Brian Kerr: Ireland can be Kings of Lyon - but only if France don't show up
O'Neill's men must replicate intensity of Italy clash to subdue home fans but fear is Kante will put hosts on front foot
Published 25/06/2016 | 02:30
I am sitting in the dressing-room at the Stade de France with just my thoughts for company. It's October 2004. Nearly two years have passed since I became Ireland manager, just over six since Didier Deschamps, now the French manager, lifted the World Cup in this very stadium.
Forty-five minutes from now a whistle will sound, a game will start and we'll be tested in a way we have not been for some time. So as I finalise in my head what needs to be said, I'm mildly surprised to see the door open.
Roy Keane walks through it.
"There's a lot of Irish out there," he says.
"I can't say I'm surprised," I reply.
And I'm not. As soon as the fixture was announced, this was the game everyone wanted to attend. A Saturday night in Paris. A weekend away. I knew people would travel.
Did I think 30,000 of them would find a way to get their hands on a ticket? I'd be lying if I said I did. Yet when I heard how they were being sold in supermarkets beforehand, how Dublin Airport had been crammed on the Friday morning before the game, I'd an inkling we'd have a fair representation.
But something as good as this?
This was different. And as we walked out into the stadium and heard that roar, a sense of comfort was drawn from the knowledge that we'd have so many people behind us, so many who'd shout and roar and cheer and sing and let us know that, no matter what, they wanted us to do well.
That was something that was evident from Wednesday night. Sitting in the upper tier of Lille's Stade Pierre-Mauroy, I glanced to my right and saw a sea of green. Not one blue shirt was visible in the Irish end of the ground. Then, looking to my left, I saw pockets of green scattered all among the Italian support.
By hook or by crook, Irish fans have an ability to get a lot more tickets than they are supposed to. And make no mistake there will be a bit of that tomorrow, even if the official allocation has given Ireland just over 4,000 tickets.
It makes a difference. Believe me, it does. The roar of a crowd can be a frightening sound to a weak-minded player. So when you have it on your side, it's an advantage you don't want to give away. Yet there are more important things that determine the outcome of a football match.
How the team plays is the big factor. And if Ireland reproduce the performance they unearthed in Lille, then it can have an impact on the home support, who may get tetchy, particularly as on the last two occasions we have travelled here, we probably outplayed them in both matches.
I've reason to be optimistic especially as last Wednesday, we got so many things right.
Our Plan A was good. It was all about making a statement, being big and physical, roughing them up and getting on the front foot. Tactically things worked for us, even though we were lopsided to an extent, with a shortage of players on our right-hand side and an overload on our left. Yet we got away with it because they had only one player on their left-hand side.
Nonetheless, Plan A worked to get us a foothold in the game and then Plan B, introducing Aiden McGeady and Wes Hoolahan. . . both played their part in setting up the late goal.
All of which augurs well for tomorrow. However, having said all that, the French will be a different kettle of fish. Deschamps will pick a team designed to win this match whereas Antonio Conte - no matter what he said publicly - based his team selection on Wednesday around the plan he had to win his round of 16 game.
So that's worth bearing in mind. While Wednesday's victory was amazing, it was still - in the main - against an Italian second string whereas all of Deschamps' top boys will be ready for tomorrow.
Worse again, he has been able to rest key players for this tie, leaving Olivier Giroud, Dimitri Payet, Blaise Matuidi and the excellent N'Golo Kante on the bench for the Swiss game last Sunday, Payet coming on as a second-half substitute.
For me it is significant that Deschamps has not changed his defence in any of their three group games, suggesting that this defensive quartet have been doing well. And the facts are that they have only conceded one goal - a penalty in the first game against Romania - and despite suggestions elsewhere that Patrice Evra and Bacary Sagna were weak links, both have played steadily ever since they encountered some awkward moments in that opener, when France stupidly conceded a penalty, before reasserting their authority late on.
Yet if you were to listen to all the cynics, you'd be inclined to believe that Evra and Sagna would be better off relocating to a nursing home rather than heading to Lyon for today's game, when in actual fact, Evra blotted out the much vaunted Xherdan Shaqiri last Sunday, while Hugo Lloris hardly had a shot to save such was dominance of his centre-half pairing, Laurent Koscielny and Adil Rami, against a team who had a greater need to get a result.
Nonetheless, while their defence were good against the Swiss, they are due to encounter a different kind of challenge against Daryl Murphy and Shane Long, whose relentless pressurising and controlled aggression managed to unsettle Leonardo Bonnuci, Andrea Barzagli and Angelo Ogbonna on Wednesday. Now, when you consider that those three men are really good centre-backs, then the fact that the Murphy-Long combination are capable of upsetting those guys, then the French pairing of Koscielny and Rami are in for a tougher afternoon than they had against the Swiss.
We know the threat of Payet from what he did in the Premier League last season and although he was rested for much of last week's game, his late introduction brought a new impetus to the French. At his best, the West Ham player possesses such majestic technique - typified by that volley which came crashing off the bar in the closing moments of the Swiss match.
It'll be interesting to see where Deschamps positions him, having used him as the left sided player in a 4-3-3 system against Romania, where he got the winning goal, before he played - and was a lot more dangerous - behind Giroud in the Albanian match, again scoring late on.
By the time he arrived onto the pitch in Lille, the boisterous reception which greeted his introduction made us think that this was like the hero coming on to save the day. Certainly he will play a big part tomorrow.
As will Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann, who may not have fulfilled the pre-tournament hype, but who were imposing and a goal threat against the Swiss.
And that is a point worth making. The French have a big team and the names and reputations of their players are a step up from the names of the Italians who featured on Wednesday night.
That said, they are generally not as explosive individually as Yannick Carrasco, Eden Hazard or Kevin de Bruyne, the Belgians who caused us so much damage last weekend. Payet certainly is but the others are more predictable in their play.
Against Belgium, it was individuals that destroyed us, whereas the French side possess more solid operators like Kante, Matuidi and Pogba. In Griezmann they have a fast runner but a player who is not as good a dribbler as Hazard or de Bruyne are when they get going.
As for us, after Wednesday, my over-riding hunch is that Martin O'Neill will resist the temptation to make many changes.
Just before the Belgian game, I emphasised the importance of freshness and while few changes were made from the Sweden game, Martin's call to make those four changes for the Italian job were totally vindicated by the performance.
The youth and vigour of the midfield, combined with the hustle and bustle ahead of them, meant the Italians were off colour and rattled for most of the game. And after that performance, the temptation would be to leave well alone.
So while it is hard to make a case for the return of Ciaran Clark, Glenn Whelan or John O'Shea, there is a strong argument to include Hoolahan.
However, the use of Wes as an impact sub has been successful before - massively so against Germany in qualifying, when his cross for Jeff Hendrick preceded O'Shea's late equaliser, and also of course in the Italian game, when another cross led to another goal.
However the combination and control exerted by the midfield triangle of Robbie Brady, Hendrick and James McCarthy showed that ball retention and circulation can be achieved in his absence.
Wes could still be accommodated by dropping Brady back to left-back in place of Stephen Ward, who is an injury doubt, but Martin will be aware that Brady's goal threat is diminished in defence.
All of which leaves us set nicely for an intriguing game. And while I certainly feel Ireland have a chance, this will be harder game given that the French firstly will be stronger than the Italians were and that secondly, the earlier kick-off time of 2.0 will make it harder for us to play at as high an intensity as they did on Wednesday.
Still it is worth having a go with that policy.
And so we're set for a repeat of the 2009 clash between these countries. That game, as I have been reminded every time I look at a French paper since Thursday morning, was the Thierry Henry game. Yet I just don't buy into the idea that Ireland will be motivated by revenge.
For starters, both teams are under new management and none of the Irish players who played that night are likely to be picked tomorrow.
Some French players who played then are still around now but do you think they have spent the last seven years sitting around their team hotel discussing a match from seven years ago over coffee?
I doubt it. Yet I don't doubt the fact that if we produce the level of performance again that we produced against Italy, then we can do really well against a French team who had intermittent spells of brilliance in their play against Switzerland but who have not imposed themselves on the opposition as much as you would expect a host nation to do in a tournament like this.
Maybe they are not the real deal? Maybe. Or perhaps - as I fear - they'll get better as the tournament goes on and am certainly wary of the influence Kante can have. Remember he was the key man for Leicester in their Premier League triumph, and was the key man for the French in their opening two games of this championship.
He, more than anyone, can deprive our midfield of the possession they enjoyed against Italy. Contain this threat and we have a chance.
Fail to do so and it could be a difficult afternoon.
Why I told North hero McGovern not to switch to south
I first came across Michael McGovern 14 years ago, long before he was a European Championship hero for Northern Ireland, back in the day when I was managing the Irish youth team.
He was selected for an underage squad, had showed some promise, and seemed interested in declaring for us.
Yet, at the time, there were plenty of goalkeepers ahead of him in the queue.
Shay Given was still young and was our No 1. Dean Kiely was playing Premier League football with Charlton and our youth set-up had produced some fine goalkeepers around that era - Brian Murphy, Wayne Henderson, Joe Murphy.
So I felt I had to be honest, and even though Michael was a smiley, pleasant fella, the sort I loved having around the squad, I thought it was right to tell him that if he harboured ambitions to play international football, the reality was that he would stand a better chance with Northern Ireland than us.
Fast-forward to 2016. Northern Ireland against Germany and Michael produces one of the finest displays of goalkeeping I have ever seen. Time after time he kept getting his body in the way of German shots. He cannot be faulted.
Tonight he plays against Wales in the last 16 of the European Championships, a huge occasion for him, one he fully deserves to be playing in.