I found myself caught between pride and disappointment as Ireland exited the Euros at the hands of France on Sunday, says Liam Brady.
Pride at our performance in the first half and disappointment at the way we let the game slip through our fingers in that self-destructive eight minutes in the second half.
With the concession of two poor goals and then the sending off, what I believe was a real opportunity to eliminate the hosts and get through to the quarter-finals, simply disappeared in front of our eyes.
But we certainly gave the French a huge fright with a really brave display so, in that sense, the game in Lyon was like Ireland’s tournament in microcosm: 10 out of 10 for bravery, commitment, and character, but more like six out 10 for decision-making and the more technical aspects of the game.
We definitely made mistakes along the way. Those lapses against Belgium didn’t really cost us in the end, because it always looked like we were only ever going to finish third in the group.
However, the game against France still leaves a sour taste in my mouth because, at half-time, I really believed we were good enough to go on and win it. The French were in a real hole at that stage and, unfortunately, we helped them dig themselves out.
It turned out to be a difficult afternoon for Shane Duffy who, understandably perhaps, Martin O’Neill had chosen to keep faith with after his solid display, on what was only his competitive debut, against Italy. But I had said here on Saturday that I thought it might be better for Martin to bring back John O’Shea for Lyon, since he was the only one of the three central defender candidates who could call upon the experience of having played in many similar big games and against the kind of quality players the French were going to be able to muster in attack.
So that’s one illustration of where we were found wanting in France when it came to things like decision-making and tactics. And there was a glaring example of our technical deficiencies in the same game when, with the score at 2-1 to them and Ireland still with 11 players on the pitch, James McClean fluffed a great chance to slip a ball across the six-yard box for what would surely have had to be a tap in by Daryl Murphy. A little more quality and composure from James and it would have been 2-2.
So, yes, there is a nagging sense that this was one that got away for Ireland, and I thought that came across too in the comments of Seamus Coleman and Robbie Brady just after the game — a shared feeling of regret. In some ways, Sunday was reminiscent of seven years ago in Paris; as then, we had a grip on the game, but we let it slip through our fingers.
Overall, however, I thought we acquitted ourselves very well at these championships. After finishing the qualifying campaign so strongly home and away to Bosnia in the play-off, we went into the tournament in good shape, looking like a proper team.
That continued with the performance against Sweden, a game we should have won. The Belgian game was one to forget but, having lost our way badly in that one, we bounced back when the pressure was at its most intense against Italy and then, as I say, we gave the hosts a right scare in the knock-out stage.
So even though I still feel a sense of regret at what might have been on Sunday, it’s perfectly legitimate to say that the team left France with a lot of credit, with their heads held high and with the mood around the camp and the country very different to Poland four years ago.
And there are some encouraging signs for the future too. Having mentioned Shane Duffy’s rawness before, I think it’s important to say that he looks to me to be the kind of player who will learn from his experiences, good and bad, in France. Yes, he has to refine his play and eliminate error but I’ve no doubt he’s made of the right stuff to be one of Ireland’s two centre-backs for a long time to come.
Not that I would be in any rush to send John O’Shea on his way. I see that there is some speculation that as many as five of the older members of the squad — John, Robbie Keane, Shay Given, Glenn Whelan, and Wes Hoolahan — might be considering hanging up their boots.
If that comes to pass, I would regard it as a real cause for concern.
Robbie and Shay might be in a separate category since they have not been first-choice picks for some time but we simply can’t afford for all of these guys to walk away together. If the likes of John, Glenn and Wes continue to play professional football in England then they’re going to be worthy of being part of our qualifying campaign for the next World Cup.
It’s a big worry. We were the oldest squad at the Euros, true, but we still very much need those players to carry on. The next campaign comes around quickly, in September, and if we’re going to lose the likes of O’Shea, Whelan, and Hoolahan before then, there are no ready-made replacements waiting in the wings to take their place.
On a much more encouraging note in terms of the immediate future, I would fully agree with Martin O’Neill when he says that younger players like Jeff Hendrick and Robbie Brady really came of age in France.
In many ways those two led the team, in the way that they wanted to get the ball down, in being adventurous and in showing belief in what they were trying to do. And I would say it’s a pretty safe bet that, on the back of their showing at the Euros, those two players will be with Premier League sides next season.
The deeper concern for Ireland, however, is that I don’t see any similarly talented younger players coming up behind them — and that could prove to be a big problem for Martin going forward.
Of course, injuries meant that we didn’t see Harry Arter in France, and more’s the pity: he’s definitely one who can make an impact in the upcoming World Cup campaign.
Otherwise, I don’t know where the new Irish players are going to come from — but I do know we need to find them.
Martin mentioned we badly need to source a reliable, regular goal-scorer but to that I would say that you won’t actually need one until you start making chances for them to take. I can’t remember Shane Long having one chance over the whole four games in France, and I don’t think he was to blame for that. Again, that’s where some of our failings in terms of technical ability — the quality required to pick players out with through balls and the like — proved costly.
But to wrap things up on an appropriately positive note, I’m pleased to be able to say that, for all the ups and downs, Irish football has had a good two years under Martin O’Neill. When you include taking four points from six against Germany in qualifying, the way we handled the play-off against Bosnia and then the admirable things we saw from the team at the finals, it’s fair to say that Martin has done a good job given the obvious limits to the individual talent in his squad.
Looking ahead to our World Cup group, I think we’ve had more than a bit of luck in not getting one of Europe’s recognised superpowers in the draw. Wales might nominally be the seeded team but we all know that’s misleading: Take Gareth Bale out of the equation and there not at all unlike us.
There’s no Germany in there that you virtually know will win the group before it kicks off but, having said that, with so many of the teams — Wales, Austria, Serbia and ourselves, as well as potentially tricky outsiders in Georgia and Moldova — at a similar level, you’d imagine things could get very tight.
But having beaten Italy and put it up to France, one thing this Irish team is certainly entitled to take home with them from these Euro finals is a belief that, on their day, they don’t have to fear anyone.
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