Brian Kerr: I've watched Ireland for 55 years and that was one of the truly great days
Published 23/06/2016 | 02:30
One of the truly great days for Irish football. I've watched Ireland for 55 years and seen some great days. But given the level most of these players are at in club football, and how they've performed recently for Ireland, this is up there as one of the best displays I have ever witnessed from an Irish side.
It was simply magical stuff. Tenacity of tackling. Crispness of passing. Concentration in defence. Accuracy of set-piece. Fair play to the manager, the changes he made were correct. As was the game-plan. But the players had to do it.
There were seven former League of Ireland players on the field at the end of it all. Their contribution demands that FAI invest properly in our league. It may be ailing but our heroes have to come from somewhere.
Martin O'Neill unveiled a gambler's hand. An interesting and aggressive play. The changes were drastic. We know from recent history that he was inclined to make a lot of changes until he seemed to settle on a team for the play-offs.
The defensive pairing was a strong one but not one that had proved itself together. Richard Keogh had been unlucky to feature before now having proved his credentials in four of the last five qualifiers. Shane Duffy, too, had showed well in the friendlies. They were magnificent.
If anything, the average age of the team dropped a bit, a nod to the need to introduce a little more energy and vigour to the task.
James McCarthy's inclusion raised an eyebrow or too. I felt he hadn't been at his best in either match so far. Last night he looked far more comfortable in a familiar role, sitting in front of the Italian strikers, breaking up play, getting stuck in.
This was the over-riding theme. James McClean, even if 27, added a bit of vim. Daryl Murphy's selection also hinted at the thought process. An aggressive approach. And a bit of football in it.
The Italians, as expected, made a raft of switches but notably kept two of their Juventus back three, despite the threat of suspension hanging over Bonucci.
An aggressive selection demanded an aggressive reaction. And Ireland produced early encouragement. If this was a team picked to give us more spark and energy it certainly did that. That had been the main priority before the match.
Ireland played a game Italy didn't want to play. In the first five minutes alone, tackles flew in. Coleman, fittingly as captain, launched the first flurry. Ward, Hendrick and McCarthy all delivered early statements of intent, visibly lacking against Belgium.
Murphy showed good hold-up play in creating Hendrick's slashing effort, holding off Thiago Motta and giving his team a real boost. Italy were struggling to take the sting out of the game as they would have wanted to with so many changes.
A concern for Ireland was again on the right, where we were a bit lopsided. Hendrick was quite narrow and there was a lot of space in front of Coleman but the Italians only had one man on that side. It wasn't an immediate concern.
If anything, the Italians were more discomfited in defence. Bonucci blasting a ball aimlessly into the stands wasn't something we'd seen before.
Set-pieces were also going to be pivotal. Ireland's first corner was a predictably accurate delivery from Brady; Duffy flashed a header wide. Then Murphy had a sight at a follow-up. More encouragement.
The variations of delivery were causing significant problems and, crucially, they looked pre-prepared. Nothing was done on the hoof. You could see that the work had been put into this.
We mixed it up well enough so that we weren't going too long all the time. At all times, we were confident and competent in possession.
Hendrick was central to our best efforts as we maintained the pressure. I don't think they were expecting our high intensity in midfield. Sturaro was looking exasperated. They had no rhythm and they had to scrap for every minuscule piece of possession.
Ireland's defence were able to play a higher defensive line than they did against Belgium because Italy's front two were lacking in pace. We were more compact, the defence closer to the midfield who were closer to Long, who this time had a partner beside him.
Conte picked the wrong team. The players who hadn't started seemed a bit off, as if they wondered why they hadn't been playing before. It didn't seem there was much in this match for them. There was for us.
However, though we kept getting close to the goal, there was no goal. Should there have been? McClean was definitely bundled over by Bernardeschi. The ref was three yards away. Bad decision.
In the second half, Italy started with a little more aggression in midfield. Conte would have had words with them. They came into it much more; Zaza had a chance.
The grip was only loosened momentarily. Ireland produced their best passage of passing football under O'Neill's reign. The fans were responding in kind to their team.
While earlier it had been predominantly about set-pieces, now it was about playing football. The pitch looked terrible but Ireland were making it look like the greenest of swards. Italy were delighted to just win a free-kick merely to relieve some pressure.
Ireland's diamond was working well; McCarthy comfortable sitting, breaking up play and Hendrick getting forward, constantly looking for that elusive first goal in his 24th cap. Even Duffy felt confident enough to have a pop.
You could sense the anxiety to get that goal creeping in as time ticked on. Ireland were still playing all the football and still full of energy despite the sapping heat of this Lille sauna.
Wes came on and it felt things would become more open. They did. And how. Italy were finding space as we pushed ever more forward looking for the breakthrough.
Would it come? It looked like the chance was gone.
Wes has taken a lot of knocks in the last decade. He wasn't going to let 42 seconds get him down. He produced the killer ball after a brilliant, flowing move.
Football, football, football. That's the name of the game. Robbie Brady provided the signature moment but this was for all of them. And all of us.
Wes repeatedly blesses himself as he runs back to the halfway line. What is he thinking? "Thank God I'm not remembered for that miss? Thank God I still had some magic left in that boot?"
Blessed relief. No better boy.