Wes Hoolahan called it the goal of his life and on every level, it was perfect – down to the detail of his family being on the right side of the Stade de France, which allowed him to celebrate in front of them.
The Republic of Ireland midfielder’s beautifully executed half-volley against Sweden on Monday made him only the fourth player to score for his country at a European Championship finals. More importantly, it put the team 1-0 up in the 48th minute and was just reward for their dominance of the game.
With Belgium and Italy to come, Ireland knew how much a victory would have meant but, at that point, the knowledge appeared to get to them, together with what Martin O’Neill said was fatigue. Ireland had pressed like demons in the first half.
For all of the players, it was uncharted territory and how they allowed their advantage to slip was the blot on the evening. Rather abruptly, O’Neill’s players dropped deeper, Sweden cast off the shackles and started to have a go and Ciaran Clark was slashing at balls into the area. The Ireland centre-half got away with a couple but not in the 71st minute, when he misdirected a header on Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s cross into his own goal.
The bizarre thing was that Sweden did not manage an attempt on target and yet they looked the more likely of the teams to pinch the winning goal, before it ended 1-1. For Ireland, it had turned into a harsh lesson in game management.
“Probably, we need to improve that a little bit,” Hoolahan said. “Once we went 1-0 up, they pressed us a bit better, got Zlatan on the ball a lot more and had a good few chances. But we were unlucky to concede.”
Clark’s fellow defender Séamus Coleman said: “It’s a tough one to explain, we maybe had to see the game out. It’s something that shouldn’t happen and something that we will probably look at and, hopefully, we can learn from it in the next two games.”
O’Neill was forced to withdraw the striker Jon Walters in the 63rd minute because of an achilles injury – which could rule him out of the next game with Belgium on Saturday – and replaced him with the winger James McClean but he said: “The formation didn’t change that much.” When Ireland did not have the ball, Walters had been asked to drop wide to make a midfield five. And, after the equaliser, O’Neill could point to a couple of late, attack-minded changes, with Robbie Keane coming on for Hoolahan and Aiden McGeady replacing James McCarthy.
“What was happening was that Sweden were getting a bit of joy down the left-hand side, which was a concern,” O’Neill said. “And players do get tired in matches. We put an awful lot of work in. I don’t know how much ground Jeff Hendrick and James McCarthy covered. James hasn’t played for quite some time [because of injury], he was booked and he was getting tired. Wes was getting tired. You don’t want players just to keep going and pick up further injury. I wouldn’t pick the substitutions out.”
The learning curve for Ireland is steep and they have to hope their experiences against Sweden will help them to climb it. But before Saturday’s game against Belgium in Bordeaux, the mood is positive.
Although the Sweden game ended in disappointment, with the feeling that two points had been dropped, the way Ireland imposed their game, and played some slick football in the first half, has created a feelgood factor. The basic requirement for supporters is that they can enjoy watching their team play. Encouragingly for the Irish, this was the case against Sweden.
“I think Sweden were stunned by our performance and the way we passed the ball,” Hoolahan said. “If we put on another performance like that, we’ll have a great chance of getting out of the group.”
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