched, his head back soaking it in, the adoration of the crowd. This was his moment, his hour… His life.


He was a gladiator, a hero, a god.


Only one thing could top this.

Bring on England!

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