This feature is a part of RETEUROSPECTIVE
The stadium shone a shade of emerald green and those who didn’t know the words to ‘The Fields of Athenry’ most likely did by the end of the evening. On the night the Irish squad finally paid back the fans who had for years done them proud, Lille would run out of beer and the joyous fans would sing well into the night.
In a tournament of unlikely heroes, Robbie Brady donned a cape and mask for the Boys in Green, and against Italy he turned immortal. His goal was the difference in an impossible match in which the tiny nation made a huge step out of the group stages, earning the chance to go toe-to-toe with the champions of the world.
Normally for Ireland, it was the fans who would grab the headlines, for years thankfully detracting from the on-pitch disappointment; tonight it was the players’ turn.
Including the previous incarnation of the tournament in 2012, Italy had played in the final of three European championships; Ireland had only ever qualified for the group stages three times. Italy had won four World Cups; Ireland had only ever played at three. One of those was in 1994, when they beat the Italians – eventual finalists of the tournament – 1-0 in the first round. Ireland would need to draw inspiration from that day as three points were the only way the team could go through as one of the best-placed third teams across the groups.
The teams stepped out and the first whistle blew, signalling for a heavily changed Italian side to begin a game typical of their stereotype: a rugged second-string eleven was chosen by manager Antonio Conte to seal both front and back doors with impenetrable reinforcements.
To add to the frustrating set-up, the Azzurri showed little endeavour in breaking down the Irish defence; a clean-sheet was the priority and for most of the match Bonucci, Barzagli and Ogbonna swept up like a trio of cats toying with trapped mice, entertained with just enough trouble to keep them awake by an uninspiring attacking duo of John Walters and Daryl Murphy.
Ireland, despite their lack of superstars, did try at times to play the ball, but ultimately struggled to get things going against the streetwise opposition. Hendrick skimmed the crossbar from afar and Murphy headed a corner over the bar, prompting a jumpy Martin O’Neill to scream and grimace in a mixture of passion and frustration. Ireland jabbed periodically but could not find the entry point.
Immobile found a yard of space and curled a shot at the advertising board before McClean saw a penalty appeal waved away. Simone Zaza nearly found the net with a spectacular overhead volley, sheer luck giving Ireland a reminder to be careful: they had been playing on a tightrope.
As the clock ticked on, a more traditional method of the game was eventually adopted by the Irish: before long, the tackles got more intense and so did the players, running harder, shouting louder. A tournament record 40 fouls were made – by both sides – but what suffered most was the pitch. After the game, Conte would justify Italy’s third defeat in 24 European group games by saying that “[the poor pitch] helped Ireland” and that “they played with a lot of grit … it was life and death for them.”
Eyes rolled and cheeks puffed from the stands, despite McGeady and Hoolahan bringing some flair in place of Murphy and McCarthy with just over ten minutes to go. Too little, too late perhaps. Now Ireland were at DEFCON 1. Substitute Lorenzo Insigne obviously didn’t hear Conte’s lockdown message as he bent a ludicrous strike that whipped around Darren Randolph’s outstretched arm and onto the post from 25 yards, drawing a collective gasp from the nervous stadium.
When Wes Hoolahan, with minutes to go, received the ball out on the right-hand side of the pitch and decided not to run, the stadium resigned to failure. Instead, he let everyone else move forward and tapped the ball onto his left foot. And with a single step, he balanced his body and set the ball on a curling path: the destination was to be the slightly-too bigger than comfortable gap that had formed between Sirigu and Barzagli.
The only trouble was that there was no one in an Irish shirt there to fill it. Fortunately, Robbie Brady, Ireland’s impromptu five-foot-nine left-back-turned-attacking-midfielder – a perfect microcosm of their creative crisis – had set off. He scuttled past a twisting, contorted Barzagli and, with his head, knocked the ball past the oncoming goalkeeper.
One-nil in the 85th minute for Ireland and Brady could not hold back his tearful reaction. The boys in the white away shirts held on for what seemed like 40 days and 40 nights until Romanian referee Ovidiu Hategan finally blew his whistle.
The European Championships have held matches of higher quality; bigger teams have been toppled and throughout the years and squads of unimaginable talent have come together to showcase their continent-wide domination during this tournament. But maybe none have tried so hard and failed with such consistency as Ireland.
In 2016 they made it; the country over half the size of England, but home to just half the population of London, rolled up their sleeves and threw a punch to the jaw of one of the top footballing nations in the world. Italy topped the group level on points with Belgium and went on to knock out the holders Spain in the next round.
For Ireland, a match against the French awaited and endless flashbacks to Thierry Henry’s infamous handball would arise again. But right now, nobody cared; Ireland had just done the impossible and made it out of a group including Belgium and Sweden – if that’s not the green light for the famous fans to sing, dance and rejoice all night, then there’s nothing in the world that is.
By Joe Brennan @j4brennan