These World Cup adventures have brought our two nations closer

I was asked a simple question from the lips of a small child. 'Dad, can we support England as well as Ireland?'
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Sven's Samurai fought like heroes. And I am searching for sporting clichés to do justice to the moments of anguish. I who have never cheered for England in my life experienced agonies of tension. What on earth has happened in the House of Keane? Like so many of life's moments of fundamental change, it began with a simple question. In this particular case a question from the lips of a small child. "Dad," he asked (in a voice usually reserved for toyshop lobbying) "can we support England as well as Ireland?" "Eh, of course you can. You can support whoever you like," I replied. "It's just that we live here and we should support them," he said. That, and the fact that every one of his friends wants to be Beckham or Owen or an improbable combination of both.

Sven's Samurai fought like heroes. And I am searching for sporting clichés to do justice to the moments of anguish. I who have never cheered for England in my life experienced agonies of tension. What on earth has happened in the House of Keane? Like so many of life's moments of fundamental change, it began with a simple question. In this particular case a question from the lips of a small child. "Dad," he asked (in a voice usually reserved for toyshop lobbying) "can we support England as well as Ireland?" "Eh, of course you can. You can support whoever you like," I replied. "It's just that we live here and we should support them," he said. That, and the fact that every one of his friends wants to be Beckham or Owen or an improbable combination of both.

Earlier in the week our boy went for a haircut. He retrurned with a passable imitation of Beckham and a look of pride that would melt the heart of even the hardest soccer-hater. The styling washed out after a day or two but the passion for our adopted side has proved more durable. If anecdotal evidence (what my sage friend John King is telling me on the phone from Ardmore) is anything to go by, then most of the Irish nation is cheering for England now. If you had suggested such a scenario to anybody 10 years ago they would have laughed or cried or suggested you take a long swim in the Grand Canal.

The bane of our lives growing up was having to listen to English commentators eulogise their teams in complete defiance of logic, not to mind the offence they gave to our national pride! But all is changed utterly. I watched a report this week about Scottish fans cheering for Denmark; one grim nationalist said he would cheer for anybody who won against England. What a miserable little loser. Why have the Irish learned to love the English? There are lots of reasons, not least the fact that it was an Englishman who transformed Irish football in the '90s. At Cork airport, near my home, there is a statue of Jackie Charlton sitting with a fishing rod next to a pool filled with koi. Jackie did more to change the image of the Englishman in Ireland than any number of peace agreements. He taught Irish footballers to believe they could take the field with the best in the world. He helped to wipe out a centuries-old inferiority complex.

The battle to drive the hooligans out of the game has helped as well. The viciously anti-Irish (anti-everything) element is being purged from English football so that international games are no longer a rallying point for moronic nationalism.

And English commentators have changed too. The sight of Gary Lineker and his chums clearly rooting for Ireland wiped out many's the bitter memory. Along with that, most Irish football lovers follow English teams; Manchester United and Liverpool both have huge Irish fan bases, thousands travel across the Irish sea every weekend to watch Premiership games. If you grew up with the delights of League of Ireland soccer, you'd understand why. Impoverished and condemned to official disdain (Gaelic games ruled the roost when I was a kid), the games were sparsely attended. I remember a grim afternoon in the mid-Seventies when Cork Celtic were playing an unimportant friendly against Finn Harps, and I made the mistake of going to the game wearing new Levis and tan boots. All the rain clouds of the Atlantic washed over Cork that day. Even the dogs cleared off the terraces. At half-time I could take no more and headed for the exit. Shaking the rain off, I looked down to my feet. The boots had turned a shade of light blue. My jeans were no longer dark blue. That was the end of my flirtation with League of Ireland football.

To be fair, I had only ever gone to a few games. I simply wasn't the sporting type. The problem was that most of the young women in my social circle swooned after sportsmen; the ones who didn't were strange, quiet girls who read poetry and had a reputation for being argumentative. So to try and impress the girls I made a pretence of enjoying sport. I read the sports pages of the Evening Echo so that I could engage in informed banter with their fathers. I'd say "Celtic are looking good at the weekend" or "Cork Con didn't impress much against Bohemians". Did they ever take me seriously? Not a hope in hell. I was a sad fool, all right.

I trained for rugby for a couple of seasons but was utterly useless. I loved watching the game – and still do – but had no appetite for pounding around a field in the middle of winter while a coach bellowed insults about my lack of skill. On the few occasions I was given a game it was invariably on the C team, about as low as you can go. I remember the horror of taking the field against wild country boys from a boarding school in the remote fastness of Tipperary; we joked that they had been starved of meat for weeks in advance. I think now it was almost certainly true. One grey November evening as we lapped the Mardyke Field for the zillionth time, I dropped out and trotted nimbly to the dressing rooms, never again to grace the muddy playing fields of Ireland.

My problem with sport was that I could never see the point of it all when I was out there on the pitch. I had no skill and I became bored too quickly. But this World Cup has proved a moment of change for me. I found myself drawn in by a passion and excitement that had always eluded me. It started with the Roy Keane affair. What human being would not have been transfixed by such a tale of bitterness and rage? I was in Ireland for the later part of the saga. You could not enter a shop or a pub or a private house without being treated to the occupants' opinions. Not since the Civil War was the nation so divided. Happily the matter was resolved infinitely more quickly. When I was in Ireland people were still ranting against Mick McCarthy. A manager should never lose his best player blah blah. But McCarthy had the sense to get Ireland into the second round and those supporters who'd been baying for his blood were asking: "Roy who?"

Good results aside, what did for Keane were his reported comments about McCarthy's "Irishness", the implication that because he wasn't born on the oul sod he was a Brit, or what is more pejoratively known as a "Plastic Paddy". Keane furiously denied these remarks, but enough people believed he'd said it to do huge damage to the Cork man's cause. Most of the Irish side earns its living in England, a good many of the players speak with English accents. The comments attributed to Keane were those of small-minded, parochial Ireland, a country that is fast vanishing. The lines between Englishness and Irishness are blurred in sport; if they weren't the Republic team would never have made it to the World Cup. We need the children and grandchildren of our exiles. When Ireland were beaten we were sad, but to go out on penalties was no disgrace. It was a glorious failure, of the kind at which we excel. Just like England

The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent

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