The Republic of Ireland may bear the oldest average age at Euro 2016, but it was the two youngest members of the squad who provided so much of the pace and brio that discommoded Sweden for so long on Monday.
Robbie Brady is just 17 days older then Jeff Hendrick and little enough separated the 24-year-old Dubliners in Saint-Denis as they rose to the greatest challenge of their careers thus far with a pair of exceptional displays.
Brady was, up to Norwich City’s recent demotion anyway, something of an endangered species, in that he was a relatively young Irish player who had been born and bred in the 26 counties and plying his trade regularly with a Premier League club.
Hendrick has yet to make it to the Big League.
Two Championship play-off final defeats with Derby County in the course of the last three seasons have halted his club progress thus far, but he is the baby of this Irish squad after all, and a man with time on his side.
His emergence as a staple of Martin O’Neill’s side has been less celebrated than that of Brady’s — he was one of the names that appeared in Roy Keane’s firing line after the 2-1 friendly defeat to Belarus - but Hendrick announced himself at the Stade de France.
Some say he had done that already.
Hendrick’s silky dribble through the Georgian defence and the resultant pass that set up Jonathan Walters for the crucial goal in a qualifier in Dublin was special, but it was an input out of sync with what had been a far from eye-catching display until then.
Monday was different.
Inches from immortality when his shot cannoned back off Andreas Isaksson’s bar, the Derby County midfielder was denied by the Swedish goalkeeper twice more and he produced enough composure, control, and effort throughout to make a more indelible mark than bigger names.
Gary Lineker tweeted his approval, while Danny Murphy and Alan Shearer sang his praises on TV, and it is unlikely his efforts failed to catch the eye with other football folk in the UK. He may not be long for the Championship on the back of it.
That such a youngster could express himself so freely and ably said a lot for the positive mindset the Republic took into the game and one which was at odds with the overly cautious and wary approach Northern Ireland adopted against Poland in Nice.
“We have been training two and a half weeks and looking forward to the tournament,” Hendrick said.
“We were just looking forward to getting out for the first game. Everyone has to make sure they are at it from the first minute.”
Hendrick is no bolter though.
Martin O’Neill started him in nine of the 12 games that it took to book passage to France. He actually started and finished the last seven, a run that began with the seemingly fatal draw at home to Scotland and ended with the defeat of Bosnia-Herzegovina at the same venue.
Ireland demonstrated a commendable staying power in qualification, not just in hanging on when hope was slim, but in individual games where they finished strongly. They will need to resurrect that stubborn trait after the second-half fade in Saint-Denis.
“We sort of dropped off a little bit and they got the goal. Sometimes that happens in football. When a team scores, the other side gets on top, attacks more, and we weren’t going to be on top for the whole 90 minutes.” Yet the team ended the game in considerable credit.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic wasn’t kept quiet all night long, but Hendrick was one of those who contributed to his suppression, and that of the Swedes collectively, for long spells and similar diligence is required against a Belgian side undone by Italy.
“You have to focus on all 11. A few of the (Ireland) players were saying in the media during the week that you could not just focus on Zlatan, that they do have other players, and we saw that a few of them played well on the day.
“The main thing against Belgium is that we have to be compact. There will be times during that game when we don’t have the ball. But we have got to work to make sure they don’t get space and get to run at people.”
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