It was an occasion that called for quality, cohesion and courage, and the Republic of Ireland were not found wanting. It was also one that demanded a decisive moment in front of goal, something to spark a result for the ages and, to the unconfined joy of those in green, Robbie Brady provided it.
The stadium clock showed 85 minutes in a match that Ireland had to win to reach the last 16 of Euro 2016 and, at that stage of a steamy evening, it looked as if Martin O’Neill would get the performance he wanted but not the result.
Moments earlier the substitute Wes Hoolahan had blown a glorious one-on-one chance with the Italy goalkeeper, Salvatore Sirigu, but he did not allow his head to drop. Neither did any of his teammates. Taking a pass from another substitute, Aiden McGeady, Hoolahan looked up and he whipped an inviting cross into the centre. Brady timed his arrival to perfection and headed home.
It was the prompt for bedlam and a richly deserved victory, which might just be Ireland’s finest of all time. Never before have they won a final group tie to advance into the knockout rounds at a major finals and this result, lest anybody forget, had come against the mighty Italians. Antonio Conte’s team had guaranteed their progress as Group E winners and the manager made eight changes to his starting XI. But in came players from clubs such as Juventus, Milan and Paris St-Germain. It was hardly a scratch line-up.
Ireland grabbed the tie by the scruff of the neck from the first whistle. They turned the pressure that they might have felt into an opportunity to be seized. They had heroes in all areas – from front to back –and it was Brady who commandeered the headlines.
Ireland had dominated the first half and they complained bitterly at the non-award of what looked to have been a penalty in the 43rd minute, when James McClean was barged by Federico Bernardeschi. The Romanian referee, Ovidiu Hategan, was unmoved. Had it finished 0-0, the decision would have been a source of regret. Instead Brady relegated it to a footnote and Ireland can now look forward to facing France in Lyon on Sunday in the last 16.
Everybody knows what happened when Ireland last played France on French soil. It was the 2010 World Cup play-off, second leg in Paris and it was the night when Thierry Henry’s handball helped France to the finals in South Africa. Ireland now have a shot at revenge.
The scenes at full time will live long in the memory, with O’Neill embracing his assistant, Roy Keane, and the players charging about in delirium, before staging various pile-ons. Brady called his goal an “out-of-body experience”. Ireland had been determined to leave nothing on the pitch, and they did not.
O’Neill was bold with his selection, making four changes, which included the decision to start Hoolahan on the bench. James McCarthy, rather than Glenn Whelan, was charged with screening a new-look back four while Jeff Hendrick and Brady provided further creativity from central areas.
The game was on from the first minute when Seamus Coleman clattered into Mattia De Sciglio and the only thing that stopped him from being booked, presumably, was that it was the first tackle of the evening. Ireland appeared determined to leave a few calling cards and they played with tempo and aggression.
They gave Italy no room for manoeuvre, such was the ferocity of their pressing and it said everything that their more illustrious opponents contributed precious little of attacking note. They perked up a little on the counter-attack in the second half but the sum total of their efforts before the interval was a Ciro Immobile pot-shot on 42 minutes that flew wide. O’Neill’s new central-defensive partnership of Richard Keogh and Shane Duffy was commanding.
Hendrick has showcased his shooting ability at these finals and he was a whisker from opening the scoring with a vicious left-footed drive from outside the area. Ireland also had their threat from Brady’s set-pieces and Daryl Murphy, the No9, extended Sirigu from one of them.
The penalty appeal provided the controversy. McClean had shaped to shoot inside the area, from Murphy’s pass, only for Bernardeschi to knock him off balance. The Italy wing-back was nowhere near the ball.
Ireland’s magnificent supporters nursed a sense of injustice. But they already had their cause and their players had the bit between their teeth. Their confidence levels grew inexorably and this was demonstrated when the underworked goalkeeper, Darren Randolph, executed a Cruyff-turn on Simone Zaza.
Zaza volleyed narrowly over the crossbar on 52 minutes but it was Ireland who pushed. Coleman, following slack Italian defending, saw a shot blocked by Angelo Ogbonna while the outstanding Hendrick dragged another effort wide.
Italy were uncharacteristically sloppy – much to Conte’s annoyance. He was a prowling, volcanic presence on the touchline. They almost sneaked into the lead when the substitute, Lorenzo Insigne, curled a shot against the post and, when Hoolahan blew his one-on-one, Ireland’s game looked up. Brady had other ideas.
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