herald

Sunday 23 April 2017

Living up to the hype is never easy

Gareth Bale has weight of a nation on his big shoulders

All Welsh eyes will be on talisman Gareth Bale to deliver against Ireland.
All Welsh eyes will be on talisman Gareth Bale to deliver against Ireland.

When great players do their stuff so well that everyone, friend and foe, just sit back and admire, they briefly match the hype which follows them around like a faithful dog.

This week and for some time before that, all anyone has been thinking about is Gareth Bale and sure enough, he's one of them; a player who can turn it on and leave everyone breathless.

As often as not, the big ticket names can't live up to the hype. They shoulder a heavy burden and in Bale's case, he carries his team and an entire nation.

Can Bale take on Ireland on his own? If he has the game of his life perhaps. At face value, he is still on a recovery path from an injury and doesn't have a lot of miles in his legs.

But the whole point of great men is just that. At the very moment when you think that maybe they might not be quite right for a command performance, they let the magic flow.

We don't see many like him in Dublin and over the years, Ireland's fortunes in collisions with legends have been mixed.

The bogey man, Thierry Henry, stands head and shoulders above all else as Ireland's nemesis and he was the very obvious danger man for any team facing France.

Twice he rubbed our noses in it by burying qualification chances for Brian Kerr in 2005 with a moment of genius at Lansdowne Road which won a tight game and then, infamously in the 2009 World Cup play-off in Paris.

By then his powers were waning but he still carried menace and an uncanny knack at turning up at exactly the wrong moment for Ireland.

There have been others who delivered the goods but not a result and Gheorghe Hagi is a perfect example. Was there a better player in Italy during the 1990 finals?

Diego Maradona was there representing Argentina but his head was full of Colombia.

Hagi bowed out with Romania and took a plane to Madrid leaving behind a memory of a sultry afternoon in Genoa when he ran a football match but didn't get his reward.

Zlatan has done us damage. He hardly moved a leg in the Stade de France in June but when he did, he forced Ciaran Clark to put the ball into his own net.

Did he match the pre-match hype? Certainly not. In fact, most Ireland fans that saw him had a good chortle when news emerged that he was definitely signing for Manchester United.

Hindsight now tells us that Ibra has many, many moments like that low cross which unhinged Clark and at Old Trafford, he has taken hype to new levels.

Bale has not quite climbed to the plateau reserved for the very best and it will be some time before anyone can make that judgement.

Along the way, he will have failures and there is optimism still that Martin O'Neill has enough in his bag of tricks to get the result we all want at the Aviva.

And if he wants to channel some moments from the past, he could do worse than recall Roberto Baggio who lined up against Ireland in Giants Stadium in 1994 as the most charismatic footballer in the world.

USA 94 was to be his World Cup and while Ireland were seen as a tricky first hurdle, the Azzurri expected greatness.

They saw greatness that day all right. Paul McGrath's remarkable duel with Baggio will never fade in the memory and is part of the world archive, not just ours.

A personal favourite of the much-hyped, but no substance variety has to be the day Ruud van Nistelrooy ran out onto Lansdowne Road as the next great master and trooped dejectedly back to the dressing room 90 minutes later flanked by every striker in Holland and a thunderstruck Louis van Gaal.

This time, we'd just settle for a blank from Bale.

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