It was well past midnight when Ireland’s team bus pulled out of Lille but songs and stories dominated the three-hour journey down the A1 towards the Versailles.
Such was the level of euphoria created by that win over Italy that even staff members stepped forward to join players in delivering a ditty from their repertoire, aware that rare nights like these are to be cherished.
Four days later and Ireland were out of the European Championships, their physical and mental exertions in Lyon ruthlessly exposed by France during a devastating 25-minute spell after half-time.
In his reflections of the Euros last week, manager Martin O’Neill hailed the Italian job as the “evening of all evenings” but his predecessors will testify the fickleness of football can be crueler within the international circuit than its club equivalent.
Steve Staunton was sacked within two months of overseeing a 4-0 hammering of Denmark in Aarhus, yet more tellingly, sections of the Dublin crowd had five years earlier turned on Mick McCarthy two games into a qualification campaign which followed rattling Spain in the last-16 stage of the 2002 World Cup.
Unlike the relentless carousel of the English club game, seldom is there an international fixture fast approaching to get a bad result out of the system.
For all the warmth victories bring to fans’ hearts, disappointment festers from the opposite outcome. That the format in the World Cup quest is more unforgiving to set-backs than the expanded Euros is another reason why O’Neill is aware the joyous scenes of Lille have a limited shelf-life in the precarious world of management.
“We’re in a difficult group and we don’t want to go out of the competition before it starts,” said the Derry man, cautioning his players on the off-chance complacency seeps into their psyche.
Robbie Keane and John O’Shea are unlikely be around for that concern to be tested on them, placing the onus on the likes of Seamus Coleman, Shane Long and James McCarthy to maintain the hunger so evident in France.
Although Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick are slightly behind that trio in the experience stakes, their coming of age in the latter part of qualification and at the tournament demonstrate them to be as important to the cause.
That quintet — along with goalkeeper Darren Randolph — are definite starters, fitness permitting, for the opener in Serbia on September 5.
Beyond that, however, question marks remain about the composition of O’Neill’s first XI.
Most uncertain is the defensive cast, as Coleman at right-back berth is the sole banker.
Despite Shane Duffy’s suspension removing him from the equation, it cannot be a given that Richard Keogh and Ciaran Clark assume the positions, especially as the fit-again Marc Wilson is gunning for his place back.
Further upfield, Jon Walters will be approaching 33 by the time the qualifiers kick off, still a bit younger than Wes Hoolahan and Daryl Murphy, both of whom are not assured to stick around either. James McClean displayed enough enterprise against the Italians and French to convince O’Neill’s he’s worthy of more than just a bit-part role.
Not all the responsibility should be shouldered by the players. Approaching three years into his stint, O’Neill is still learning aspects of the international set-up. Credit was due for his tactic of positing Glenn Whelan on Zlatan Ibrahimovic in a bid to thwart the Swedish talisman’s influence in the group opener but equally open to appraisal was his failure to adjust when the inevitable French avalanche came.
Identifying Stephen Ward as Ireland’s weak link, Kingsley Coman was thrust from the bench onto the right-wing in search of the equaliser, affording Antoine Griezmann the scope to instead attack through the middle.
Ireland led at that stage, meaning Robbie Brady’s pace was more needed in defence, and a simple switch to counteract Coman’s threat, while sacrificing Ward for Whelan to support the ailing central-defensive line, may well have helped in some part to neutralise the bombardment that ensued.
Though Iceland were the big story of the Euros, the progression of Poland also to the quarter-finals and Wales to the semis, illustrated the possibilities to Ireland.
Consequently, Wales will be fancied to claim the one guaranteed slot in Russia from Ireland’s group but other hurdles loom before our clashes with the Celtic cousins next year. Ideally — for players and fans alike — those memories from Lille fade only because better and fresher ones are created to replace them.
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