The minor miracle, given the swaths of Republic of Ireland fans in Paris, was that the players went unrecognised as they enjoyed a day to shake their heads clear.
“We went into Paris on Sunday for a coffee and just chilled out,” Wes Hoolahan, the midfielder, said. “It was nice to get out of the hotel in Versailles. We went to the Champs Élysées, walked around, did a bit of shopping, went to the Eiffel Tower. Nobody saw us, so we could just chill out.”
Anonymity had been the theme for the Ireland players on Saturday, but for rather less intentional reasons. After the elation over the manner of their performance against Sweden in the opening round of Group E fixtures, when they drew 1-1 but might have won, there was surprise and anger at how they did not turn up against Belgium.
There were precious few positives from the 3-0 defeat and, as he looked forward to the final and decisive group game against Italy in Lille, Roy Keane did not mince his words. “A blind man could see we need to be better,” the assistant manager said.
It has been a rollercoaster campaign for Martin O’Neill’s team since the first qualifying match away to Georgia in September 2014, when Aiden McGeady scored in the 90th minute to clinch a 2-1 win. There is the sense, and it has been mentioned inside the camp, that the highs and lows have been crystallised over six whirlwind days at the finals; from the positivity against Sweden – even if the regret that victory eluded them continues to nag – on to the reality check of Belgium.
It has now come down to this – a must-win fixture against Italy, who have already qualified as the group winners. Antonio Conte, the manager, is expected to make up to nine changes to his starting XI but, by any reckoning, it remains a colossal task for Ireland and one of the greatest performances in their history will be required.
Keane has mentioned how the World Cup win over Italy at USA 94, when Ray Houghton scored the only goal of the game, was a demonstration of how these type of results could happen and there was some discussion of it at the pre-match press conference. O’Neill and Seamus Coleman, the right-back, were invited to say how that victory might inspire them on what is, in effect, a chance to write their names into Irish folklore, and they duly obliged.
But both made the point that they did not have to go so far back for their touchstones. As recently as last October, this team beat the world champions, Germany, 1-0 at home in qualification and then there was the two-legged play-off victory over Bosnia-Herzegovina, when they coped admirably with the stress of the occasion.
“We have our own recent memories to inspire us, none more so than when we beat the world champions, on a night when we had to win,” O’Neill said. “It was an extraordinary result and that was inspirational enough for us to go and beat Bosnia. We don’t have to look at 1994.”
The Ireland players have spoken about the sombre mood after the Belgium game, particularly in the dressing room and on the flight back from Bordeaux but they have put it behind them.
O’Neill and Keane have built them back up; the experienced members of the squad such as Shay Given and Robbie Keane have played their part, too. The headspace that the players enjoyed on Sunday was necessary and, since then, the training sessions have been lively.
Ireland are ready. This was O’Neill’s message, and he and the players are determined to give their supporters something to celebrate. The boys and girls in green have been a positive feature of the championship and they have captured hearts and minds. Some of the latest footage to emerge has shown Irish supporters singing a lullaby to a baby on the Paris metro. There was a Dutch TV crew at the Ireland press conference, looking for material to flavour a feature they were doing on the Ireland fans.
A talking point in Italy has been how relatively few of their supporters have worn the Azzurri shirt. Conte even made a plea after his team’s victory over Sweden last Friday for more of them to do so. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be an official Italy shirt, just a normal blue T-shirt,” Conte said. “It would be great for us to see that wave of blue [in the stadium].”
There has been something of a campaign in Italy, with fans – including actors and singers – tweeting photographs of themselves in the Azzurri shirt. Conte’s team are driven by commitment and pride, and the manager wants to generate the same emotions among the support.
O’Neill has had no need for such appeals and he merely wants his players to show their ability to bounce back from a disappointment. They have done it before, most notably after the 1-0 defeat against Scotland in qualifying, when many wrote them off. There were also few who gave them a chance against Germany.
Conte complained about the state of the pitch at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy, which has been affected by heavy rain. “It definitely isn’t up to hosting a European Championship match,” he said. But, as Conte toyed with the Italian media over the precise number of team changes he will make, he made it plain that victory was the only option. “Winning breeds further victories,” he said.
O’Neill will make tweaks – Jon Walters is out with an achilles injury – and he will demand courage from his players, care in possession and that they run until they drop. It is an opportunity to be embraced. O’Neill always knew that Ireland would need one win to reach the last 16. They need it now.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010