Twelve months ago to the day, Martin O’Neill’s Ireland had made their way to Lyon for a showdown with Euro 2016 hosts, and many peoples’ favourites to win the tournament, France.
The Boys in Green were still on a monstrous high from the heroics in Lille days earlier, when a late Robbie Brady header against Italy gave Ireland the three points they needed to send them into the last sixteen.
The elation at reaching a knockout phase of the European Championships for the first time in Ireland’s history was tempered (but only slightly) when the realisation kicked in that Les Bleus were to be the next opposition in a campaign that had already banished the grotesque spectre of the nightmare in Poland four years earlier.
France, favourites though they were, were yet to properly impress on their home turf. Last-gasp wins against Romania and Albania were followed up by a goalless draw against Switzerland and although they easily possessed one of the best squads in the whole tournament, manager Didier Deschamps was having a tough time getting them to click.
Nonetheless, losing to Ireland – or indeed, any team in this competition – was not in the script. The fans demanded a repeat of the World Cup in 1998 and a last sixteen exit would have seen ferocious calls for the manager’s head. The pressure was on Deschamps and France to deliver.
It was hard to avoid the word “revenge” in the build-up to the encounter – the first time the two sides had met each other since the infamous Thierry Henry handball incident of 2009 was bound to throw up a latent desire for vengeance for some. Still, it was a feeling that O’Neill himself was looking to steer away from and focus instead on the task at hand.
Of course, the party followed the team to Lyon. Many who had assumed that they would have been on flights back from Lille several days later were maxing out credit cards, frantically changing flights and booking last-minute accommodation at extortionate prices just to be part of it, while many more back in Ireland saw this as their belated chance to hop on a plane and fly to France to witness the carnival first-hand.
And so to the Parc Olympique Lyonnais, and the perfect start for Ireland. Shane Long was clumsily brought down in the box by Paul Pogba with barely a minute on the clock, and referee Nicola Rizzoli had no qualms about upsetting the home crowd so early in the game and duly pointed to the spot.
Robbie Brady, the hero of Lille, solidified his place as an Irish legend by giving Ireland an unlikely lead – with 88 minutes to defend it.
Rather than facing a French onslaught thereafter, Ireland held their ground for an admirably long time. For the first half especially, Ireland must have felt like this game was now there for them if they could further sap the belief from a misfiring French outfit being greeted with a chorus of boos as they made their way into the tunnel at the break.
At half-time, Deschamps’ tactics were seriously being called into question. France had plenty of shots but few of them were going anywhere. At half-time the manager replaced N’Golo Kante – so impressive in Leicester’s Premier League title-winning campaign but lost at sea in this match – and replaced him with Kinsley Coman, thereby allowing Antoine Griezmann to move into a more central position.
That change proved to make all the difference, as the Atletico Madrid forward proceeded to carve through the Irish defence at will. Two goals in three minutes around the hour mark effectively killed off the threat of the tiring Irish side, and a red card for Shane Duffy five minutes after Griezmann’s second proved to be the final nail in the coffin.
France saw the game out in a professional, conservative manner to end Ireland’s run in the competition. After the Italy match, however, hope had been restored to the Boys in Green. Righting the wrongs of Euro 2012 was the primary aim, and they achieved more than that. They had given the fans a new generation of players to be proud of.
They may have fallen just short of providing arguably the greatest footballing achievement ever from an Irish team, but in a way that wasn’t overly important. Dejection immediately after the final whistle was to be expected, but eventually, it gave way to pride. Martin O’Neill and his side had taken Irish international football out of the doldrums and after the fifteen years that had preceded the summer of 2016, that was to be commended.
For an hour at least, it looked like Ireland were about to shock France and create something truly special.