Twelve months ago to the day, Irish fans packed into the Stade Pierre-Mauroy in Lille, a with a heady mix of optimism and anxiety.
Many had been with the team since the start, arriving in Paris ten days earlier before making the long journey down to Bordeaux and back up again. To that degree, there was no small sense of exhaustion creeping into the Irish fans – as much as they wanted to be in Lyon against France several days later, they knew that it could all be over for them at the end of the 90 minutes.
After a draw with Sweden and hard defeat to Belgium, a showdown with Italy was in order. Ireland had previous against them of course, Toto Schillaci in Italia 90 breaking Irish hearts and the small sense of revenge felt when Ray Houghton stunned the Azzurri in the Giants Stadium.
The build-up, such was it was, centred around Italian manager Antonio Conte’s team selection. Six points from six meant that they had secured their place in the last 16, so the hope was that the future Chelsea boss would rest some of his stars and tell them to relax a bit in anticipation of Spain in the next round.
Ireland got the former, but the latter was never going to be an option. Conte is from a school of management that demands victory; easing up was never going to be an option. Here was a man that was openly screaming “I’ll kill you all” at his players even when they were 1-0 up against Belgium just over a week earlier. The likes of Buffon, Chiellini, Pelle and Candreva may not have been starting but Italian pride was still at stake, and Conte was to make damn sure they knew it.
If anything, Ireland’s team selection was a much bigger surprise. Dropping John O’Shea and Ciaran Clark for Richard Keogh and Shane Duffy, a central midfield of James McClean and James McCarthy, putting Daryl Murphy in the starting lineup and effectively changing the formation – it was a huge gamble for Martin O’Neill to be taking at this stage of the competition and one that could have backfired spectacularly.
Any hopes that the pre-match nerves might have evaporated upon kick-off were quickly dashed as the tension, not just in the ground itself but on every television set in Ireland. This was it, this was the difference between having a decent tournament and going home disappointed.
Ireland went for it, as they knew they had to, but when they were denied at least one, probably two, major penalty shouts in the first half, they might have felt like it was not to be their day. Italian substitute Lorenzo Insigne then struck the Irish post late into the second half in a shot that would definitely have buried the Boys in Green had it gone in.
As the game slowly ebbed away from Martin O’Neill and his side, Wes Hoolahan, the hero against Sweden, was played through for a one-on-one with Salvatore Sirigu with just six minutes remaining. When the Norwich playmaker failed to find the net, Ireland fans could be forgiven for losing a modicum of belief. As Ronnie Whelan on RTE put it at the time:
“That was the chance.”
However, Whelan will probably never be happier to have been wrong. Less than a minute later, Hoolahan picked the ball up just wide of centre before whipping a dangerous ball into the Italian box. There, he found the unmarked Robbie Brady to head past Sirigu, nearly causing the stadium to be brought down in the process.
Salvation for Hoolahan, elation for Brady, desolation for Conte. Italy 0, Ireland 1.
The next seven or eight minutes seemed like a lifetime, but at the same time became something of a blur once that final whistle blew, And then, sweet relief. People were ecstatic, of course they were, but with all of the emotion that had been put into the past ten days or so, ramped up by the last two hours’ worth of tension, the only away that this happiness could manifest itself for most was through bursting into tears.
After years of crushing disappointment, the decade-long wait to reach a major tournament, Thierry Henry’s handball in 2009, the almost never-ending humiliation in Poland in 2012, the decline of the Trapattoni era – in that one small moment it was all worth it. Finally, this generation had its Ray Houghton moment, its David O’Leary moment, a reason to line the streets and be proud of what the Boys in Green had accomplished.
In one flick of his head, Robbie Brady gave Irish football fans a reason to believe again.
On this week’s Mixer Irish Football Podcast we spoke to Finn Harps striker Danny Morrissey, and looked at the League of Ireland sides’ Champions and Europa League draws.