Ten years on from Thierry Henry handball in France vs Republic of Ireland World Cup playoff

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Thierry henry sits with Richard Dunne after the final whistle
Image: Ten years ago today, the Republic and France faced each other in a World Cup playoff that ultimately went a long way to ushering the VAR into the game

As Republic of Ireland host Denmark in a match that could seal their Euro 2020 place, they will be hoping for a less controversial game than the one played 10 years ago today when a Thierry Henry handball decided their fate.

In the aftermath of what took place on that infamous night in Paris, a referee considered retirement, Henry contemplated giving up playing for France and the subsequent outcry led to the acceleration of talks about bringing technology into the sport.

For ex-Republic of Ireland defender Sean St Ledger, however, it meant more than all that, because it was an incident which cost him his childhood dream.

St Ledger's side were up against France in a two-legged play-off, with the prize a place in the 2010 World Cup finals. For St Ledger, then at Middlesbrough, there was no hiding from the magnitude of the task ahead, especially after Ireland had unluckily lost the home leg 1-0 in Dublin.

Thierry henry France
Republic of Ireland
Image: French players celebrate their passage to Euro 2012

"I was playing in the Championship at the time, and then realised I would be defending against world-class attacking players like Thierry Henry and Nicolas Anelka," he recalls.

"It was clear it was going to be tough, but we had played well in the home game and went there knowing we had nothing to lose."

An early Robbie Keane strike gave Ireland hope at a raucous Stade de France and after ending the 90 minutes all square, they had a real chance of causing a huge upset.

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Then, in the 103rd minute of the match, came the moment which ruined so many Irish dreams.

Sean St Ledger Republic of Ireland France Thierry Henry
Image: A distraught St Ledger (centre) after the full-time whistle

A free-kick launched into the box by Florent Malouda was handled not once, but twice by Henry to keep it in play before, almost in slow motion, he crossed for William Gallas to nod home.

The abiding images of the night are what seemed like hundreds of Irish arms in the air, with goalkeeper Shay Given racing out of his goal to confront Swedish referee Martin Hansson.

St Ledger, however, admits it didn't become apparent quite how much of an injustice there had been until after the match.

"It wasn't an average appeal, the word I'd use is pleading, and the referee seemed to know something was wrong, but his linesman didn't help him out," he says.

"At the time we all knew it hit his hand but never realised the blatancy of it. It wasn't until we got into the changing room and watched the replays that we saw how obvious it was."

One might have expected there to be uproar upon seeing the incident played out in front of them, but according to St Ledger shock was the overriding emotion which engulfed the squad.

"I remember in the changing room there was just silence. I don't think anyone could believe what had happened. Giovanni Trapattoni (Ireland's manager at the time) handled it really well afterwards but he was shouting in Italian in the changing room. Afterwards we all had a good drink but obviously it was hard."

St Ledger only fully understood how huge the implications of the decision were when he saw the incident was one of the main stories on the following evening's news.

"I think it became such a huge thing because of the importance of the game. For some of us it was our only chance to play in a World Cup, and it was taken away from us in really cruel circumstances."

Henry France ROI
Image: Henry and Gallas (right) celebrate France's controversial winner

The fallout was spectacular. Henry said his family was threatened by fans over the incident and released an apologetic statement in which he said: "Naturally I feel embarrassed at the way that we won and feel extremely sorry for the Irish, who definitely deserve to be in South Africa."

He also confessed later on to L'Equipe that he contemplated retirement from international football over the backlash from the incident.

Hansson, meanwhile, said: "After the game, we were sitting in the dressing room and I cried. I asked myself if this job is worth all the humiliation I had to face. But now I realise, after all the support I've got, that it wasn't my fault."

Ireland launched an ambitious, ultimately unsuccessful appeal to have the match replayed.

Republic of Ireland's Shay Given (left) and Paul McShane appeal for handball
Image: Republic's Shay Given (left) and Paul McShane appeal in vain for handball

"We thought there was a slim chance because of everything surrounding what had happened, and there initially seemed a lot of support for it," remembers St Ledger. "But I think the likes of FIFA and Adidas wanted France in that World Cup more than Ireland."

Ireland went on to gain some sort of redemption by qualifying for the 2012 European Championships, but were knocked out without registering a point.

St Ledger, who scored his country's only goal of the tournament against Croatia, believes the golden opportunity for glory was at the World Cup.

"Our team would have been at its peak in South Africa," he says. "The Euros were tough and in a way more competitive than the World Cup and I think we would have done better in 2010."

Nowadays, of course, VAR would surely have ruled the goal out, and Ireland could have made it to South Africa.

St Ledger (right) remonstrates with Shay Given after the handball
Image: St Ledger (right) and Shay Given after the handball

St Ledger, though, believes even though the system could have saved his team, technology still has a long way to go.

"I feel like it is taking away from celebrating a goal because you're always worried if it is going to count," he says.

"The euphoria of a goal is one of the best feelings in the world. Supporters in the ground also still don't know what is going on when a decision goes to VAR, and that has to improve."

With VAR set to be with us for years to come, incidents like the Henry handball should soon be a thing of the past. For St Ledger and co, however, it came just that bit too late.

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