Never mind the qualification victory over Germany, the test of nerve that was overcome in the play-off against Bosnia-Herzegovina or the famous win over Italy in their final group match at Euro 2016, which might just have been the Republic of Ireland’s finest in tournament football.
On Sunday afternoon, in the baking heat at the Stade de Lyon, Martin O’Neill’s team were 1-0 up at half-time in the last-16 tie against France, the host nation and one of the favourites for the title. This is not an ordinary France team, even though their detractors point out they have yet to be tested by a high-calibre opponent.
Theirs are a squad who compensate for defensive deficiencies with fearsome attacking weapons and the fact Didier Deschamps has struggled to find room for Kingsley Coman and Anthony Martial in his starting XI speaks volumes.
Ireland were not in front at the interval by some streaky smash-and-grab raid, and living on their nerves at the other end. They were comfortable. Darren Randolph was called on but the goalkeeper was not extended, while Ireland might have added to Robbie Brady’s early penalty when Daryl Murphy worried Hugo Lloris with a hooked shot.
Ireland were confident on the ball and with Shane Long’s pace, a threat on the counterattack. Adil Rami had to take him out on one occasion because Long had outstripped him. The centre-half was booked and is now suspended. To repeat, this was France, at their tournament, and Ireland were giving them more than a game. They had frightened them. The home crowd were so nervous at half-time they booed their team.
These are the sort of memories O’Neill and his players will take away, once the disappointment of the second-half swing that whipped the result from them fades. In the end, France had cut loose. Coman’s introduction and Deschamps’s shift to a 4-2-3-1 ensured they clicked and Ireland, who finished, in the words of the captain, Seamus Coleman: “Out on our feet”, could not live with them.
The principal regret was the fatigue factor. Ireland had been afforded only three clear days to prepare after the draining last-gasp victory over Italy, while France had enjoyed six. O’Neill started with the same XI – and no one blamed him for that. How could he have dropped any of the heroes from the Italy game? It would just have been lovely to see them be able to play at full tilt for 90 minutes. What might have happened then? On the other hand, this is tournament football.
What Ireland have done over these past few weeks – indeed over the past two years – is show they can hold themselves up against the best. O’Neill and his assistant manager, Roy Keane, have sought to change the mentality and in this crucial regard they have succeeded. The players should not and do not have inferiority complexes.
Moreover, if the essence of football is to make a group of supporters feel good about themselves; to create happy memories; to make it all seem worthwhile – then Ireland have succeeded. They have created optimism for the next World Cup qualifying campaign but this is not about looking towards a future that never comes. It is about living the moment, this moment, the one that has mattered, and seizing it.
“There are definitely positives to be taken,” Brady said. “We just need to keep the head up and remember we gave it a good go. Every country wants to come and show what they’re about and we’ve given a good account of ourselves. We showed a bit of what we had against France and not only then, throughout the two years. People wrote us off. They said we wouldn’t qualify and then that we wouldn’t get out of the group. It’s been excellent and brilliant to have been a part of.
“We’ll just take belief from it. The way that we’ve played shows we can come to these places and play against the best teams in the world, produce the goods or, at least, match them for large parts of the game and not feel like a lesser team. A lot of this squad is going to be here for the next campaign, so we’ll have a lot of time to work with each other. We go again.”
The emotions have been in contrast to those after Euro 2012 when, under Giovanni Trapattoni, the team were swept aside by Croatia, Spain and Italy to beat their retreat. There were some wonderful times under Trapattoni and he believed he extracted the maximum from the players he selected. But there was always the impression of reduction; that the Italian did not trust them to express themselves in a more expansive way. Trapattoni’s team became a difficult one to love and the attendances at home matches suffered. O’Neill’s can-do approach has chimed more readily with fans and the connection between them and the players has been clear.
Ireland will learn lessons, not least in terms of game-management – the way they allowed Sweden back to 1-1 in their opening tie was one of the blots. However, the positives have held sway, with the emergence of Brady, Jeff Hendrick and Shane Duffy – each of whom is 24 – prominent among them. They will benefit from the experience.
“The bond between the players and the fans is something special,” Coleman said. “Our fans are immense and we’re so proud of them. They have played a big part. I’m also sure you’ve seen a few good, young lads come through. The future is bright.”
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