Last weekend we saw the Uk leave the European Union, a decision that has sent shockwaves around the world. The weekend also saw the start of the knockout phase in the 2016 European Championships.
Having qualified from a group that contained Italy, Belgium and Sweden the Republic of Ireland travelled to Lyon to take on the hosts France. The Irish were travelling on a crest of a wave after beating Italy to qualify for the knockout stage. Martin O’Neill and his team were upbeat and really fancied the challenge that lay ahead of them. The emotion that had swept across the country since the victory over the Italians was overwhelming.
There was no doubt about it, the game against the French was going to be tough for the Irish and with only a few days rest between games they needed to be ready.
On Sunday morning, flights carrying thousands of Irish fans left from all parts of the country to go to France to roar on the team. You could have sent ten times the amount of fans that actually travelled, but unfortunately tickets were very scarce and the vast majority of fans in the ground for the game would be French. The pressure on the French side was immense and anything but a win for them would have been a disaster. So how did it develop on the pitch? Could Martin O’Neill and his squad pull off the shock of all shocks?
Going into the game, Martin O’Neill knew a defeat would see his squad having to board a plane back home to Dublin. He knew that the French would be a tough team to play, as the hosts in these competitions seem to always get the rub of the green, a lot of worry was directed at Italian referee Rizzoli, who needed to have an impeccable game and have no questionable decisions. The Irish need not have worried on that score because the Italian was brilliant on the day.
Martin named an unchanged side for the game and it showed the confidence he had in the eleven as it was the first time that he had named an unchanged side since he took over the Irish job. Straight from the start the Irish went at the French and unbelievably were awarded a penalty in the second minute when Long was upended by Pogba. Referee Rizzoli would have possibly got away with not giving it as I thought the Irish forward played for it, who cared, the French were owed one from the infamous Henry handball. Step up Robbie Brady and bang, off the post, Ireland were in the lead. It was an amazing start by the Irish and it really shook up Didier Deschamp’s side.
Martin O’Neill could not have been more prouder of his Irish team after their first half performance as they really put it up to the French, although in hindsight they probably took the lead to early. At half time, if reports are to be believed the French squad had a huge row in the dressing room and whatever was said it had the effect needed. The French were a far better organised team in the second half and they turned the game around.
Two goals from Griezemann sealed the Irish teams faith and the dream was coming to an end. When Shane Duffy received a red card for a professional foul, moments after Griezemann had got the second goal, the game was effectively over. Right up to the final whistle the ten men left on the field for Ireland gave it everything. It was only bad luck that stood in their way of an equaliser. As the final whistle blew, the Irish team knew the end of the road had arrived, but without a doubt they were brilliant at the tournament. So last Monday they boarded that plane back to Dublin.
If you look back to the tournament from an Irish perspective, everyone has to have been happy. Martin O’Neill has really found out about his players and now he can use this going forward to the World Cup Qualifiers. Players like Brady, Hendrick, Long, Coleman, Randolph and McClean have had a superb tournament and can only get better at international level.
Going into the tournament, a lot of people had Ireland as the whipping boys of the group, but they proved everyone wrong. The spirit and the fight in the squad was unbelievable and as a man they pulled together for each other. They lost to France, but they did give them an almighty shock early on.
A lot of other teams went out of the tournament without as much as an effort and I include England in those numbers. But the boys in green stood up and fought for each other, the spirit generated in the camp has to be congratulated. When the second goal went past Randolph last Sunday, the Irish fans who have been a credit to their country knew the dream was over.
The stories that have come out of France about their impeccable behaviour has been amazing. Last Sunday night the party was over for the Irish in France, but on the horizon is another campaign and I feel in two years time that after their display in France, Martin O’Neill and his squad will be starting another party at the World Cup Finals in Russia. Come on You Boys in Green.