I said here on Wednesday morning that if Ireland put in a performance in Lille, they would be Italy, writes Liam Brady
And that’s exactly what happened — even if it did take until five minutes from the end of a memorable night for the team to get a deserved winner.
I always thought that the way the group was panning out meant that the final game would fall kindly for us. Yes, the heavy defeat to Belgium had been worrying from an Irish perspective but when Italian manager Antonio Conte revealed that he was planning to make up to nine changes to his team — he settled for just the eight in the end — I felt it was a real opportunity for the Irish team. Even when they’re at full strength, this Italian side is not particularly strong offensively and, in the context of a game that was essentially meaningless to them, they just didn’t have the quality to beat us.
That’s to take nothing away from the Irish side. Every one of them played with great determination and great heart and, in the end, they got their just reward.
Martin O’Neill certainly sprang a few surprises with his team selection but, as I’ve said before, he’s the man who is best-placed to see how fatigued or otherwise the players are. He’s talking to them every day, he’s watching them in training and he’d have input from the medical staff as well before coming to his decision.
Glenn Whelan had looked to be out on his feet in the game against Belgium and maybe John O’Shea too was feeling the effects of having played two games in quick succession. And Ciaran Clark couldn’t really be picked after his painful experiences over 180 minutes in Paris and Bordeaux.
Choosing Shane Duffy to make his competitive debut in such a high-stakes setting was a brave call and, as it turned out, the right one by the manager. I thought Duffy was nervous in the early stages but, the longer the game went on, the more he grew into it.
He can still look a little bit raw but, by the same token, his overall performance suggested that he wasn’t frightened of the occasion. And he was helped too, I think, by having alongside him Richard Keogh, who is a really good lad with obvious leadership qualities.
The absence of Wes Hoolahan from the starting line-up was a concern because of how important he is to making the team play but he’s 34 years of age and, again, Martin would have all the first-hand knowledge about him — including clear evidence that he was tiring against Belgium — to make the judgment that he needed to conserve his energy until late in the game on Wednesday night.
It was another brave call by the manager to stick with James McCarthy after all the criticism he shipped for his mistakes in what was a demonstrably poor personal performance against Belgium. He was much better against Italy, winning a lot of ball for us and using it well enough, without doing anything fantastic.
I’ve heard the theory that McCarthy takes more responsibility when Glenn Whelan is absent, as the latter was when we beat Germany in Dublin and again the other night. But what kind of excuse is that for McCarthy not stepping up to the plate more often — that Glenn gets in his way?
No. I think it’s simply up to the lad himself to develop the personality and character to get on the ball and show more initiative. And he certainly played his part on Wednesday night.
James McClean was immense. Not in a constructive or creative sense but in the way that he upset the Italians by never giving them a moment’s peace with his running and chasing. And, of course, it was McClean who won what should have been a penalty when Bernardeschi barged into him from behind in the box. He had a torrid time all night with McClean.
The evidence of the game suggests that Martin O’Neill had a good look at the team the Italians were planning to put out and decided that the best strategy was to get on the front foot and really get at them from the word go. ‘Let’s get stuck into them’ — I know it’s an Irish cliché but that’s exactly what the team did the moment the whistle sounded.
It wasn’t always pretty but, in the end, it was beautiful.
And, credit where it’s due, it was by no means exclusively long ball stuff. At times, Ireland got the ball down and played with composure as well. And that was good to see.
The winning goal was the shining example of that, coming on the end of probably the best bit of football we’ve played in the championship to date. With Brady, McGeady, Hoolahan, and then Brady again all involved, it was a free-flowing move of the kind we only see sporadically from Ireland.
But was just what the doctor ordered at that moment not least because, just a minute before, Wes had missed that great opportunity in front of goal. I know I wasn’t the only one who slumped back and thought, ‘bloody hell — that’s it now, that’s our big chance gone’.
The other thought that went through my mind was, oh my God, he’s going to have to carry the can if we get knocked out. So it was more than a relief when, just a minute later, he laid on the winner, this player who has really blossomed in the twilight of his career and who has had made such a long journey from the League of Ireland all the way to the finals of the European Championships.
Robbie Brady’s journey too has not been straightforward. He spoke after the match about how, as a kid, he dreamed of a night like that but I’m also sure that, when he was embarking on his career, getting let go by Manchester United was not part of the same dream. But he didn’t dwell on that rejection, he’s worked hard to get where he is now, and he’s done brilliantly for Ireland over the last couple of years.
Where does Wednesday’s victory rank in the all-time great games for Irish football? My own belief is that the team which beat England in Stuttgart in 1988 faced a tougher challenge that day while the team that won in Giants Stadium in 1994 was up against a proper Italian side. So I think we need to maintain some semblance of perspective, although I’m absolutely happy to acknowledge that it was still a wonderful night for Irish football in its own right.
The bonus is that we now have the host nation France in the knockout stage, when the pressure will all be on them. We should respect them, yes, but by no means should we be scared of them. And I think we owe them one, don’t we?
But more on that tomorrow.
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