With just five minutes of normal time to play in their game against Italy at the Stade Pierre Mauroy, Lille, the Republic of Ireland were on the verge of being eliminated from Euro 2016.
Despite producing a far improved performance, particularly in terms of attacking play, than they did during their first two games of the tournament – when Wes Hoolahan’s goal against Sweden was their only shot on target – the Republic of Ireland were unable to find a route through a stubborn Italian defence.
That was however until the 85th minute, when Hoolahan delivered a wonderful cross for Robbie Brady to glance a brave header beyond the onrushing Salavtore Sirigu into the net.
Instead of solely trying to protect their lead and risk inviting pressure from Italy after Brady’s goal, Ireland continued to play in the Italian half and thoroughly deserved to record a historic victory, which secured their place in the second round of Euro 2016.
Poignantly putting the magnitude of their progression in the tournament into context was the Republic manager Martin O’Neill, whose decision to depart from his preferred strategy of containment, whilst encouraging his team to play with attacking ambition against Italy paid the most profitable dividend.
“We deserved to win it. We dominated for periods of the game and played some phenomenal stuff. It is a very special evening. To come out of the group that we were in is a great achievement.”
Making the achievement all the more remarkable is that it marks the first time Ireland have reached the knock-out stages of a European Championship, with them doing so courtesy of winning their first game at the finals since a team managed by Jack Charlton beat England 1-0 at Euro ’88.
Coincidentally scoring in that game was Ray Houghton, who also scored one of most memorable goals in Ireland’s history against Italy in the 1994 World Cup, as Charlton’s side beat the Azzuri 1-0 in New York to create a football fairytale.
Another key actor in that production was Ireland’s assistant manager Roy Keane, who was reduced to tears following his country’s latest win over Italy at Euro 2016. Following the game‘s full time whistle, Italy’s legendary goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon – who was among the Italian substitutes – raced onto the pitch to not just congratulate Keane and O’Neill on their team’s achievement but to celebrate that with them, in an act of unbounded sportsmanship.
Ironically Ireland’s opponents in the last 16 are hosts France, with their last competitive meeting memorable for a moment of gross unsporting behaviour. In November 2009, the side’s two-legged play-off
for the 2010 World Cup went into extra time during the second game in the Stade de France, Saint-Denis, with William Gallas scoring in the 103rd minute to secure a 2-1 aggregate victory for France.
However in the build-up to Gallas’ goal, Thierry Henry clearly handled the ball twice much to the dismay of the Irish, whose request to FIFA to have the game replayed was rejected. As such, the upcoming encounter between the teams presents Ireland with an opportunity to avenge that previous injustice.
Experiencing that first hand were a quintet of players who are members of Martin O’Neill’s current squad, since Shay Given, John O’Shea, Glenn Whelan, Aiden McGeady & Robbie Keane, all featured in both games for Ireland against France in 2009.
Of the quintet O’Shea is the only one likely to start in the last 16 game with France, although O’Neill has introduced McGeady as a substitute to good effect in each of his side’s three games at the finals. During those matches Ireland have been vociferously supported by their army of loyal supporters. After celebrating their team’s victory over Italy in Lille, the Boys (and Ladies) in Green will now march on to Lyon to try to inspire their team to another fairytale win but this time over the French on Sunday afternoon.