Ireland’s Euro 2016 adventure is continuing in glorious style thanks to one of our greatest ever nights which could inspire a new generation, writes Fionn O’Dea in Lille.
Nobody will care in 20 years that Italy fielded a weakened team. Nor will they care that we have the new tournament format to thank for our progression from third place. No one will care. They’ll gather at the statue of Wes Hoolahan on O’Connell Street and talk about the day Ireland slayed the Gladiators.
And while other teams that suffer elimination from Euro 2016 as a result of our victory are entitled to feel hard done by on account of Italy’s team selection, the Irish team simply played the game in front of them. And played it well.
The feeling at half time with the game at 0-0 was that Italy were there for the taking. The fear at half time was that we would let the chance slip. It was a fear worsened when Hoolahan missed the game’s best chance late on, and a fear dispelled 60 seconds later when he landed the ball on Robbie Brady’s head for a career-defining moment for both men.
The reaction to the goal was one of delirium. The man beside me was crying. The man behind me got a bloody nose. The man down the row from me whom I had to wake in order to pass him was surely roused from his slumber. It had indeed been a long day in Lille.
No one had been willing to admit defeat in the days prior to the match. The focus had been on how exactly the game might swing our way. My traveling party knew that we had to do our part. Before heading into Lille on the day of the match, we decided to examine in detail specifically which scarves and flags had been brought to each of the previous two games and which had been left behind in the campervan, deducing which were good luck and which were bad.
We decided that we would gift an “unlucky” Irish tricolour to an Italian fan, in the hope of passing on its curse – for in the hours after taking it out of its packaging, we had seen Irish heartache in football, rugby and golf. It was no longer welcome. Such was the delight of our new Italian friend at this apparent gesture of friendship that we felt more than a little guilty to handing him his team’s demise. Nevertheless, we will treasure the Italian flag he gave us in return as a trophy.
“The World Cup in 2002 captured my youthful imagination in a way that nothing else ever has, and began what will be a lifelong affinity for this team. My hope is that Brady’s late winner is to the next generation what Robbie Keane’s equaliser against Germany 14 years ago was to mine.”
In the time since Keane’s goal, he has been the only constant in a team that has suffered long spells of extreme unfashionability. It seems that under O’Neill, we have seen this change. New fans have come out of the woodwork, old fans have returned. A full, measured debate on the merit of “bandwagon fans” is one for another day, but I would far rather people jumping on the Irish bandwagon than sneering as it crashes miserably.
The legacy of Euro 2016 will become apparent in the years to come. The focus for now, is on taking on the host nation in the last 16. For the first time since Korea/Japan, we are through to the knockout stages of a major tournament. There are flights to change, jobs to quit, favours to call in. Turn this ferry around – I’m not going home.