The buoyant Irish fans rediscovered their full voices in 2009
By Stephen Fottrell
The huge furore over the most infamous handball in world football since Maradona's "Hand of God" has now abated, but the hurt for the Republic of Ireland's fans will take that bit longer to heal after a rollercoaster 2009.
The Irish received widespread sympathy from the global footballing community in the wake of Thierry Henry's decisive but unpunished offence in November's World Cup qualifying play-off second leg in Paris.
But after weeks of endless calls for replays, apologies, accusations, recriminations and repentances, the reality of the situation dawned at December's World Cup draw in Cape Town.
There will be 32 teams travelling to the finals next summer. France will be there - the Republic will not.
Despite an unlikely last-minute call from the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) for the Republic to be included as the 33rd team - a request which drew first ridicule, then further apologies from Fifa - Giovanni Trapattoni's men, and their ever-loyal fans, were finally forced to move on.
Trapattoni brought plenty of the above back to the Irish set-up
Before the play-offs and the storm over events in Paris overshadowed everything that had gone before, Trapattoni's men had enjoyed an unbeaten qualifying campaign.
They had also managed to rediscover that component that generated success for previous Irish teams - operating as a side which, fuelled by a unquenchable spirit, was more than the sum of its parts.
When Trapattoni took the job at the beginning of the campaign the Irish were in disarray after a humiliating period under Steve Staunton.
The wily Italian soon realised the only path to South Africa lay in imposing a rigid team structure based on a recognition that he had a limited bunch of players, with the exception of one or two who might be considered world class.
He also inherited a long-standing Irish tradition - the petulant but supremely talented midfield playmaker.
In previous years it had seen Roy Keane and Liam Brady - the latter now Trap's right-hand man in the Irish coaching set-up - create the headlines and drive up the collective blood pressure of a nation.
The Italian's problem child proved to be Stephen Ireland, a player of immense talent, who would hover over the campaign but repeatedly and steadfastly refuse to take any part in it.
So realising his options were limited, the former Juventus manager put together a side featuring names such as Keith Andrews, Glenn Whelan, and Sean St Ledger - players from the lower reaches of the English Premier League and Championship.
They were tasked with executing his simple but effective defensive game-plan and getting his side to the best possible position he could ask for - a runners-up spot to his native Italy.
On the way to that second place in the group, there were some memorable trips.
Not least was April's jaunt to Bari, where the Green Army rediscovered the feeling of optimism they had enjoyed under Jack Charlton and Mick McCarthy and even adopted the mantra of a certain winning US politician on their T-shirts - "hope".
This reporter has vivid memories of an injury-time deflected shot zipping past Gianluigi Buffon, headed for his top corner, which would have given the Irish a famous victory over the world champions on their own patch, only to sail over, to the great relief of the world's best goalkeeper.
When the unfortunate Giampaolo Pazzini was sent off just two minutes into the game after an elbow on John O'Shea, the travelling fans could sense an upset.
Robbie Keane grabbed a dramatic late equaliser in Italy in April
And even after Italy took an early lead, the Irish hordes were among the only voices to be heard in the cavernous San Nicola stadium as they willed Robbie Keane's equaliser into the net four minutes from time.
It was one of Ireland's best performances since the heady days of previous successful campaigns and promised better things to come.
There were inevitably some below par performances along the way, but the Irish maintained their unbeaten record heading into the home showdown with the Italians in a packed, fever-pitch Croke Park.
The massive Gaelic Games stadium would provide some of the lasting images and sounds of the campaign as it played host to the world champions and World Cup finalists in the space of a month.
And the home supporters rose to the occasions with the kind of passion not seen at home Irish internationals since the beginning of the decade.
The heart-stopping return leg against Lippi's team again should have produced an Irish victory but the play-off destiny was realised with a 2-2 draw.
Despite the accusations of an injustice following the last-minute seeding of the teams for the play-off draw, Ireland would have to overcome the struggling but talented French to reach South Africa.
Commentary of the moment Henry broke Irish hearts
Again "Croker" rose to the occasion with a sea of green across its vast stands, but the Irish came up short in Dublin against Raymond Domenech's side and slumped to Trapattoni's first competitive defeat.
The Irish weren't given a prayer going to Paris for the second leg, but they outplayed the hosts over 120 minutes in one of their finest-ever performances.
The outcome is of course consigned to history as Henry's blatant handball set up William Gallas to score and seal a 2-1 aggregate win.
The players who made their names that night and over the course of the campaign such as St Ledger and Liam Lawrence, and those who rediscovered their ability to influence and dominate - stand up Damien Duff and Robbie Keane - are now making alternative arrangements for next summer.
Still, all is not lost for the Republic. For starters, Trapattoni has agreed to stay on for another two years.
Whether the 70-year-old will fulfil his dream of leading the Republic to Brazil in 2014 for a career-capping swansong will depend on whether he can build on what he has started.
He does have some real prospects coming through such as Manchester United midfielder Darron Gibson and Everton's Seamus Coleman, while Sunderland's talisman Andy Reid waits in the wings, having been overlooked throughout the qualifiers.
There is also the impressive sight of the new Lansdowne Road stadium on the Dublin skyline, awaiting its opening fixture in August 2010, when the Irish fans will once more clear their throats ahead of the qualifying campaign for Euro 2012.
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