The Republic of Ireland’s fortitude knows no bounds and there were symbols of it everywhere during their final Euro 2016 Group E tie on Wednesday night, when they defeated Italy 1-0 to record, arguably, their finest victory at a tournament to set up a last-16 meeting with France.
But there was one that stood out.
“Let’s not forget that Shane Duffy was nearly dead six years ago,” Seamus Coleman, the stand-in Ireland captain, said. “For him to be back on the pitch is massive but to put in a performance like he did was incredible. And it was his first competitive international.”
The Blackburn Rovers centre-half was an 18-year-old hopeful in May 2010, trying to make his way at Everton along with Coleman, when he was involved in the freak training ground accident that almost claimed his life. He had been called up by Giovanni Trapattoni, the then Ireland manager, to practise with the senior squad and he suffered the injury during a training match in what looked like a routine collision.
Duffy ruptured the blood supply to his liver and he was taken to the Mater hospital in Dublin, where he underwent life-saving surgery. “The staff in the Mater must be credited for their expertise and fast response which, in no uncertain terms, saved Shane’s life,” the Ireland team surgeon, Prof John O’Byrne, said. “It was a freak injury that in another 100 years of medicine we may never see again.”
Ireland’s fans are still rubbing their eyes at what they saw at the Stade Pierre Mauroy. Duffy had previously won only three international caps, all of them in friendlies, but here he was plunged into a must-win fixture against the four-times world champions. Antonio Conte, the Italy manager, made sweeping changes to his lineup, as his team had already qualified as the group winners, but he still had Simone Zaza and Ciro Immobile up front.
Duffy does not encounter strikers of their calibre in the Championship, where he has spent the past two seasons, having moved to Blackburn from Everton to enjoy regular first-team football. Martin O’Neill, the Ireland manager, told Duffy that he would start – alongside Derby County’s Richard Keogh – when they arrived at the stadium, and so there was no time for them to overthink the situation.
The pair came in for John O’Shea, who had captained the team at this tournament, and Ciaran Clark, and it is worth noting that Duffy and Keogh had played together only once previously – in the friendly against Costa Rica in June 2014, when Duffy made his international debut.
How it came together for them against Italy and, indeed, all of their team-mates. Jeff Hendrick was magnificent in the No10 role; the goalscorer, Robbie Brady, was ever eager to break forward from a deeper midfield starting position and James McClean, the left-winger, was swashbuckling at times.
Yes, Italy were poor and it was difficult to ignore the possible correlation between their lack of intensity and how the result did not mean anything to them. But Ireland did not let them play. It was O’Neill’s men who pushed throughout and Brady’s 85th-minute winner was just reward.
This team do not know when they are beaten and it was their latest crucial last-gasp goal. During qualification, they scored a 90th-minute winner in Georgia and 90th-minute equalisers in Germany and at home to Poland. “The emotion I felt when that goal went in – you are nearly in tears as it happened,” Coleman said. “It will be remembered for a long, long time.”
Brady described it as an “out-of-body experience” and Hendrick was among the players to feel the tears well at full-time. “Unfortunately, I was crying on TV,” Hendrick said. “It meant so much to me. I thought it would be hard to top the wins over Germany and Bosnia in qualifying but this was the best.”
Brady is hardly renowned for his heading ability but he will be now. Ireland had been off-colour in their 3-0 loss to Belgium last Saturday but they pulled together to bounce back. They ought to have had a 43rd-minute penalty for Federico Bernardeschi’s barge on McClean but they did not wallow.
And then, there was Wes Hoolahan – another hero; another symbol. The playmaker had been dropped to the bench and, when he came on, he missed a glorious one-on-one chance with Salvatore Sirigu in the 83rd minute. But he did not allow his head to drop and it was his precision assist that presented Brady with the winner.
“You’ve got to give Wes a helluva lot of credit,” Coleman said. “A lot of players would have had their head down after that or sulked or thought: ‘Oh God, I’m going to be the one who missed the chance.’ But he got on with it and what a delivery that was.”
Hoolahan said: “It was crazy. I should have scored but I thought: ‘Keep going. Another chance will come my way to create a goal,’ and luckily enough I did it. It was harder to watch [from the bench], thinking we should have been 1-0 up with the penalty. I had to wait. It worked out in the end.”
Inevitably, the focus has shifted towards Sunday’s showdown with France in Lyon, when the memories of the last meeting between the countries will provide the back-story. It is sufficient merely to write – Thierry Henry, hand-ball. But Ireland’s players do not want to dwell on the past or allow their focus to be scrambled.
“It’s a different group of players, it won’t be stuck in our head,” Hendrick said. “I suppose we would have been delighted if we had scored a goal like that [from Henry’s handball]. It did hurt the whole nation at the time but, hopefully, we can now get a result against France and get one back on them.”
Hoolahan said: “There is history there but we’ll probably forget about that. It’s important we go into Sunday’s game with confidence. If you see the way we played against Sweden, in the first group game, and Italy, we have nobody to fear.”
The last word deserved to be about the Ireland supporters, who descended on Lille in their droves and created an atmosphere under the closed roof at the Stade Pierre Mauroy to make the senses tingle. They, too, bent the occasion to the force of their will.
“I’m so happy for the fans,” Coleman said. “I won the toss before the game and I chose to shoot into the Italians first because I knew that the Irish would suck that ball into the net for us in the second half. When we heard there was an opportunity for the roof to be closed, we wanted it to happen, because our fans would keep the noise in. They are incredible and they got what they deserved.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010