Five positives to be taken from Ireland's Euro 2016 campaign
Following a brief but credible odyssey, Ireland have bowed out of the European Championships just as the business end of the tournament takes shape, but when the immediate sting of disappointment dissipates, they should take great pride in their campaign in France.
For the better part of an hour we considered the possibility of shocking the world in the sweltering heat of Lyon. Perhaps it was a stretch too far after the gargantuan effort required to defeat Italy.
Like all apex predators, Antione Griezmann ruthlessly struck at the opportune moments and France ripped a place in the quarter final’s from a weakening Irish grasp. However, this team’s story is a long way from over.
Pride restored to Irish football
Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane inherited a group still smoking from the car crash that was the denouement of the Giovanni Trapattoni era.
A stale and insipid World Cup qualification campaign followed the nightmare of Poland and Ukraine four years ago and, by any measurable means, there was scant cause for optimism.
It was only after Ireland qualified for this competition did many of the veterans of 2012 fully reveal just how humiliating the experience was, and one could glean the impression some of them were resigned to the fact they’d never get to right that wrong.
It would be remiss not to note that O’Neill’s tenure has often proved deflating and, on other occasions, infuriating. Indeed, if not for the new format, Ireland would never have made it to Euro 2016 or, for that matter, the subsequent knockout stages.
However, last year’s wins at the Aviva Stadium over Germany and then Bosnia & Herzegovina imbued the entire Irish football community.
The lopsided loss to Belgium notwithstanding, Ireland’s performances over the last fortnight, including today, brimmed with heart and industry so, in years to come, the players involved should have no regrets.
The first halves against Sweden and France proved beyond reasonable doubt that this side can, when it suits them, potently combine technically adequate football with the direct game more befitting of their individual talents.
Perhaps now, finally, the demons and residual hurt from Euro 2012 have been exorcised.
Bone fide stars emerge
You’d have to wonder if as six-year-olds at St Kevin’s Boys, Jeff Hendrick and Robbie Brady dreamt aloud about one day spearheading Ireland’s assault on a major tournament. Well, almost two decades on, they did just that.
Hendrick, redolent of Ireland’s assistant manager circa 1994, provided a buccaneering, box-to-box thrust from the moment the first whistle sounded against Sweden.
The Derby man has been a bestriding, muscular totem and exacted a toll from any would be midfield general encountered along the way.
It can often be on a subconscious level, but such warriors inspire those around them to dig deeper and, if Hendrick can hone his football intellect over the coming years, the Irish engine room will thrum loud and long into the next decade.
It’s quite possible scouts from the Premier League were enamoured by the 24-year-old powerhouse over the last couple of weeks and we might see him in the English top flight come the end of August.
Watching that perfectly timed run as he stormed into the Italian box to head home Ireland’s winner will never grow old, but it was just a microcosm of Robbie Brady’s contribution over the four games.
That cultured left peg, his speed of thought and general craft make Brady somewhat of a pink elephant in Irish football. Martin O’Neill must be commended for deploying him across a variety of positions.
In truth, he’s wasted at left back and, debatably out on the wing, with his rarefied skillset, he must be the hub of Ireland’s creativity, perhaps as the long term heir to Wes Hoolahan.
He does not stir easy either; he converted his penalty today with a consummate ease. The biggest stages does not faze the Balldoyle boy.
Brady has already been linked with a move to Leicester City and it is very doubtful he’ll play a minute of Championship football next season. Jon Walters may well be Ireland’s talisman but, as of now, Brady is their most important player.
Darren Randolph also deserves mention, as the West Ham stopper has rarely put a foot wrong since replacing Shay Given during the victory over Germany. Shane Duffy will learn from today’s shortcomings and is likely to develop into a fine international centre half.
A new captain stands up
As important as the likes of Brady and Hendrick will be to comprising the long term spine of the Ireland team, all good sides require a strong leader.
Officially Robbie Keane is still captain but he will certainly retire in the coming days, as might John O’Shea, so Ireland need a captain to take them into the World Cup qualification campaign.
Seamus Coleman looks born for the role. After the win over Italy, players commended him for his words in the dressing room beforehand, while t against France the Donegal native motored relentlessly.
Speaking to RTÉ following the loss, Coleman was visibly crestfallen and does not give the impression of man who will ever descend into indifference. At 27 and one of the Ireland’s key players, the time is now for him to take the reins.
Finally, after three years, Martin O’Neill has found a system to stick with
Even when the fare on the pitch was often coma inducing, Martin O’Neill’s perpetual tinkering and propensity for left field selections maintained a level of intrigue in Ireland’s fortunes. But, on the flip side, it may have hindered the side’s development.
Lone strikers, midfield diamonds and inverted wingers – the former Celtic boss tried the lot in his quest for tactical gratification. But, in the end, a good old-fashioned 4-4-2 was just the ticket.
It’s possible the thumping dished out by Belgium was the final clarification required to come to this realisation.
This much is clear, the Irish midfield cannot maintain possession for long enough periods to properly service a one man strike force. As part of their job description Ireland strikers must chase long, speculative balls, and that workload simply must be shared.
As an additional outlet against Italy and France, Daryl Murphy not only gave Ireland an added edge but he liberated Shane Long. A duo of hard-hitting, scurrying strikers who can force turnovers in the final third are an imperative.
We now know, beyond reasonable doubt that, for James McCarthy to thrive, Glenn Whelan must not play.
Ireland open their World Cup qualifying campaign away to Serbia on September 5 and, it will be interesting to see if O’Neill, provided he’s still the manager, retains the allegedly antiquated system.
The fans, the fans, the fans
At this stage it would be trite to wax lyrical about the Irish fans, but when the players and management consistently cite their support as a fortifying influence, you can’t help but be taken aback by their unwavering dedication.
France fell in love with the Green Army and, by the sounds of it, so did everyone else.