Ronnie Whelan: Italy victory was our greatest ever tournament result
Read Ronnie Whelan exclusively in The Herald
I asked for some new heroes and boy did I get them. I’ve had nights like this when I was out on the pitch and now I know what it’s like for the thousands of supporters who follow this team all over the world.
I think I broke the press box rules when I came up out of my seat when Robbie Brady hit the back of the net but I didn’t care.
This was magnificent and one of the greatest achievements ever from any Irish football team.
I said before the game that if they managed to get out of what I think was the hardest group in the competition it would be an achievement.
But I now think it was better than any other result, better than any other tournament.
Martin O’Neill made some huge calls in his team selection and he got it completely right.
Even more important, he got his substitutions spot on and Wes Hoolhan was perfectly primed to make the difference when he was needed right at the end.
I can’t give him enough credit for the way he put that huge miss out of his mind and still had the composure to send in the cross which sent Ireland into the next round via Robbie Brady’s head.
It was a wonderful moment of football intelligence from two gifted players and it answered Marco Tardelli’s stupid assertion that
Irish players cannot play with their head.
To be fair, this was a win ground out through a huge physical effort first and once the Italians had been placed firmly on the back foot, everything became easier.
Key to the tempo and pace which pushed the Italians further and further back was Jeff Hendrick who was absolutely fantastic for the whole game and is my man of the tournament for Ireland so far.
His strength and skill on the ball has been a revelation and he really did make the difference with his driving runs at the Italians defence.
He made them think and worry and he was well supported in this by James McClean who also carried the game to Italy from the first moment.
I loved the tackle that Seamus Coleman put in which left a French blue shirt on the ground and Hendrick did something similar soon after.
It was a message to Antonio Conte’s back-up boys that they were in a game and I think it frightened the life out of them.
I know Conte made a load of changes but that doesn’t take from this win in any way.
They were driven back and battered into submission.
I think they had one or two shots on target and hit the post but they were all but irrelevant as an attacking force in last night’s game.
Now, we move onto to France and I would hesitate to make any calls about that game.
They are a good team and Ireland will find it hard to recover after investing such a huge amount of energy in this game.
The players must have been absolutely exhausted after putting in such a huge shift in the clammiest conditions I’ve experienced in a stadium for some time.
This was a complete reversal from the weather we have had in France for three weeks and I have to say, it worried me.
Ireland didn’t show the kind of energy levels I thought they would need to win the game in the previous two matches but somehow, from somewhere, they found the legs to keep going, even when it looked like the game was getting away from them.
Like the Belgium game, Ireland should have had a penalty but even that dreadful decision didn’t slow them down and I can’t praise them enough.
I must also pay a massive tribute to the Irish fans.
They really did make a difference in this game and the emotional scenes at the end showed the great bond there is now between the Green Army and these players.
We’ve moved on from Trapattoni, there’s no doubt about that. Now let’s go even further and beat France.