Italy in Lille. Them again, after the Stadio Olimpico, Giants Stadium and whatever accursed Poland region of hell it was that we’ve tried so hard for the past four years to forget about. Ireland have a new centre-half pairing and a new strike force. The RTÉ panel are dubious.
John Giles declares himself to be ‘disappointed’ with the selection. Liam Brady, on the other hand, reckons Ireland have a “really good chance”. The fan in Eamon Dunphy is hoping for victory, the football man is ‘indifferent’. Of course.
For their part, Italy have made eight changes, among them the introduction of Simone Zaza - such an asset in Scrabble if nothing else – and the world’s most unfortunately named centre-forward, Ciro Immobile. (Brother of La’Donna, the well-known opera singer and reputedly far more agile on a football field.)
Unchanged is the identity of their manager. Antonio Conte is one scary looking dude. Not to indulge in stereotypes or anything but if he wasn’t a footballing person he’d surely be a soldier in Tony Soprano’s crew. Enforcer numero uno.
Off we go. Ireland are predictably frill-free but pleasingly proactive. Jeff Hendrick lasers one just wide. Daryl Murphy has a header tipped over the bar. George Hamilton diagnoses “a brightness about Ireland” that was absent in Bordeaux. The Italians haven’t started quickly, Ronnie Whelan chimes in. “They’ve been slow, they’ve been ponderous. It probably suits us.”
A minute before half-time James McClean is bundled over in the box. It is a penalty to everyone but the referee. Suddenly it feels like we’re back in the early 1980s again, that era pre-JC when Ireland were routinely rogered by myopic and/or cowardly officials.
Ovidiu Hategan. Remember the name.
The panel are annoyed but upbeat. John unbends sufficiently to make a declaration he says he never imagined he’d make. “We should play like this all the time.” As Ireland are never going to get the ball down, pass it around and generally imitate Brazil, he elaborates, they should at least be good at playing direct stuff and tonight they have been.
Liam: “It’s very much Jack Charlton football, isn’t it?” There’s no question about the penalty that wasn’t, Eamon acknowledges. “Absolutely. Definitely. The referee saw it too… Terrible.” He’s upbeat nonetheless, forecasting that it’s “only a matter of time” before Ireland score. Italy are rattled, Liam agrees, and this particular Italian XI are “not good enough to cope with this”.
Second half. The Italians may not be brilliant but they’re coping. Immobile departs on 75 minutes. Lorenzo Insigne is on and shows his mobility by fashioning a shot that cannons back off the post. That was very nearly that.
With eight minutes left Wes Hoolahan enters the fray. With seven minutes left he squanders a glorious opportunity. With six minutes left he swings in a cross from the right that Robbie Brady, of all people, steams through the middle to meet and head to the net. One-nil Ireland.
John Delaney is on his feet. Michael D Higgins is on his feet. A nation is on its feet.
George’s summation is as neat and precise as Brady’s header. “It’s Stuttgart, it’s New Jersey, they’re all rolled into one!”
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