Though Ireland’s European adventure ended in disappointing fashion on Sunday – the disappointment was more a case of what could have been rather than what never was.
Unlike in 2012, Ireland competed against the best and held their own. In the end, it took some magic from one of Europe’s best strikers to send Ireland packing.
Given that Ireland faced three of the best teams in the competition in the group stage and managed to qualify for the knock-out stages (granted they relied on a third-place finish to do so), is a success story in itself.
Robbie Brady gave this generation their ‘where were you when…?’ moment and on Monday night England softened the hurt somewhat by being upstaged and dumped out of the tournament by Iceland.
A 2002 advert from Carlsberg, which ran throughout the World Cup, documented Ireland’s incredible progression through each knock-out round in Japan and South Korea, before Jason McAteer stepped up to score the winning goal against Brazil in the final. Alas it was only a dream.
Similar, then, to Ireland’s game with France in Lyon last Sunday. Robbie Brady had Ireland dreaming against France, only for the hosts to ruin the party and send Ireland packing. But it was fun while it lasted, that’s for sure.
As was the case against Sweden in the first game, Ireland found themselves unable to control the game once they opened the scoring and eventually, and inevitably, the banks burst with Antoine Griezmann firing home two goals in rapid succession.
Ireland’s timing for their goal against the Italians was sublime, coming so late that their opponents hadn’t many chances to find an equaliser. While no one was complaining when Shane Long tripped over Paul Pogba and Robbie Brady stuck the penalty, it changed Ireland’s game plan somewhat – now that they had something to lose – and their more defensive set-up drew the French forward more and more.
Before the game, every Irish fan would have taken a boring nil-all into the last 10 minutes and hoped for a piece of similar magic to what they’d seen days earlier against the Italians.
Running after the ball and pressing their French opponents eventually told for Ireland, and the work-rate after halftime couldn’t match the intensity they had shown in the first half.
Perhaps changes could have been made during the interval, particularly around the middle of the park, to freshen up Ireland’s line-up and ensure the French didn’t have the time on the ball to pick passes through the Irish defence.
When the first French goal went in from a Griezmann header, the ominous signs were that a second goal wasn’t far away. In fact it only took three minutes. Griezmann latched onto a pass and exploited the extra space to finish past Darren Randolph.
The possession in the first half was 55-45 in favour of France, by the time the second goal went in it shifted to 76-24 for the hosts and unsurprisingly, it told in the end.
Although Shane Duffy’s red card after 66 minutes prevented a third French goal in eight minutes, it did result in Martin O’Neill taking off James McClean and replacing him with John O’Shea – not the ideal switch to be making if you’re looking for an equaliser.
In the end, Randolph succeeded in the keeping the score at 2-1, while Ireland rarely looked like scoring at the other end.
Disappointing, given the start, but ultimately Irish fans will look back on Euro 16 as a success, both for the memories created and the achievement in qualifying from their group, given that the Italy result was only Ireland’s second win in a European Championship and their first win in an international football tournament since their 3-0 win over Saudi Arabia.
Similar to the 2012 European Championships, where Ireland’s group opponents Spain and Italy faced off again in the final, it could be that both Italy and Belgium face off in this year’s showdown.