John Duggan's latest dispatch relives an unforgettable night in Moscow...
When you are blessed to work as a sports journalist for two decades, sometimes the games you attend mesh into a bit of a blur. Which All Ireland Final was that? What year was that?
When I was young and completely sport obsessed, I couldn't get tickets for anything. I was the boy with my face against the glass. I won my first trip to a Republic of Ireland international through a Sunday World newspaper competition. It was Liam Brady's testimonial against Finland just before Italia 90.
Aside from that, it was tough, sitting at home, wishing your folks knew somebody. By the time my father's county, Clare, began to reach the summit of hurling in 1995, my aunt had a contact in the Camogie Association, but the football decider involving Dublin and Tyrone was off limits. Not a hope.
I suppose it has kept me grounded to appreciate over the years how great this job is. Last night though at the Spartak Stadium in Moscow was one of those moments when I felt I had actually got into a television, like that movie Poltergeist, or the character 'Mike TV' in Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. You see, that's what the World Cup is, a bit of a Willy Wonka paradise of football, with the Russians playing the role of Gene Wilder to perfection. Quirky, unpredictable, but welcoming and facilitating the fun, as long as you behave.
I think we all enjoy the pastime of people watching, sitting down and having a drink on a summer's day, observing the world pass us by. The World Cup is the zenith of people watching. One of those I was keeping an eye on last night was Colombian star James Rodriguez, sadly injured for the last 16 match against England.
He was sitting around 4 rows from me, in front of the press seats. Lean and slight, he turned and celebrated with the boisterous Colombian support to my left, drenched in yellow, as Yerry Mina headed in a dramatic stoppage time equaliser.
England had been the better team in a poor, ugly game, littered with cards, but we all thought - "Here we go again, they are going out on penalties." The Three Lions had lost 6 out of 7 previous shoot outs in major competitions, a timidity behind the cloak of tub thumping.
This time, England, led by a manager, Gareth Southgate, who missed the decisive penalty against Germany at Euro 1996, were not going to be denied. Put simply, it was their day. It was their day despite misses by Danny Rose and Eric Dier in extra time.
It was their day even though Jordan Henderson fluffed his spot kick. England's world spun on its axis as Mateus Uribe's effort from 12 yards hit the bar, goalkeeper Jordan Pickford produced a brilliant left handed stop from Carlos Bacca, and Dier did the rest.
There was complete silence from the colourful Colombian fans and a swift departure by James. At this level, sport is a Stanley knife and death is instantaneous. There is no time to linger, the end is brutal. You are going home or you have a fresh stamp on your wrist for the party.
Of course we know the English media will lose the run of themselves in the build up to an eminently winnable quarter final against Sweden in Samara on Saturday, their first last 8 tie since 2006. It will be hot, 30 degrees, but Sweden like other teams to have the ball and play on the counter. This will suit England, who use the ball as a soother, a comfort blanket. They don't cope very well without it.
Southgate's team are very well prepared, know their roles within the 3-5-2 formation and play to their strengths. Creativity isn't one of them, but Sweden don't excel in this department either.
Right now, the two sides of the World Cup draw are lopsided. Brazil, France, Belgium and Uruguay on one half. Hosts Russia, Croatia, England and Sweden on the other. The disparity is clear, but you need to embrace fortune, to ride the wave.
England have a great chance now to go as deep as they did in 1990, when Paul Gascoigne and Gary Lineker were their heroes. Before that tournament, I saw my beloved Tottenham Hotspur play Manchester United at White Hart Lane, and was mesmerised by the skills of Gazza as he ran the show. So I couldn't separate being a Republic of Ireland fanatic from this once we had been knocked out by Italy.
I wanted England to beat Germany in that semi final and as a weekly disciple of Harry Kane and Dele Alli, it would be hypocritical of me not to prefer England to win on Saturday just because of nationalism. Irish first and always, but sensible with it.
It's ok to want England to do well. Yes, you can say it, you can admit it regardless of the fear of shame or ridicule from friends and colleagues. This is 2018 and we are now friendly neighbours, even if their Government are throwing wobblies over their Brexit immolation. Let's face it, their team are not going to beat Brazil or France to win the World Cup, and England's journey is a far better story anyway than Colombia v Sweden. They should enjoy it and good luck to them.
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