THE Irish football team has always been, not just my team, but my only team. As a football-obsessed kid my dreams were not of playing for Liverpool, Arsenal, Man U, or even Everton, the team I followed, but of putting on a green shirt. When I cried over football, those tears were exclusively for the Irish team. And there were many tears. The kind of injustice we saw on Wednesday night was routine back in the 1970s and early 1980s. Cities such as Sofia, Paris and Brussels for me were synonymous with bad refereeing decisions. Plus ça change.
There were of course also great times, particularly Euro '88 and Italia '90, when the whole nation got behind a team that had only a couple of years earlier seemed like a minority interest.
Over time though, my love affair with football and the Irish team has certainly dimmed. Some of that was simply a reflection of getting older – and gaining some form of perspective to realise Bill Shankly's line about football being "much more important" than life or death was simply ludicrous.
Some of it was to do with what football had become. There is no point being naïve or idealistic about what the game was like 30 years ago. Football has always been a business – inspirational and joyful sure, but also professional, hard, cold and clinical.
But in the last 10 to 15 years, it seemed to become utterly disassociated from its roots. How could it not be when those who played it were attracting salaries of €50,000 a week just a couple of years out of school? Increasingly (though not exclusively) it has become a sport populated by preening, self-obsessed peacocks, living in a bubble where they are idolised and adored – the normal rules of society seemingly not applying.
This disease even seemed to infect the Irish team. I still went to the matches; still roared at the TV when they played; still felt elated or depressed (ludicrously so for a man my age) when they won or lost. But you didn't have to be in the media – where there were copious stories circulating about some players' demeanour and truculent attitude – to be aware that something had changed. I still loved the Irish team – there is too much history for it ever to be otherwise – but I had stopped liking them.
Until that is, the World Cup qualifying campaign and most obviously last Wednesday night. There has been too much focus on Henry's cheating and not enough on the total honesty of effort of the Irish team.
The current side is a lot more limited in terms of personnel than Irish teams of the past but, when they go on the pitch, their commitment is phenomenal. In every qualifying match the likes of Andrews, Dunne, Whelan, O'Shea and Doyle have given everything.
Before the game on Wednesday night, there was talk in some of the Irish pubs in Paris (well the one I was in at least) as to how many of the Irish players would get in the French team. There was agreement that just Shay Given would be guaranteed a start, while Dunne was a possibility and Keane would be in the squad.
There was no shortage of affection for the Irish team and a recognition they were honest to a fault and were a game bunch of lads. But we simply didn't have players of the quality of Henry, Anelka, Evra, Diarra, etc etc.
Yet in the Stade de France the sum of the Irish parts proved to be so much greater than the individuals involved.
There is genuine quality in this Irish team. Shay Given and the marvellous Robbie Keane (why does he still attract such criticism from Irish fans?) would be bankers in any all-time Irish selection. Richard Dunne would also make a strong case for inclusion, while Damian Duff reminded us what a talent he is.
And despite the reservations of Messrs Dunphy and Giles, Trappatoni proved yet again on Wednesday night what an extraordinary manager he is.
But, a host of excellent individual performances notwithstanding, what really bridged the ability gap between the two sides was more the Irish teamwork, passion and attitude.
No player exemplifies this more than Kevin Kilbane. Technically, he is a limited player who would never be signed by any of the myriad of Champions' League clubs that Anelka has played for. But his commitment, his honesty, his devotion to the Irish cause (although brought up in England, watch him sing 'Amhrán na bhFiann' as gaeilge) is unparalleled.
Posters of him don't adorn the walls of boys' bedrooms across Europe but as a role model for our youth, he is streets ahead of the more extravagantly talented Henry, Anelka or Gallas.
It's a shame that Kilbane and the rest of the squad are not going to South Africa. But we need to accept that they're not and move on. It's not fair but that's football.
And if we are to learn any lessons from Thierry Henry's action it should be that football must be about more than just winning. The Irish team played with such honesty, passion and skill last Wednesday night.
Thirty-three years after the first time I saw them play, I've never been prouder to call them my team. And, to me at least, that's worth far more than any World Cup finals.