Off The Ball: O'Neill/Keane dream ticket opens door to world of joy
Monday night at Lansdowne Road was many things, not least the lovely realisation of our very best hopes for the Martin O'Neill-Roy Keane ticket.
There were a lot of sweet things to savour. Close to 10.30pm, Jonathan Walters walked onto an empty pitch, phone to his ear, talking and waving up to his wife in the stand above him. He sipped on a beer. If ever a man deserved one.
Other memories linger. With the players back in the dressing room, the coaching staff stayed on the field in their grey tracksuits. Photographers gathered around them. They joined in one last huddle, ruffling each others heads and saying things with an intensity that reflected a tough old journey together.
Then Martin and Roy headed for the centre circle to wave to the fans, only for Roy to duck away, leaving the main stage to the main man. The little scuffle between the pair, as Roy smiled and Martin cajoled him to join him is the memory that stands out. All of Irish football rejoiced. Winning cures everything, but this was good. Everything about it was good.
The performance itself wasn't world-class or perfect. Our devotion to possession remains shaky. After such a bright opening 30 minutes, we dropped off badly. Shane Long was brought on to offer some kind of out-ball.
To be fair, though, world-class performances aren't easy. This group of players compete in the deepest of meritocracies, where population size and history work against them. But we have made progress.
The crowd can get more involved with this team than they ever could with a Trapattoni production. O'Neill has been increasingly positive in his team selections. Young players with technical ability have been included and trusted. We still fall short of course, but some varying combinations of luck, effort and pragmatism have seen us through some big nights across this campaign.
We will naturally continue to frustrate, but at least a more dynamic proposition heads to France then departed for Poland four years ago.
Steven Reid spoke on our show on Monday about 2002 and believing it would be his first major championship of many. It turned out to be his only one. It can be equally true for fans. At full-time, WhatsApp groups buzzed around the country with plans for France. Who knows when we'll get there again or how life will change. A few weeks crammed inside a camper fan with the people you love is time well spent.
That's the real joy of sport, and football in particular. This power it has over so many of us, despite its many, many failings, has suddenly transformed the summer of 2016 for thousands. See you there.
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