The Matt Holland Column: The six days that will live in the memory forever

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Sunday, 11 November

Sunday, 11 November

A day of relaxation and reflection in Dublin. Our Republic of Ireland squad know that the next five days will define our entire campaign. Defend our 2-0 lead and we go to the World Cup finals, fail and we go on holiday. No offence to my wife and children, but I do not want to spend two weeks making castles in the sand next summer. Our careers are very short and with the World Cup being played only every four years, we do not get many chances to take part. This is mine and I am determined to take it, so a bit of a swim, dip in the Jacuzzi and sweat in the sauna.

Monday, 12 November

Up early for the flight and arrive in Tehran in darkness. First impressions of the people are good as about 300 Iranian fans greet us at the airport asking for photos and autographs. We were not expecting any trouble on arrival, but such a pleasant welcome allayed some of the fears and apprehensions that the players had. It is easy to be blasé about travelling to other countries, but this one is different. Iran has an alien culture to us and a very powerful belief in religion. We would not be human if we weren't a little nervous.

Tuesday, 13 November

Trained early in the morning to try to shake everybody into the new time-frame. I had not really thought about the altitude, but I certainly felt it in training. Most of the squad struggled a bit for breath but it was accentuated by the heat of the day, whereas the game has an evening kick-off, when it will be a lot cooler.

A few of the players went into town to visit the gold market to practise their bartering techniques. They received plenty of attention but that may have been because they were seen as easy sales. I was tired and stayed in the hotel to sleep – that's my published excuse to my wife and I'm sticking by it. The people were very friendly and when we met them we didn't feel threatened, just a little jostled, a by-product of their wonderful enthusiasm. During the evening there was a showing in one of the players' room of the Lions tour diary of Australia – we could tell how much it meant to the players and staff as the Irish manager, Donal Lenihan, broke down in tears after the final Test defeat.

Wednesday, 14 November

Training this week has been very similar to the sessions in Dublin before the first leg. It is encouraging to hear the usual banter and feel familiar with the routine because it shows that the pressure has not affected us yet. There is tension around us and within us but importantly it is not controlling us.

Trained in the stadium in the evening watched by about 1,000 Iranian fans. Tomorrow 120,000 are expected, and if they make 120 times the noise this 1,000 did, people will be able to hear it back in Dublin. Mick McCarthy announced the team and conducted a short meeting, the gist of which was we are too good to allow ourselves to let slip a two-goal advantage.

People were starting to psych them-selves up, some by becoming more withdrawn and others by talking and fidgeting more. I just started to think more about the game and started to focus on the opposition. It's a simple equation. Playing well for 90 minutes equals World Cup.

Thursday, 15 November

We arrived at the stadium about two hours before kick-off and it already had 70,000 people in. The noise was extraordinary, and during the warm-up we avoided the touchlines because they were within range of the fans and their impromptu missiles, mostly small oranges and bottles.

I've never experienced an atmosphere as intense and it hit us when we walked through the tunnel to the pitch. Jason McAteer and I were not helped by a firecracker exploding in front of us and showering us with debris. I can be honest and admit to being terrified. Then we lined up for the prayer, which we knew nothing about and thought was their national anthem, then the anthems and finally the team photos. Ten minutes it took, and the hairs on the back of my neck were upright throughout – 100,000 people prayed in a rhythmic chant and I felt about an inch tall. Exhilarating but very scary.

During the game we were indebted, again, to the brilliant Shay Given in goal. Two saves within one minute had kept them goalless in Dublin and he was just as impassable for the vital 89 minutes. He was our hero without doubt. As we left the pitch through the covered walkway more missiles were thrown as the fans showed their disappointment – they even threw a bench. Even more bizarre was the fans' smashing of their own car windscreens and headlights.

A five-hour delay in the airport followed before the flight home and an emotional mid-air speech by McCarthy clutching a bottle of champagne. Apparently he cried after the game – the big softie!

Friday, 16 November

Twenty-four hours after the game in Iran I was in a gymnastics class with my two boys and their friends. A little bemused, definitely thrilled and looking forward to Bolton and Internazionale. What a week. These five days in Iran are an experience I will never forget and now that we have qualified for the World Cup I am glad we had to go through the play-offs. Quite simply, this was unforgettable.

Comments