The Irish dream may well be over but what a legacy it will leave. For my generation in particular.
For years we had to listen to the stories regarding the Euro 1988 win over England, the brilliant performances at Italia 90 and US 1994 and while we may have seen some success at the 2002 World Cup, the memory is still somewhat blurry.
It’s been a long time since two football matches quite captured the country’s imagination like last Wednesday’s match versus Italy and Sunday’s last 16 tie against hosts France did.
For me personally, the Italy game was particularly special as I was present in the Stade Pierre-Mauroy in Lille when Robbie Brady stuck the ball in the Italian’s net, sealing our passage to the knockout rounds of the Euros for the first time ever.
Despite being seated in the designated Italian end, the euphoria in there was something else as the Irish took over almost all the stadium. It was close to an out of body experience as Brady got on the end of Wes Hoolahan’s cross and all the Irish gathered in the spacious aisles to celebrate wildly together.
The final few minutes felt like an eternity before referee Ovidiu Hategan blew the full time whistle and all the Irish again joined together to blast out chant after chant.
Long after the Italians had made their way out of the stadium we were still there, as the players led by Séamus Coleman applauded each corner. There’d be many a macho Irish man lying if he said he didn’t shed a quiet tear.
It was pleasing for this set of players as well due to a lot of the criticism they received after the Belgium game. If there’s one thing you can’t accuse these lads of doing it’s caring! They’d have been hurting more than anyone and the response against Italy demonstrated that.
As we celebrated in the streets of Lille that night outside Tír na nOg and the various other local boozers, we soon started to realise the task facing us in the next round, France! The hosts themselves were relishing the prospect.
“We love Ireland, but sorry ye’re going home,” was a common soundbite from the locals or something to that effect. Seeing as I was heading home the following morning it didn’t carry the same threat as was intended.
The French scripture was to ring true on Sunday afternoon but not without us serving up a right scare. When Paul Pogba downed Shane Long in the box after just a minute the unthinkable seemed possible. Robbie Brady kept his head and slotted expertly off the post and we were in dreamland.
The rest of the half saw the French huff and puff but Ireland still looked extremely comfortable. As every second passed by the idea of an Ireland v England quarter-final loomed ever larger (we of course presumed they’d beat minnows Iceland, not to be!), but unfortunately the class of the French and Antoine Griezmann ultimately told.
He netted twice in less than five minutes to break Irish hearts. He was also instrumental in getting Shane Duffy sent off, as he burst through on goal and as he looked set to notch his hat-trick, was unceremoniously hauled down by Duffy.
It kept Ireland in touch on the scoreboard but two games in five days was always going to take its toll, now down a man they were never going to trouble the French for an equaliser.
A sad but expected end to a spirited campaign for the Irish. The hope now will be that these performances can be built on for the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign, which sees us in a group that we are more than capable of qualifying from. With Wales, Serbia and Austria the main teams, we have every chance.
The confidence garnered by the likes of Brady, Jeff Hendrick, Shane Duffy and co from this experience should see us in good stead for years to come, hopefully with Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane still at the helm.
Away from the football side of things the Irish fans were making the news for all the right reasons. Having been in the thick of the fans in Lille, it was very easy to see why. There is no doubt we as a country have an unhealthy obsession with alcohol but having been in Lille for three days, I can say I saw hardly any negative impact of the level of drinking going on.
While it may be hard to believe there was absolutely no trouble. The love the French have for the Irish is easily explained and the amount of them who came out to celebrate Ireland’s victory over Italy confirmed the affection they have gained for the Boys in Green.
Having also spent a night in St. Etienne before England were due to play Slovakia, the reputation gained by the English for trouble seems to have been slightly flawed. There was an uneasy atmosphere upon arriving at the local square, but that may have been more to do with my shock at the level of riot police present at each side of the street.
While the level of alcohol consumed was clearly excessive, there was still no trouble and we mingled freely with the English, who were just as friendly as their Celtic neighbours.
Overall, what a terrific experience! A must do for any football fan!