Both Martin O’Neill and his goalscoring man of the match Robbie Brady confessed their emotions were all over the place as the Republic of Ireland beat Italy to book a place in the last 16 of Euro 2016.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder,” the Republic manager said. “I’ve had some great nights but this was very special. It all became very emotional at the end. We deserved to win the game but I must admit I thought the chance had gone when the goalkeeper saved from Wes Hoolahan. It doesn’t matter now though, it was a phenomenal win, a phenomenal night.”
Brady made it so five minutes from the end, heading in a cross from Hoolahan, whose composure was remarkable in the circumstances. “Wes’s chance came so quick it got under his feet but two minutes later he put a fantastic ball right on my head,” Brady said. “I’d have done well to miss. I think I lost myself a little bit when I scored. I couldn’t help it, it’s what dreams are made of.
“I think every Irish person around the world will be celebrating. It was like an out of body experience when I scored. I’m still stuck for words, to be honest. This was our last chance and we knew it. It showed in our hard-working team spirit, we had it all tonight, we stuck at it and it was a great performance in the end. Roll on France. We know they are a top-class team, but if we can click like we did tonight we have nothing to fear.”
Ireland have made a habit of scoring late goals in their qualifying campaign, and O’Neill does not believe it is an accident. “We do keep going,” he said. “Some players have come of age in the last two years but everyone in the squad knows never to give up, and that’s why we score late goals. To come out of the group we were in is a great achievement. Italy are no Pot Two team and Sweden and Belgium are no mugs.
“We knew we had to win a game at some stage in the three group matches and the lads came up with a really big performance. There wasn’t a player in an Irish shirt who didn’t perform heroically. We had to, and we have shown that we are capable of raising our game when it matters. Some of our players don’t play at the highest level, but we work all the time at staying positive, neutralising other teams’ advantages and getting the maximum from our own game. We work at believing in ourselves, believing we can compete at this level, and on nights like this we show everyone what we are capable of.
“I look forward to playing France in the next round, it’s a great game for us to play the host nation. France will be favourites, of course, but if we can recover in time we want to play as strongly as we did tonight.”
The Italy coach, Antonio Conte, was slightly less enthusiastic about the way Ireland played, though admitted they deserved their victory. “It was a tough, physical contest on a barely playable pitch,” he said. “The pitch didn’t help us, but I’ve played football, these are tough games. I got a good response from some of our young guys who hadn’t played so much, against a side that played a lot of long balls, balls thrown into the mixer, heavy challenges. It was quite typical of their brand of football.
“I have to congratulate Ireland though, it was life and death for them and they played with a lot of grit. They really wanted to go through and they were rewarded, though in my opinion we did not deserve to lose tonight. Based on chances created a draw would have been a fairer outcome, but Ireland played the game of their lives.”
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