For so long last night it looked like this might be Sweden and the Stade de France revisited: another terrific Irish performance – full of heart, fire and no little skill – that was not going to reap its just reward. One of those heartbreaking nights even, when Ireland, after giving their all, were going to end up with nothing.
But then, just as he’d done one foggy might in Bosnia, on this muggy night in Lille, Robbie Brady popped up with the crucial goal. Five minutes from the end, with the clock and a classically impregnable Italian defence against Ireland, two Dublin street footballers combined to magical effect: Wes Hoolahan, on as a late sub and, having a moment before missed what then seemed the chance of the match, floated a beautiful ball into the box and, arriving late, Brady met it with a firm header and — in the vernacular of the game at all levels in Ireland — he absolutely buried it.
Up in the stands, the closed roof of the Stade Pierre Mauroy threatened to lift off under the full weight of a roaring, soaring, emotional, I’ve-seen-it-but-I-can’t-quite-believe-it Irish celebration — and that was just President Michael D Higgins.
What a moment.
One thing of which this Irish team can never be accused is a lack of resilience. In fact, the habit of losing the battle but winning the war has become almost a defining trademark of the Martin O’Neill era.
Written off in Euros qualifying after dropping points home and away to Scotland, they got their campaign back on track with a famous win over world champions Germany in Dublin. And written off in these Euro Finals after that 3-0 spanking by Belgium, they rose magnificently again in Lille last night to see off Italy and set up an absolutely mouth-watering round of 16 clash with hosts France in Lyon on Sunday.
The performance but, most of all, the result last night was also vindication of Martin O’Neill’s bold and some felt reckless team selection as the manager, in what felt like a gambler’s throw of the dice on such a high-stakes occasion, went for youth and even inexperience in a bid to reinvigorate the side that was outclassed by Belgium.
And, boy, was he repaid in kind by the players.
The inexperience was represented by the towering figure of Shane Duffy so impressive in the March friendlies in Dublin, as the 24 year old made what was his competitive debut for his country in the biggest game of O’Neill’s reign.
Like John O’Shea, Glenn Whelan was another of the evergreens to make way while it was initially a worry that there was no place for the team’s most creative player, as Wes Hoolahan dropped to the bench. The two other new additions to the starting line-up at these finals were James McClean and Daryl Murphy while, as expected, Antonio Conte made no less than eight changes in his Italian side, though he did retain the experienced Leonardo Bonucci and made him captain for the night.
With the roof closed in the Stade Pierre, the intensified decibel level was cranked up way past 11 by the time Bonucci and his Irish counterpart Seamus Coleman led their teams into the arena. But in seeking to protect a slippery, pockmarked pitch against predicted thunderstorms, the roof closure also created a muggy, airless micro-climate inside the 50,000 capacity ground. Up in the press box it felt like being trapped inside a pressure cooker, so one could only imagine how energy-sapping it must have felt to the players doing battle on the pitch. Last night the Irish players could have done with the always supportive Irish fans being, well, just fans.
A lot was being asked of James McCarthy in the absence of Whelan – essentially what he gave Ireland that famous night in Dublin against Germany when his veteran midfield partner was also missing.
And Ireland were certainly on the front foot from the start, James McClean and Jeff Hendrick snapping into the tackle and Robbie Brady, in a central role, and the impressive Hendrick again, looking to move the ball progressively. Ten minutes in, the Derby man out-muscled Thiago Moota, dropped a shoulder to create the space and then sent a rising left-footed shot whistling just wide of Gigi Buffon’s replacement Salvatore Sirigu.
In the 21st minute, Ireland, who were applying all the pressure, came close again, Daryl Murphy denied his first goal for his country as Sirigu finger-tipped his powerful header from a Brady corner over the bar.
This was tough, vibrant stuff from the Irish but the dangers of good work being undone by a lapse in concentration were highlighted when Duffy conceded a corner via a terrible backpass to Randolph, although, fortunately for the Derryman, McCarthy was on hand to do his defensive duty by clearing the danger with a brave header.
With Hendrick the man in the middle looking to pass incisively and Brady the man with the surging runs and a penchant for spreading the play wide, there wasn’t an over-reliance on the long ball from Ireland – thought there was still enough to keep Murphy interested - but even purists might have felt Randolph was slightly overdoing the finer things in football when he essayed a Cruyff turn to outfox Simone Zaza inside his own box.
Earlier in the half Bernardeschi had been a threat for down Ireland’s left flank where Stephen Ward looked like he might once again have his hands full, but the youngster’s biggest contribution to the half came at the other end just before the break when Martin O’Neill, the players and the Irish fans were left howling for a penalty after the Fiorentina man flattened James McClean from behind just as the Derryman was lining up a strike at goal inside the Italian penalty area. But to Irish astonishment and dismay, Romanian referee Ovidiu Hategan chose to take no action.
Barring a 43rd minute first effort on goal for Italy, when Immobile fired narrowly wide, this had been Ireland’s half almost from start to finish. But, worryingly, the team that had to win, had nothing to show for such a promising, high energy performance at half-time, bar a sense of grievance at a penalty not given and a harsh yellow for the ever victimised Long.
Italy had the first big chance of the second half, Zaza flashing a crisp volley over Randdolph’s bar but Ireland immediately came strong again to cause some uncharacteristic panic in the Italian defence and give fresh hope to the noisy ranks of the Green Army.
But, by and large, the Azzurri rearguard was as stubborn as you’d expect, Daryl Murphy – having once again failed to open his account – replaced in the 72nd minute by Aiden McGeady, as O’Neill hoped that a little flash of the old magic from his number 7 might unlock the blue door.
Instead, it was Italian sub Lorenzo Insigne who almost unlocked Ireland’s defence, his curving shot kept out by Randolph’s door jam, even as Irish fans were still hailing the arrival of Wes Hoolahan to replace James McCarthy.
Irish batteries were running down and, in the 84th minute, it looked like Hoolahan had missed Ireland’s best and possibly last chance when he shot tamely at the ‘keeper after being unexpectedly waved through by the referee.
But then came the little man again and then came Brady – and, suddenly, in that moment of magic to crown an hour and half of admirable effort, Ireland’s Euro 2016 was utterly transformed.
Au Lyon, mon braves!
Matteo Darmian for Bernardeschi (60) Lorenzo Insigne for Immobile (74) Stephan El Shaarawy for De Sciglio (80)
Aiden McGeady for Murphy (72); Wes Hoolahan for McCarthy (77), Stephen Quinn for Long (90)
Ovidiu Hategun (Romania)