Martin O’Neill had never felt more pride in watching a team of his from the sideline

Seamus Coleman’s face was the first indication. Skipper for the first time, the Killybegs defender exuded intensity as he stood in the tunnel before kick-off. Teeth grinding, eyes locked on the task ahead, there was a certainty in Ireland’s performance there and then.

Martin O’Neill had never felt more pride in watching a team of his from the sideline

Emotion was less contained on the sideline.

Martin O’Neill jumped and leapt about like a puppet on a string all evening long. He roared and cajoled like a punter whose last tenner was on a nag in the 5.15 in Navan. This was raw. Deep. Unadorned.

Composure was recovered by the time he spoke later.

“I know I don’t look it but I am absolutely thrilled. I haven’t an ounce of energy left,” he said. It wasn’t true. He had enough about him to agree that he had never felt more pride in watching a team of his from the sideline.

“No, I don’t think I have. I’ve had some great nights but this is on a national level and relatively new to me. It’s very special tonight, we had enormous support and that kept us going. Throughout it the players and fans kept each other going.

“I got emotional at the end but it is a great win. I thought the chance had gone when the goalkeeper saved from Wes. We didn’t want it to be one of those ‘if only’ games. It looked as if we should have had a penalty but that doesn’t matter now.

“We deserved to win, we dominated and played some excellent stuff.”

There was the usual quip or two.

Asked how Hoolahan kept his head to find Robbie Brady with the killer cross after missing his one-on-one, O’Neill remarked that it was just as well as the Norwich City playmaker would have lost it in the dressing room had he not made amends.

Yet it was a fitting way for Ireland to finish after a qualifying campaign that began with Aiden McGeady’s late goal in Tbilisi and one that was given belated momentum time and again at the back end of games.

“There’s a great spirit among the players. We have shown ability and some players have come of age and done brilliantly in the two years. We do keep going. The players never give up and we have some great goals to our credit.”

It was a performance which, he suggested, might make Marco Tardelli think again about his thesis on how Irish players are brimful of passion but lacking in football intelligence although the focus now is France.

“I look forward to the game on Sunday. It’s a great game for us as we play the host nation and France are very strong. They will be strong favourites to beat us. If we can recover in time we want to play as strongly as we did here. We will need to.

“It will be a big test for us and one we look forward to immensely.”

Moments earlier and O’Neill’s counterpart was pontificating on what all last night’s drama meant for their next game against Spain - short answer, nothing - while suggesting that maybe his much-changed side was somewhat unfortunate to lose.

“If I’m honest I got a good result from the guys who didn’t play as much and from the team as a whole,” said Antonio Conte. “Tonight’s game was very tough, there were a lot of heavy, secondary challenges.

“It was quite typical of their brand of football. I have to congratulate them because they put a lot into the game. That’s when we conceded. Congratulations to the Republic because they were rewarded.

“Perhaps more than they deserved but they were rewarded all the same.”

Ireland played “the game of their lives,” he said.

No argument there.

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