The 1-0 win they bagged now affords the Irish the chance to face France in Lyon on Sunday, 26 years after Toto Schillachi sent Italy through to the semi-final of Italia 90, bringing a halt to our first appearance at a World Cup.
“What a game to be involved in. One of the things we spoke about before the (Italy) game was the incentive that if we did get though we were likely to play France and how attractive that would be, to play the hosts and one of the tournament favourites,” said Stephen Ward.
“No one expects us to go there and do anything but we have shown we can go and play against big sides. We will go and give it our best shot, so let’s have a right go.”
The approach will be dominated by the 2009 World Cup play-off in Paris and Thierry Henry’s sleight of hand. Talk of revenge is gathering but the occasion itself promises to be a career highlight for these players.
They have earned it.
Ireland brought a physicality and intensity to the pitch in Lille continental sides rarely encounter but the Italians didn’t shy away from that. Ward himself ended up with a painful ankle after one knock.
The physical toll it all took on the squad must be a concern ahead of another day of high temperatures. France played their last group game three days earlier, after all. That makes for a drastic contrast in preparation and recovery times. None of that appeared to matter as the game ticked by in Lille and Ireland failed to land the goal they needed. Ward, like millions more, felt the chance had gone when Wes Hoolahan shot straight at the keeper late on.
“We had chances, maybe a shout for a penalty, and it didn’t happen but we kept going and, when you have someone like Wes coming on, with the quality he has, it came in the end. We thought we were excellent in the first half. The manager said we could have had a penalty but to get that out of our minds, if we could repeat the first-half performance in the second we’d give ourselves a chance.”
They didn’t quite manage to match their opening 45 minutes in general play as the humidity took its toll but O’Neill has husbanded his resources well over the course of the three games. Nineteen of the 23-man squad featured at some point. Only the two reserve goalkeepers Shay Given and Keiren Westwood, as well as Cyrus Christie and David Meyler, have yet to get the nod.
Nobody can predict what line-up will start against the French. “We have 23 players in the squad, it’s tough on the lads who miss out and the manager had some big calls to make on Wednesday. It is hard to play games in such a short space of time,” said Ward.
“I think he will assess it and look at the squad and maybe make changes again for Sunday but that’s what the squad is there for. We have a tight-knit group and whichever 11 go out they have the full support of the rest. The bench were kicking and heading every ball.”