This wasn’t just about the Republic of Ireland qualifying for the knockout stages of Euro 2016. This was about crossing a Rubicon.
For the first time in six major tournaments, a team representing this country won a game in a World Cup or European Championship that they had to absolutely, positively win over the course of 90 minutes.
This was win-or-bust stuff and the sight of Robbie Brady spreading his arms and letting loose the waterworks as he celebrated his 85th-minute winner encapsulated perfectly the release felt by player, team and a nation at large.
Romania in 1990 took penalties after all. The win over England in 1988 was achieved without either the weight of expectation or desperation and Italy were undone in New Jersey six years later in an opening game that was never viewed as win-or-bust given later dates with Mexico and Norway.
So, here was a first, though Martin O’Neill had pointed out during Tuesday’s press conference his team had already made a significant mental crossing when they shocked Germany’s world champions last September.
There was exultation in that. In this, too, but this is about catharsis as well. Whatever happens now, 2012 has been put to bed. This was more than qualification. It felt like a football country reclaiming its spirit and a reputation that had been engraved in the football cathedrals of Germany, Italy and the USA.
Four years ago, the Republic spent weeks climbing a veritable Mont Ventoux of hope and hype. Talk of doing a Denmark or a Greece fed the ascent before the tumble into a valley of despair with 90 painful minutes against Croatia.
This tour of France, through stages held in Saint-Denis, Bordeaux and Lille, always looked likely to offer more in the way of peaks and troughs given the fact three teams had the chance to stay with the peloton for longer.
So it has proved. The tournament expansion that bought Ireland’s ticket here in the first place hasn’t won everyone over and the Republic’s achievement in making it through to a cluster containing Europe’s top 16 teams must be framed in that more forgiving context.
The dilution of Antonio Conte’s team at the Stade Pierre Mauroy is another salient fact to be considered before hope morphs into unreasonable expectation for the next round, but none of that framework mattered last night. This was the Republic facing Italy and knowing they needed to win. Strip it down to those bare bones and it makes a strong case for being the most notable of victories ever achieved by the country in major championships.
Run your finger through them all and heat is a common denominator. Stuttgart was sweltering, New Jersey a sweat box and the Stade Pierre Mauroy here in Lille was suffocating, as over 50,000 people gasped for air under the closed roof. Well though Ireland played at times, that took a toll. So did Lady Luck.
From Jeff Hendrick hitting the bar and Ciaran Clark diverting into his own net in Saint-Denis, to the twin assault on Shane Long that went unpunished in Bordeaux, and then the failure to call a spotter when James McClean was bundled over last night. Fortune clearly hadn’t been in Ireland’s corner. Martin O’Neill couldn’t do much about that. What he did do was take heed of the oppressive atmosphere that affected Ireland’s preparations under Giovanni Trapattoni four years ago and lessen the squeeze on his players after a long club season.
The hotel has been a treat, the choice of Versailles ideal and the training ground ticks all the right boxes. The choice of players? There were the usual quibbles that night at Turner’s Cross but no glaring omissions. The inclusion of an out-of-sorts Aiden McGeady drew most howls, the decision to leave David Forde behind lamented, but there was no Andy Reid or Wes Hoolahan type left kicking their heels back home.
Last night’s team contained within it the means with which to criticise had the performance fallen flat but O’Neill’s bravery was rewarded, as his namesake Michael’s had been a week ago when a Northern Ireland side bearing five changes overcame Ukraine 2-0 in Lyon where the Republic will now face France.
Savour that. France. Lyon. Feels good, doesn’t it? Sounds good, too. It certainly delivers a more appealing ring than Charles De Gaulle, Orly or Beauvais today, though it it will hurt strained bank accounts further and stretch the patience of employers back home.
That’s for another day.
The team itself was always returning to its Versailles base last night, regardless of the result and it is from their hotel adjacent to the famous chateau that they will now plot the downfall of the host nation’s football royalty.
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