The Irish hordes came to party in Poznan, but ended up at a wake after Croatia exposed surprise defensive flaws
Giovanni Trapattoni had betrayed his intentions under the glare of the pre‑match scrutiny when he talked of the victory that his Republic of Ireland team had secured in the friendly against Croatia last August. When it was pointed out to him that the match had been a draw, he laughed. The suggestion was that it had felt like a win.
"We no lose," has become Trapattoni's catchphrase. And en route to this European Championship, his Ireland team did not lose. In 14 games. If victory here would have been the stuff of dreams, then the draw was the real goal. Trapattoni had made that clear. With Spain and Italy to come, his team dared not allow their sequence to be broken. That it was, by Slaven Bilic's streetwise charges, felt terminal to their hopes. And to those of their magnificent supporters.
Ireland picked some moment to forget how to defend. On their run, they had conceded only three times yet Croatia matched that in 49 minutes. Their second goal epitomised the fragility and anxiety in Ireland's back-line, Stephen Ward's slice falling perfectly for Nikica Jelavic; the pleas for offside were unfounded. And the third confirmed that it would not be Ireland's night. More slack marking, another Mario Mandzukic header and, this time, the ball hit the post, then Shay Given and then the net.
The mixture of hope and fear at kick-off time among the Ireland support was intoxicating. Never mind the alcohol; rarely have so many drunk so much in support of so few. Ireland had waited 10 years to hear their anthem played before a tie at a major finals and none of the assembled green hordes will forget the moment. You'll never beat the Irish, they sang. They would be wrong here.
The nervous tension was rooted in the knowledge that Ireland only ever seem to trade in the tightest of margins. Opening ties are edgy, by definition but, as the midfielder Keith Andrews pointed out, Ireland games are "edgy at the best of times." Coming into the tournament, only four of the 24 competitive ties under Trapattoni had been settled by more than the odd goal.
There was a wariness of Croatia and it was well-founded. Luka Modric's spins and work in tight spaces mark him as an exceptional talent while there was power and finesse in their strikers, Mandzukic and Jelavic. Trapattoni could attest to the former, when Mandzukic over-ran and barrelled into him on the touchline, knocking him clean off his feet. Mandzukic did show respectful contrition.
The atmosphere was thunderous and Ireland's players were more conscious than ever of the sacrifices their fans had made to be present. Robbie Keane spoke of how qualification had lifted the mood of a recession-scarred nation and how the team was determined to provide as much joy as possible. Once inside the stadium, the battle to control the adrenaline, to slow the heart rate, was ferocious. Even the players' walk-about on the pitch an hour beforehand had sparked wild cheers.
The night before, thousands and thousands of Ireland fans had packed Poznan's main square, to drink and to drink in the communal passion. There was an ugly flashpoint in the small hours, which led to the arrest of 10 Poles, three Irish and one Croat but it had to be said that the vibe was otherwise non-threatening and celebratory.
The seats were two-thirds Irish. Maybe more. In their red-and-white check, the Croatian enclosure resembled a giant country kitchen tablecloth and they cranked up the decibel level. The volume was deafening at the outset, as various, slightly uncoordinated, Irish attempts to "do the Poznan" were played out in the stands. When in Poznan.
The Boys in Green stayed with their team in spite of the low blow of Mandzukic's early goal. It was easy to wonder whether the tumult had blurred Irish concentration or whether a fully-fit Given might have got across in time. Uncharacteristically, Ireland had ceded a lot of space inside their defensive third. It was an irritation and a curiosity that Mandzukic's header was from so far out and that it lacked real power. Flares lit the scene. Firecrackers exploded.
Bedlam gripped when Ireland fashioned their foothold. Vedran Corluka's marking was loose and Sean St Ledger muscled in to punish him. Ireland had made their mark. Yet that was as good as it got. The gulf in quality was apparent. Croatia inexorably assumed control and when even the Ireland fans fell silent for spells in the second-half, it became clear that the game was beyond them.