Brian Kerr: Ireland bid adieu to Euro 2016 but discover their soul
Published 27/06/2016 | 02:30
And so the journey ends. The Irish supporters will return tired but proud. So too should their team. Ireland depart France with honour intact. That is the prevailing emotion as we bid adieu to Lyon.
The reality stares at us from the unblinking scoreboard. We played four matches, winning one against what was effectively Italy's reserve team.
We drew one and lost two here. Meanwhile, back in Ireland the game is in disarray.
It is not a coincidence that our two best performances arrived later on in this tournament when we seemed to find a formula and team that worked for us.
Over the course of this month, too, the team has evolved and matured into something we all really like.
An Irish personality for an Irish team. Much of our personality was erased during the austerity years under Trapattoni. We have yearned for the feelings experienced in the past few days for some years now.
It sounds flowery but any soccer team must have a soul. Ireland have showed the fire and passion expected of this nation. But they also showed a sense of joy and wonder.
Heart and art. Intense industry dappled with the type of twinkling football that has always been this country's trademark.
Unusually, though, it was almost as if it arrived by accident, rather than deliberate design, during this tournament. We saw glimpses of it against Sweden; it had evaporated against Belgium, a horrible day of individual and collective ineptitude.
From neither us nor the manager seeming to have an idea of what the shape or team would be for next game, we now have a clear distinct Irish way of playing.
We've rediscovered the fact that we can play a bit of football and when the players get it down on the floor, we look like a real international team. There are emerging players - Hendrick and Brady in midfield, and McCarthy has demonstrated how well he can do in his favourite position.
And, after so long wondering who could possibly replace John O'Shea and Richard Dunne in the centre of defence, Keogh and Duffy have emerged while Clark is sure to remain an option too.
This partnership is in its infancy and on the evidence of the two games, the lack of a marker on Griezmann for both goals can be sorted with time.
Their individual qualities are well advertised but it will take another few matches and training ground work for their understanding to be honed to the required level.
If we could get a few goals from Daryl Murphy and Hendrick, as he has threatened, we'd be on the pig's back.
In three of the four matches, though, we ran out of steam. The only game in which we finished strongest, against Italy, we had been able to put in four fresh players and that was reflected dramatically in terms of energy.
Aside from that, the squad was exposed at times.
Hendrick, Brady and McCarthy started all four matches and, unlike our opponents yesterday, who had the luxury of resting key midfielders, our inability to do so would become a sweaty millstone beneath the searing sun of Lyon.
In that respect, it was very hard to be critical of our performance yesterday, especially given our effectiveness in the first-half when that aforementioned freshness and energy was at its most evident.
Even at half-time, though, I wondered would the intensity of Wednesday's effort against Italy ultimately drain our midfield.
Ireland scored before France had hardly even touched the ball.
It was a definite penalty. A brilliant ball in from Ward saw Koscielny fall after being roughed up by Murphy. Pogba made awkward contact with Long who took advantage of his touch to win the penalty.
Brady again. Another massive goal. Another brilliant start. All the perceived advantages held by the French in terms of the ticket allocation, the heat and their extra preparation were suddenly swept away.
Ireland's response to the goal was crucial. While we defended with a 4-5-1, Long drifting to the right to cover the left flank, we couldn't afford to sit back and stop playing. The signs were encouraging.
Ward continued to be a focal point in attacks down Ireland's left with Griezmann being particularly lax in terms of his defensive duties. It was high tempo stuff and clearly the goal was adding impetus to our dynamism, both in defence and attack.
Long even got back to concede a corner as France probed while Coleman and Hendrick were tight on Payet and Pogba, mostly blunting their threat.
Aside from the penalty, the ref was enabling us to get in a few tough tackles that might have been punished on another day.
McCarthy was doing really well in his holding position again and, aside from a flicked header from Griezmann and a couple of efforts from distance, Ireland were progressing without much serious alarm.
Indeed, if they had shown more composure at the other end, they may have doubled their lead.
I felt Hendrick lacked coolness under pressure when Murphy's saved snapshot reached him near the end line; he may have been better advised squaring it for Long who was in a much better position.
France seemed uncertain and their crowd resembled merely interested onlookers.
Ireland were dominating the midfield area while France seemed puzzled at how the young Irish trio of Hendrick, Brady and McCarthy were dominating this area.
France were hesitant on the ball and rushed by Irish tackling and pressing. Ireland, in contrast, looked really confident in attack.
Hendrick was waltzing past Payet; Brady offering superb link play.
It was really good football.
Every single Irish player was having the edge on their opponent. It was an immense performance, the tone set by the dominant midfield trio and encompassing a totally concentrated back four and the outstanding work-rate of the front pair.
The under-rated Ward needed to get in a superb block before the break to prevent an equaliser from Payet's shot, but the lead was more than deserved.
Ward had one of his best games, setting the tone with the early attack which led to the penalty and keeping a check on Griezmann until his subsequent move inside.
At halftime, though, we knew there would be some response from the French and it duly arrived.
That it was prompted by the departure of arguably the Premier League's most influential player, N'Golo Kante, reflected just how impressively Ireland had dictated the first period.
However, the arrival of Coman allowed Griezmann to become an auxiliary member of a more attacking 4-2-3-1 shape in place of the 4-3-3 starting formation.
Whereas Kante had been installed by the French, we presumed, as the key influence in their side, now it was Griezmann.
My fears for the Irish midfield were justified as it was obvious that Hendrick and Brady, in particular, were beginning to suffer as Deschamps' team increased the tempo.
As the French sauntered forward confidently, they were leaving gaps and there were subtle signs that Ireland would not be completely cowed.
A Murphy back-heel hinted at lingering confidence while a McClean cross required a decisive touch from Lloris to prevent the touch from an ever lurking Long.
Yet equaliser was threatening for a while and the eight minute spell either side of the hour mark was a disaster with two goals and a red card giving us a massive task.
Griezmann's effect on the match had been ultimately decisive, as France naturally increased their attacking rhythm in tandem with Ireland's mental and physical fatigue.
The momentum had switched in midfield.
We lost concentration in the spell when they scored their two goals and then forced the red card. But we still had a chance to stay alive at only 2-1 down.
Wes and Walters' arrival offered extra assets but with only ten men, an equaliser looked unlikely. The pity was that neither were on before Duffy's departure.
Maybe we had a shout for a penalty when Long got a dunt, but it would have been difficult enough for Mr Rizzoli to give one in the last minute as well as the first.
In hindsight, Martin might reflect ruefully on the lack of depth in his squad which forced him to rely heavily on the same group of players in the middle of the pitch where the workload required is harder than anywhere else.
The absence of Harry Arter is perhaps one cause of regret as he could have made an impact in that central area and lightened the reliance on McCarthy, Brady and Hendrick in particular.
Discussions on the futures of O'Shea, Whelan, Keane and Given are for another day but they have all been great servants.
This may be the end of the road for them but a much brighter future is hopefully in prospect with the discovery of some more rough diamonds who may still emerge alongside this group.
And at least this time, compared to four years ago in Poland, there was no humiliation or embarrassing statistics.
Instead, there are signs for a positive future.
We can't get carried away too much. We finished third in our qualifying group to get to France and we finished third in the group here as well.
But the manner in which Martin and the management seem to have discovered their best line-up and tactical approach offers hope ahead of the World Cup qualifiers beginning in September.