Robinson's unforgettable day - and forgotten goal

Republic's battle with the French has a poignant parallel. Jason Burt talks to an old campaigner
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The Independent Football

It's not often that Robinson, 47, the most famous football pundit in Spain and one of Europe's top sports broadcasters, is lost for words. Yet memories of his goal, the third in Ireland's 3-2 victory over France in 1981, the last time before this Wed-nesday's encounter that the two countries met in a World Cup qualifier at Lansdowne Road, simply escape him.

Astonishingly, it's the only detail of that raucous October afternoon that does. "I can remember everything else," Robinson says. "The build-up to the day, my mum and dad going over, the passion and how involved everyone was. We were staying in the Green Isle Hotel and on the journey to Ballsbridge the crowds were hoping, shouting, 'Win for us'. It was an unbelievable occasion. It made us feel like gladiators."

They stepped into the arena. A crowd of 54,000 had jammed in. One manic fan climbed up a flagpole and stole the French tricolore. Ireland exploded. They needed to win. After five minutes they were one up, an own goal. France equalised and then Frank Stapleton scored. Before half-time came Robinson's moment.

So here's the refresher, Michael. The French midfielder Jean-François Larois, normally so sublime, attempted a back-pass which Robinson intercepted to score, coolly, from the area's edge.

"We thought at 3-1 we would have done it," Robinson says. But then, with eight minutes to go, Michel Platini scored. At the final whistle the crowd came on and chaired the players off. They thought Ireland had qualified for Spain 82. "We were still pleased we had won," Robinson says. "But we were worried what that goal might have done to us."

He was right to be concerned. France had two games left. If they won them both Ireland could miss out. They won the first, against Cyprus (coincidentally also in this qualification group) and then faced Holland. "I remember sitting at home in Hove," says Robinson, who was playing for Brighton at that time (he appeared in the famous 1983 - "And Smith must score" - FA Cup final, one of a record seven defeats he suffered at Wembley).

Robinson waited for the result. "When it came through I just went upstairs, got into bed and cried like a baby," he says. France had won. Ireland missed out on goal difference to both the French and the Belgians. Robinson's World Cup dream was over. The circumstances were all the more cruel because the year before, on his Ireland debut at the Parc des Princes, Robinson had an equalising goal wrongly ruled out for handball. "I was completely distraught," he says.

Before that game there had been a rush to qualify the Leicester-born Robinson. His grandmother was Irish, but in those days that wasn't enough; his mother had to activate her Irish citizenship. The pro-cess was completed with four days to spare.

The disappointment of missing out hurts all the more for Robinson, who went from Brighton to Liverpool, where he won the European Cup in 1984, when he considers the strength of that Irish team, then managed by Eoin Hand. "That was as good a side as Ireland have ever had," Robinson contends. "The way he [Hand] played football was very attacking and he wanted us to play. We were a proper team and played attractive football. He believed in the players. It was a travesty not to go to the World Cup. Players know if we are good enough or not and we were good enough. Very frustrating."

Eventually Jack Charlton took over. The fortunes of Irish football changed - but so did its style. "He had his own brand of football and that's quite legitimate," Robinson says. "Players like Frank Stapleton and Liam Brady missed out. They were the victims of change. So I was in good company."

Since that campaign Ireland have not faced France. Until this qualification group. The two drew in Paris last October and Ireland, who top Group Four by a point from Switzerland, two from Israel and three from France (before last night's tie with the Faroe Islands), know that with three matches to go their destiny remains in their own hands.

They have also won their last three home qualification ties against France, and Robinson believes they have "every chance" of maintaining that record. "The French are not going through a good time," he says. "[Zinedine] Zidane is back but they will find it uncomfortable at Lansdowne Road."

After Liverpool, Robinson moved to Queen's Park Rangers before ending his career in Spain, with Osasuna. He gained a cult following, which only increased when he was offered a job in television. Now he is an institution, and has also found time to buy a stake in Cadiz and become its director of football.

His signature show, El Dia Despues ("The Day After"), reviews the weekly football but takes a sideways look. Robinson doesn't pull his punches and famously said, before Michael Owen's arrival at Real Madrid, that he never saw the striker as anything more than a substitute.

Not that Robinson makes any predictions. "I gave up on that a long time ago," he says. Not even for Wednesday? "Well," he says. "I would not like to be France."