Vincent Hogan: Foot-perfect John O'Shea makes the statement he needed
Published 28/05/2016 | 02:30
He was late to the lap of honour, Dick Advocaat having lingered on the touchline to wrap him in a warm embrace. But John O'Shea did not rush. He seemed determined to soak up everything around him, even stopping for a TV interview that would detain him as last player on the field.
These nights recede into memory's fog-banks almost before the floodlights have gone cold. On the doorstep of great tournaments, it's never any other way, minds instantly recalibrating and even the efficacy of drawing with a thoroughbred football nation getting lost in the giddy wash.
A Mexican wave rolled around Lansdowne. Happy faces abounded.
But for O'Shea, Robbie Keane and Shay Given, this may well have been a farewell to the stadium, a last Dublin night on international duty.
The three pitched up with a total of 386 caps between them, more than twice the amount of the entire Dutch starting 11. While O'Shea would play all 90 minutes, neither Keane nor Given left their seats in the stand.
So for all the energy tingling through the place, there was that faint sense of requiem too, of great men perhaps snatching melancholy glances at the images around them.
O'Shea became a peripheral figure in Sunderland's stirring relegation escape and that absence of game-time may now threaten his starting position in France. Last night, accordingly the 35-year-old Waterford man may have felt the need to make a statement.
And he did so in that elegant, strolling way of his, licensing Shane Duffy to do the heaviest buffeting of AZ Alkmaar striker Vincent Janssen, while all the time offering his young side-kick wise counsel. Maybe the strongest muscle in O'Shea's body is his brain and it was a comforting weapon here.
Just ten minutes had elapsed when Jetro Willems lasered a vicious cross in from the left which O'Shea, facing his own goal, had to meet with a difficult, hooked header away to safety. The ease of execution instantly decommissioned any instinct for collective panic.
It felt the equivalent of a paternal hand pulling a tottering baby back from the side of a pool.
Because unease was palpable, the Dutch - maybe mildly resentful of the evening's circumstance -bossing those early minutes. The indignity of being warm-up material for a country going to a party that they themselves are not invited to was never going to sit well with this group. How on earth could it?
For long spells then, they set Ireland the challenge of simply getting a touch on the ball, never mind trying to manipulate it into any place that would discomfit their goalkeeper, Jasper Cillessen.
Ireland were struggling, their play clammy with the edginess of a fragmented audition, threads of self-interest inevitably spooling through it. For men like Harry Arter and David McGoldrick, the evening must have felt like sitting a test.
Neither could get into the game, McGoldrick finding himself drawn increasingly deep by the lop-sided narrative and Arter's nerves perhaps betrayed in the 25th minute when he should have been the recipient of a simple pass in front of the Irish dug-out only to mis-judge its roll and concede a needless Dutch throw.
Both, to be fair, would grow into things, an Ireland goal on the half-hour suddenly changing the energy around them.
O'Shea, not often the most conspicuous threat around an opposition goal, was central to it, meeting Robbie Brady's corner with a powerful header that Cillessen could only spoon towards the space that Shane Long was just arriving into. So 30 minutes gone and the smile on Martin O'Neill's face that of a man who'd just rescued his wallet from a bin.
In time, the Irish manager would empty his bench. Not with any great deliberation mind, not in a way that you felt referenced any hard decisions remaining before Tuesday night's final squad announcement.
By the hour mark, you couldn't but suspect that O'Shea had re-assured him a captain's band would rest comfortably on his arm in Paris next Monday fortnight. Once, Brady standing over a free-kick, O'Shea's stroll into the Dutch box had Virgil Van Dijk shuttling alongside like a prison-guard tethered to him by manacle.
At some point, the crowd began chanting 'Keano' too, though these days it's not always clear which member of the clan they're trying to serenade.
Five minutes from time, the Dutch got an equaliser that, frankly, they seemed to have long since given up on: a wicked delivery from the left and Luuk De Jong ghosting behind a momentarily disoriented Duffy to glance home an easy header.
That put an end to the rolling terrace waves, but O'Neill's body language suggested he'd known more ruinous disappointments. Coralling all the diverse energies of the evening into a coherent team performance was never going to be simple. But Ireland achieved it.
And at the heart of that achievement was a foot-perfect O'Shea.