France 2 Republic of Ireland 1: We’ll always have Lille and, for just short of an hour yesterday afternoon, an Irish team that the nation had taken to its heart made us think that we might have Lyon too.
But in the space of eight rudely transformative minutes, French class and Irish self-destruction combined to restore football’s natural order. With an almost shocking abruptness, 1-0 to Ireland became 2-1 to France and, with Shane Duffy’s expulsion, it was 11 v 10 in favour of Les Bleus too. After that, the newly cocky hosts were cruising their way to the Euro 2016 quarter-finals and Ireland were going nowhere but home.
But not before we saw a real lump in the throat moment unfold in a corner of the Stade de Lyon as Irish players, management and staff stood in respectful, almost awed silence in front of aa travelling support who paid heartfelt tribute. And among those waving sadly at the stands were a number of players who were probably also waving goodbye for the final time as part of an Irish squad: the likes of Robbie Keane and Shay Given and maybe too John O’Shea and even Wes Hoolahan.
Yet, the poignant feeling of end of era overlapped with a strong sense of a developing future, represented in particular in this tournament by the outstanding duo of Jeff Hendrick and Robbie Brady. Though he had a very poor day against Belgium, James McCarthy, in his more pro-active displays against Italy and France, also showed signs that he can embrace the more commanding midfield role which so many expect of him while, at the heart of the defence, the raw but promising Shane Duffy (24) will surely only learn from what was a chastening afternoon.
Behind him, Darren Randolph, superb under intense French pressure, has firmly nailed down the goalkeeping berth while there’s been abundant evidence from this tournament that Seamus Coleman, the new skipper, is made of the right stuff to be Ireland’s answer to Philipp Lahm.
The disappointment of this decisive exit from the Euros – made all the more acute because of Ireland’s sensational start to the game, with Robbie Brady converting a penalty after just two minutes – shouldn’t detract from what this squad has achieved under O’Neill.
Yes, it’s been a rollercoaster affair since the very start of his tenure, but the highs, when they’ve come along, have been of the gloriously dizzying kind. And the main message from this tournament is that the underlying curve is upwards.
Irish football teams will almost always, it seems, have to punch above their weight but under O’Neill’s guidance they’ve shown that, on a good day, they can deliver a knockout blow to the biggest opponents.
For around 58 minutes yesterday, it looked like the hosts of Euro 2016 would be the next hotshots to go under, as the game got off to a start that was as sensational for Ireland as it was shocking for France.
Certainly, not even the most optimistic Irish supporter could have imagined that Ireland would register the second quickest goal in the history of the Euro finals.
For the first time at these tournament, this felt like a proper away game for Ireland, the skewed ticket allocation consigning the Green Army to a tight wedge in the stands of the Stade de Lyon, a small, green island in an undulating sea of bleu, blanc et rouge. The singing of the Marseillaise was spine-tingling, the general noise level rarely less than deafening.
The effects of the full-on heat of the day, added to Ireland’s short recovery time since the Italy game, seemed to stack the odds even more against the underdog, although Martin O’Neill’s faith in the energy levels of his team from Lille meant that, come kick-off, there was a something of a rarity in the context of his time as Ireland manager: an unchanged line-up.
Didier Deschamps, meanwhile, fielded what most French observers felt was his strongest side, featuring a central midfield trio of steel and style in Paul Pogba, N’golo Kante and Blaise Matuidi to support the shimmering attacking élan of Dmitri Payet and Antoine Greizmann behind the more robust approach of Arsenal frontman Olivier Giroud.
But all logic was overturned within two minutes when, after a bright Irish opening against visibly nervous opponents, Paul Pogba fouled Shane Long in the box. On another day, in a different game, a referee might have given the hosts the benefit of the doubt, seeing the clumsy contact as a textbook ‘coming together’ but, doubtless feeling the hand of history on his shoulder, Nicola Rizzoli – after just a tiny pause – pointed to the spot.
And up stepped Robbie Brady to convert via the base of the upright. Suddenly, this was Ireland in wonderland.
With historical refereeing injustice now seen to be undone, there would be no more favours from the Italian, as France huffed and puffed but conspicuously failed to blow Ireland’s house down from there all the way to the break.
And, with the host’s defence always looking vulnerable there was even a moment when Ireland came close to making it two, Daryl Murphy’s hooked effort drawing a brilliant one-handed save from Hugo Lloris.
Deschamps had no option but to make a change at half-time and it would prove to be a significant one, the fleet-footed Kingsley Coman of Bayern Munich replacing strongman Kante.
The French attacks now grew more varied and relentless and, after Randolph had pulled off a terrific save to deny Matuidi, the creaking Irish rearguard finally cracked in the 58th minute as Antoine Griezmann lost James McCarthy and, with Richard Keogh failing to react to the danger, the Atletico Madrid dangerman headed Bacary Sagna’s cross past Randolph.
Suddenly the game, the day and the tournament spun out of control for Ireland. Two minutes later, with Shane Duffy rashly drawn to a high ball he had no need to contest, Giroud’s knockdown put the unmarked Griezmann clean through to score.
And Ireland’s eight minutes of agony was complete in the 65th minute when, with Griezmann bursting through for yet another clear run on goal, Duffy had no option but to take him down, just outside the box, and take the red card.
After that it was really all about damage limitation for Ireland as Martin O’Neill reshuffled his personnel and French subs Andre-Pierre Gignac threatened to outdo Griezmann with a hat-trick of close calls.
Ireland did manage a couple of incursions in and around the French box but, in truth, it was almost a mercy that they didn’t somehow get the lucky break that might have sent the game to extra time, since France were now rampant and the ten men were almost out on their feet.
But it was only some time after that, when the majority of the jubilant French supporters had already left the ground, that the Irish supporters, staying on to a man, woman and child, made sure to let the players know that all their admirable efforts at this tournament had most certainly not been in vain.
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