Unbridled joy on one of Ireland’s greatest nights

ireland

It was the chance of a lifetime. A loose touch and follow-up dive from Italy’s stand-in captain Leonardo Bonucci sprung Wes Hoolahan, introduced as a substitute not ten minutes previously in Ireland’s do-or-die Group E finale, through on goal.

But Hoolahan’s shot was tame, and easily saved by the deputy Italian goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu. It well could have been, and maybe should have been, the end of the Republic’s tournament.

Instead, not forty seconds later, it was Hoolahan redeeming himself with the cross of the tournament – a twenty-yard in-swinger than stranded Sirigu and was planted down and in by Robbie Brady.

It was joy unconfined. In the fourteen years after Robbie Keane’s goal against Germany in Ibaraki and the country’s magical run at the 2002 World Cup, Ireland had not won a single game at a major tournament.

The scenario on Tuesday night in Lille was simple enough: A win would take Martin O’Neill’s team through, anything less, and they’d be bound for home.

And for 85 minutes – especially after Hoolahan’s nightmarish miss – it looked like Ireland were done. Instead, thanks to Brady’s goal, they’re bound for Lyon and a tantalizing matchup in the Round of 16 against host France on Sunday.

It was no more than the Irish deserved. All night, they played with heart and commitment and desire – and could easily have had a first half penalty when James McClean was bundled over in the box.

Italy coach Antonio Conte, his team already through as group winners, made eight changes to the team that beat Sweden last Friday – and if the Azzurri’s first choice at this tournament isn’t of a vintage quality, their second string is that much worse.

The Italians played with little verve, and, at times, even less quality. Short of substitute Lorenzi Insigne hitting the post just before the Ireland goal, Conte’s men never looked like scoring.

Still – if there’s one thing the Italians can do no matter the circumstance, it’s defend. Brady’s goal was the first the Azzurri have conceded in this tournament, and this defeat was Conte’s first in a competitive match with the national team.

This was no small accomplishment for Ireland. In fact, it was so loud in the Stade Pierre Mauroy that the goal music cued after Brady’s header was inaudible.

The Irish fans, who joined in the signing of the Italian anthem before the game and were recently praised for their joy and good humor by the leading French sports paper L’Equipe, deserved this to Dublin and back.

That the winning goal moved Brady to tears – first immediately after scoring, then again at full-time – was unsurprising. That it moved Roy Keane to smile, though, was truly extraordinary.

It was the kind of night that neutrals – and even the Italians – were moved to enjoy. Gianluigi Buffon, rested due to illness and Italy’s secure position, was sure to be the first man to exuberantly congratulate both O’Neill and Keane after the final whistle.

Congratulations were certainly in order for O’Neill. In dumping his two center-backs, including captain John O’Shea, along with Hoolahan and the experienced Glenn Wheelan, the yippy, lovable manager made a series of big calls. They paid off.

One of the most important moves O’Neill made was in moving Brady further up the field. The Norwich player started the tournament as a fullback against Sweden, before playing on the wing against Belgium. In this match, his station just behind the strikers was the reason he found himself on the end of Hoolahan’s cross.

Speaking of Hoolahan, also, for the moment, a Norwich player, a headline in the Irish Times in the buildup to this game read, “Wes Hoolahan remains Ireland’s best hope for salvation.”

Turns out, the Times was right. Hoolahan’s response to missing his golden chance was one of the finer moments of the competition thus far – and that response was indicative of Ireland’s collective mentality.

It would have been easy for the Irish to fade away after failing to score after a bright start, or failing to get a penalty when McClean went down, or, of course, after Hoolahan’s miss.

But they just kept coming and coming. Thanks in large part to the defensive effort of the recently maligned James McCarthy, Italy hardly had room to breath in midfield. The statistics didn’t lie: Ireland absolutely dominated the game.

Now, they’re going through – and with all the other teams from the British Isles as well. The fact that Wales and Northern Ireland – O’Neill’s native country – are going to play for a place in the quarterfinals of a European Championship is almost beyond comprehension.

If Brady’s goal and the win over Italy smacked of Ray Houghton’s strike in the Meadowlands in 1994, then the looming matchup with France has the specter of Thierry Henry’s handball heard around the world at its fore. Ireland, unquestionably, has a measure of revenge to exact.

Of course, France are heavy favorites. The squad they will field on Sunday will be three times the squad Italy fielded on Tuesday. But the Irish, who also beat Germany in qualifying, should give the hosts a game.

Just as the group stage at Euro 2016 began with a dramatic late winner from Dimitri Payet, it ended with a dramatic late winner from the head of Robbie Brady – and that after a positively moving 94th winner in Iceland’s match against Austria.

The expanded field of Euro 2016 promised to give the continent’s small footballing nations a chance. The likes of Iceland and Ireland have taken that chance. Both teams and sets of supporters have been credits to football and the tournament. They deserve to play on.

No matter how it goes from here, though, Irish eyes will be smiling for a long time to come.

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