At full time in Lyon, as the Republic of Ireland players made their way to the green corner of the stadium amid the tears and cheers after the 2-1 defeat to France on Sunday, it was hard not to ignore the symbolism of Shay Given and Robbie Keane, arms around each other, bidding farewell.
This may have been the tournament where a new generation of Republic of Ireland players came of age but Euro 2016 has also ushered out some of the nation’s greatest names.
Given and Keane will, in all likelihood, pack away their gloves and goalscoring boots, John O’Shea may be tempted to depart after being usurped by Shane Duffy, while it would be no surprise to learn of Glenn Whelan placing his entire focus on Stoke.
All four have been as loyal as they come, sharing 462 caps. In contrast, the starting XI against France had a combined 316 appearances. For all the optimism and green shoots of recovery after years in the doldrums, the old guard, no matter how minimal their impact on the pitch in France, deserve praise as they leave. Their importance in training and in the dressing room should not be underplayed either.
Keane, the record goalscorer with 67, has always been desperate to play – even in meaningless friendlies when having to travel through eight time zones from Los Angeles – but his only goals in the past three years have come against Gibraltar. Given, who retired after Euro 2012 but was tempted back by the desire of finishing on a high note, is the third-choice goalkeeper.
Ciaran Clark and Duffy are the future central-defensive partnership, with Richard Keogh set to be their senior partner, thus reducing O’Shea’s role. Although Whelan may have a bit more to give, having started the first two games at Euro 2016 along with O’Shea before dropping to the bench for the 1-0 win over Italy, younger more energetic players have jumped above him in the order.
And that is before mentioning Wes Hoolahan, who was physically incapable of playing two full games in such a short spell of time in France. The only regret for the Norwich midfielder is he did not get a chance to display his technical brilliance at a younger age having being scorned by the previous manager Giovanni Trapattoni, when the stubborn Italian perversely needed the craft and guile of the affectionately nicknamed “Wessi”.
Martin O’Neill talked on Monday of their roles behind the scenes, specifically mentioning the influence of O’Shea and Whelan. The manager has not yet spoken with the elder statesmen about their futures, preferring to let the dust settle, but announcements will be made in due course.
“I haven’t discussed it with them,” O’Neill said. “I thought we would leave it, naturally, until the end of the competition. And if the players want to talk to me at any given time, I am there. I think that 75% of them will be in their own minds as to what they want to do. If they say: ‘Listen here, I need you to either push it over the line’ or: ‘Where do you see me fitting in?’ Then I would let them know as honestly as I possibly can where they stand.”
Ultimately where they fit in, if any choose to remain, is as deputies to the new generation. There is fresh impetus now, a renewed positivity in the team thanks to Jeff Hendrick, Robbie Brady and, to a marginally lesser extent, Duffy announcing themselves to a wider audience. The senior quintet would be reduced to, at best, squad roles.
That is at the forefront of O’Neill’s thought process and his willingness to be frank about where they will stand come the opening World Cup qualifier against Serbia in September is welcoming – though the loss of their experience will be a blow.
“What I have noticed about the competition is the really good influence of John O’Shea and how very supportive he is of the team,” O’Neill said. “And the same with Glenn Whelan. Glenn Whelan is like me – he’s a moany git, honestly. But he’s really good and strong with the team.
“They will go back and have a think about it. Robbie playing in America – I don’t know what might be in his mind. These things happen, they look at the side and the younger players coming through and sometimes the older players, it’s like everything else, they don’t want to feel like a liability around the place, or picked just because of reputation.”
O’Neill has never been in thrall to big reputations. They have served their country well and will be missed but bowing out after a solid campaign, including arguably one of the greatest results in Ireland’s history, is the best time to depart.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010