Football: The craic and a defensive crack

'The pints kept coming, but the goals never did. Only Given's acrobatics kept spirits up, or sent them down'; Andrew Baker joins the World Cup well-wishers in the Irish enclave of Kilburn
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The Independent Online
If you wanted to watch the Irish Republic's footballers play at home but could not obtain a ticket for Lansdowne Road or even afford the trip to Dublin, there was an alternative. No ticket or passport is necessary to pass in to the Irish Republic of Kilburn in north London.

Once upon the little nation's main thoroughfare, Kilburn High Road, all that remains is to choose your venue. Biddy Mulligan's may look the part, but its Irishness smacks of the bogus, the dreaded Theme Pub. McGovern's, a little further north, was more like it: a suitable place to have a crack at the craic, to share the joys and fears of another country as Mick McCarthy's team attempted to emulate Big Jack's heroes in the World Cup play-off against Belgium last Wednesday night.

McGovern's is a pub of two halves. The grand saloon bar is huge and tastefully modern, a spotlit barn decorated with stained-glass panels and blackboards advertising "Traditional Irish Sessions". Next door, The President's Lounge had more of a rural feel: battered banquettes, posters of The Pubs of Waterford, yellowing team photographs of the hurlers of yesteryear.

The clientele were appropriately divided: in the saloon, young and smart, earringed and loud. In the lounge, older and more relaxed, besuited if not sober. There was not a Belgian in sight as all stood for the Irish national anthem, relayed with the scene from Lansdowne Road, courtesy of Channel 5, on to seven large television sets scattered around the hostelry.

The froth on the massed pints of Guinness had barely had time to settle before Denis Irwin's free- kick had curved into the Belgian net, and the bar was on its feet once more, this time with a roar. As Big Jack gloated contentedly in the commentary box, the punters settled back with their pints to wait for more Irish goals.

The pints kept coming, but the goals never did. Appalled silence greeted Nilis's equaliser, and it was only the acrobatics of young Shay Given in the Irish goal that kept the spirits up (or, in some cases, sent the spirits down).

At half-time, after the rush for the Gents', worried conferences took place around the glass-crowded tables. A man who called himself The Grasshopper declared that 1-1 was not such a bad score after all, and then wondered why there were no television cameras in the pub itself. "I've been on the telly in here before," he said. "That was for the football a few years back. But they didn't pay me." His friend The Clonakilty Man began to sing, a sad and sadly incomprehensible ditty. Ranks of white-shirted barmaids swooped on the tables, rescuing empty glasses, deflecting flirtations.

The second half proved harder to bear than the first. Shrieks and yells rang out as Big Jack's colleague Gary Bloom (an appropriately Joycean surname) described chances, scrapes, fouls and injustices. The Belgian No 5 seemed to handle the ball in his penalty area - all howled for a penalty, which was denied.

Drinkers paused at the door between the bars, as if in the moment of passing through the destiny of the national team might be settled. Girls sat with their legs crossed, exclaiming that they had to go, but were too scared in case anything should happen.

The lumbering forward's frustrated efforts to connect bonce with ball brought cries of "C'mon Cas!" that grew into choruses of "C'mon Ireland! C'mon Ireland!" but all to no avail. The Belgian Wilmots' shot beat Given and bounced off the bar, and the pub breathed out with an "Oooof" that rattled the windows.

In the 92nd minute, Irwin lined up another free-kick. As McGovern's went ballistic, the ball skirted the Belgians' scarlet wall and billowed the net - the wrong side of the post. A dreadful let-down, followed immediately by another, the final whistle.

Some drifted away. Most stayed for urgent discussions. Could it all be rescued in the away leg? What had gone wrong? What would Big Jack have done? Whose round was it?

"We'll win in Belgium," said Francis, an earringed young man in a Celtic shirt. "We always do well with our backs against the wall. We've beaten England, remember, we've beaten Italy. We always do it at the last minute - that's the thing with the Irish."

Mick, a saturnine fellow sitting next to him, was not so optimistic. "We needed a domineering midfielder," he reckoned. "Someone with a bit of aggression. Another Paul McGrath, but where will we find him? You can't go and buy the players you want in international football."

Joe, a sparky little man in a scarlet sweatshirt that declared his allegiance to Rebel County, disagreed. "We'll get Ronaldo and change his passport. Remember Jack Charlton and all the great things like that he did? Now Mick McCarthy is a good man and a nice man and all that, but playing little Connolly up front, a midget against giants, and throwing high balls in towards massive defenders - it was never going to work."

Francis believed that McCarthy had left his experimentation too late. "Mixing up the old players and the youngsters like that is something that he should have been doing months ago in friendly matches, not in a vital game like this." He took a pull of his beer. "I still believe that we can pull it off in Belgium, though." Everyone said they would be back at McGovern's for the return leg. In a far corner of the bar, The Clonakilty Man woke up and began again to sing his strange, sad song.