A sober moment to see what others think of us

Lille’s Stade Pierre-Mauroy, like so many of the stadia hosting games at these European Championships, is an architectural delight but it earns the appreciation of drivers on the adjacent motorway far more often than the city’s denizens thanks to its location miles out from the ‘centre ville’, writes Brendan O’Brien
A sober moment to see what others think of us

Serviced by no more than a handful of bars and restaurants, it isn’t an obvious contender to hold fans eager to prolong the vibe of a famous evening like Wednesday.

And yet there they were in their hundreds, a full two hours after the final whistle, a bedraggled tapestry of Irish supporters scattered about the environs of the ground with little or nothing visible in the way of giddiness or craic. It was a picture that gave an inaudible voice to the hours before.

Men and women sat or stood around nursing beers and talking quietly, if at all. Hundred-yard stares were two-a-penny as fans emerged from under the weight of two hours of oppressive humidity under the closed roof and found themselves locked into a mode of sober reflection rather than that of drunken celebration.

It wasn’t much different back in town.

A 1am limit on last orders limited the scope for boisterous excess but there was a pervasive sense that it wouldn’t have mattered anyway, that both individuals and the 1,000-strong collective of supporters simply needed space to draw breath and pause.

It was an extraordinary scene of calm and restraint given the bacchanalian atmosphere that kicked in after the 3-0 defeat to Belgium in Bordeaux on Saturday. Then, the general vibe bounced along happily in spite of the crushing blow to their side’s hopes of making the knockout stages.

Roy Keane’s words four years ago, about how Ireland shouldn’t just go along for the sing-song, couldn’t help but spring to mind as you walked through the Cours d’Albret last weekend where a band blared from the roof of the Connemara Bar and supermarket trolleys full of beer and public urination didn’t cause one eye to blink.

So, Lille and the collective midnight meditation that followed was pretty conclusive proof that, for all the fun and feel good hi-jinks, the football was in no way secondary to the Irish whose popularity will dip briefly in these parts this weekend.

L’Equipe captured that reality brilliantly. Yesterday’s wraparound front and back page comprised of a single picture showing Ireland’s players and fans celebrating as one. Along with the headline, a clever play on words along the lines of ‘The Party Begins’, it summed up succinctly the fact that Ireland are now a presence at this event on and off the pitch.

And to think they almost never even made it to France.

Opinion has differed over whether the expansion of the tournament has been a success, or whether it has diluted the quality of a group stage which took spanned two weeks and ended with only a quarter of the 24 sides escorted from the premises.

Even some fairytales have been depicted as horror stories. Cristiano Ronaldo railed against Iceland’s safety first approach, Northern Ireland were accused of ‘parking the McBus’ against Poland and Michael O’Neill was even forced to defend their all-hands-on-deck approach after Germany pinned them to the ropes at the Parc des Princes.

The Republic didn’t win any friends against Belgium but they stand in credit. Martin O’Neill mentioned yesterday that he had friends in Sweden who have been taken aback by their ability. Paul Le Guen, the former Rangers manager, was none too happy that the hosts will now be facing Irishman from the south and not the north.

“With one, there was no risk,” he reasoned. “Now you can be out with a bad day.”

For anyone who has watched Ireland play down the years, this sort of stuff is music to the ears. The players may not play for Manchester United or Liverpool anymore but that isn’t to say that they cannot play when encouraged and presented with the framework in which to do so.

Irish teams have played attractive and effective football under most managers since the old committee system of picking teams was done away with in the late-60s but there has been a retreat into the familiar arms of the long ball far too often under men whose vision and belief in their players was lacking.

People talk about the Jack Charlton years and whether they actually stand as a lost opportunity given the limited style of play employed and the wonderful array of individual talent available. A similar charge could certainly be cast in the direction of Giovanni Trapattoni.

Marco Tardelli’s quotes in the Italian media earlier this week, in which he lauded Irish passion but criticised an inability to think tactically, chimed perfectly with the negative offerings of Trap who used to decry the absence of quality in his squad on a game-by-game basis.

Wednesday was part of a growing portfolio for this generation that includes the two games against Bosnia-Herzegovina and the draw with Sweden last week and one that proves again that an Irish team can play good football and ally it with the more traditional values of grit, organisation, and passion.

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