Vincent Hogan: 'Adults fell into almost child-like weeping as Ireland's hero celebrated with his family'
Published 23/06/2016 | 02:30
Perhaps the birth of every new faith demands growing pains, but Robbie Brady's tears in Flanders last night surely signalled an epochal deliverance.
There had been sweet evocations of Meadowlands in '94 all week but, somehow, this had a deeper, more emotional feel. Ireland's young team dug victory from a game few of us imagined they had the gifts to win and as they wheeled around Stade Pierre Mauroy in celebration, you had to feel they had truly earned a place in the hearts of their people.
Brady, the hero, jumped advertising hoardings to share the moment with his family and all about adults fell into almost child-like, weeping celebration of Ireland's safe passage into the last 16.
"I'm lost for words," said Brady. "I just trusted Wes (Hoolahan) to put it where I wanted it and just got my head to it. But we go again."
That they do, against the hosts in Lyon on Sunday, a challenge you can only imagine they will now embrace with absolute belief. For this was quite a statement. A statement insisting that Ireland has a team equipped to go to war with even the most streetwise football armies.
The power of faith was always going to be tested here because chasing a game against Italy is akin to pursuing a snake into a culvert. It's not usually recommended.
The man-marker is what so many young Italian children aspire to be quite simply because nowhere else in the world is defence so coveted as an art. Fabio Cannavaro, who lifted the World Cup in '06, once described marking as the real joy of football.
Of course, the offspring of that mentality is a murderous counter-attack. It's in Italy's football DNA to invite the game's suckers onto them in the hope that they will over-commit.
So their standard repertoire has the touch of a jungle animal in how they snare a victim, endlessly alert, watchful, preparing to pounce. It is one based on a selfless creed, on having no truck with peacocks.
The system is what protects them, a virtual miracle of simplification.
So Antonio Conte made eight changes but kept his captain in; Martin O'Neill made four and didn't. Who's was the bigger gamble? The sense of flux certainly lent the evening an air of mystery.
Yet, it was hard too to avoid a suspicion that, deep down, Conte felt only disdain for the artlessness seen in Bordeaux. Perhaps he thought this was going to be a running seminar on the intelligent movement Marco Tardelli indicated was beyond the comprehension of these Irish players.
That said, the Italians certainly sang their anthem like men prepared to square for a fight.
And that was the early tenor of it, two sides snapping at one another with tackles that were neither virtuous nor fair. In a matter of seconds, McCarthy and Jeff Hendrick both went through Alessandro Florenzi as if they'd overheard some family insult whilst Simone Zaza and Thiago Motta reciprocated with belligerent challenges on Stephen Ward and Daryl Murphy.
It couldn't really continue like that and an accidental clash between Ward and Federico Bernardeschi that left both injured in the 16th minute seemed to rinse some of the recklessness from it.
Ireland looked instantly different in their game management with James McCarthy suddenly liberated into the senior role. Against Belgium, the rest of the team might as well have communicated with Long by airmail but the structure was far more compact and lucid here.
They largely bossed the opening half with Hendrick and Daryl Murphy both going close and when the Romanian referee waved away a credible James McClean penalty appeal on the stroke of half-time an explosion of indignation from the Irish end almost blew the rivets off the closed stadium roof.
The Italians were uncomfortable. Ordinarily they guard their goalkeeper so well, the wonder is that opponents getting sight of goal must be tempted to have the moment formalised with some kind of ribbon-cutting ceremony. They like to allow strikers move about only within certain strict geographical confines.
But the terms of engagement here were different.
With Murphy at his side and Ireland's midfield largely controlling the tempo, Long now had the company he craved. Ireland kept pushing forward with surprising and thrilling momentum, yet all the time on that mental high wire of knowing the concession of a goal would make their task all but impossible.
That danger was italicised not long after the resumption when a venomous Zaza volley went zinging over Darren Randolph's crossbar. That spiked Irish nerves, but it couldn't subdue their courage.
On the line, Conte - now visibly agitated - flapped his arms like a marsh bird as if trying to re-align his team's shape with invisible pulleys. Twenty yards away, O'Neill might as well have been plugged into an electric mains.
It shouldn't have come to this of course. Had Sweden been beaten in Paris, the clock would have been Ireland's friend now, not a hanging judge clearing his throat. No matter, any iron-clad certainty the Italians had brought with them to Lille was decommissioned. Out of wildly conflicting circumstance, these teams were giving us a game.
Murphy forced Sirigu into a flapping save from a cross and Long had an unconvincing penalty shout. Behind Sirigu's goal, the green hordes bellowed their prayers for a breakthrough, their noise clawing at the roof as if trying to engage the Almighty.
As the minutes melted, O'Neill sent in Aiden McGeady for Murphy; Wes Hoolahan for the wonderful McCarthy. There was nothing to protect here, just a pot of gold to chase.
The clock said Ireland were 20 minutes from eviction as McGeady blazed one over the bar.
Seconds later, Lorenzo Insigne was curling a shot off the butt of Randolph's left-hand post and a million novenas went into overdrive.
Then it happened. Hoolahan had just fluffed a clear goal chance when McGeady fed him down the left flank and his 84th-minute cross seemed Heaven-sent onto Brady's temple.
The waiting for this team to find its own moment in tournament folklore was over.